Data mining in psychological treatment research: a primer on classification and regression trees.
Data mining of treatment study results can reveal unforeseen but critical insights, such as who receives the most benefit from treatment and under what circumstances. The usefulness and legitimacy of exploratory data analysis have received relatively little recognition, however, and analytic methods well suited to the task are not widely known in psychology. With roots in computer science and statistics, statistical learning approaches offer a credible option: These methods take a more inductive approach to building a model than is done in traditional regression, allowing the data greater role in suggesting the correct relationships between variables rather than imposing them a priori. Classification and regression trees are presented as a powerful, flexible exemplar of statistical learning methods. Trees allow researchers to efficiently identify useful predictors of an outcome and discover interactions between predictors without the need to anticipate and specify these in advance, making them ideal for revealing patterns that inform hypotheses about treatment effects. Trees can also provide a predictive model for forecasting outcomes as an aid to clinical decision making. This primer describes how tree models are constructed, how the results are interpreted and evaluated, and how trees overcome some of the complexities of traditional regression. Examples are drawn from randomized clinical trial data and highlight some interpretations of particular interest to treatment researchers. The limitations of tree models are discussed, and suggestions for further reading and choices in software are offered.
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