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Accuracy on the Curve: On the Nonlinear Correlation of ML Performance Between Data Subpopulations

Weixin Liang · Yining Mao · Yongchan Kwon · Xinyu Yang · James Zou

Exhibit Hall 1 #501
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Understanding the performance of machine learning (ML) models across diverse data distributions is critically important for reliable applications. Despite recent empirical studies positing a near-perfect linear correlation between in-distribution (ID) and out-of-distribution (OOD) accuracies, we empirically demonstrate that this correlation is more nuanced under subpopulation shifts. Through rigorous experimentation and analysis across a variety of datasets, models, and training epochs, we demonstrate that OOD performance often has a nonlinear correlation with ID performance in subpopulation shifts. Our findings, which contrast previous studies that have posited a linear correlation in model performance during distribution shifts, reveal a "moon shape" correlation (parabolic uptrend curve) between the test performance on the majority subpopulation and the minority subpopulation. This non-trivial nonlinear correlation holds across model architectures, hyperparameters, training durations, and the imbalance between subpopulations. Furthermore, we found that the nonlinearity of this "moon shape" is causally influenced by the degree of spurious correlations in the training data. Our controlled experiments show that stronger spurious correlation in the training data creates more nonlinear performance correlation. We provide complementary experimental and theoretical analyses for this phenomenon, and discuss its implications for ML reliability and fairness. Our work highlights the importance of understanding the nonlinear effects of model improvement on performance in different subpopulations, and has the potential to inform the development of more equitable and responsible machine learning models.

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