Measuring the predictability of life outcomes with a scientific mass collaboration

Matthew J. Salganik, Ian Lundberg, Alexander T. Kindel, Caitlin E. Ahearn, Khaled Al-Ghoneim, Abdullah Almaatouq, Drew M. Altschul, Jennie E. Brand, Nicole Bohme Carnegie, Ryan James Compton, Debanjan Datta, Thomas Davidson, Anna Filippova, Connor Gilroy, Brian J. Goode, Eaman Jahani, Ridhi Kashyap, Antje Kirchner, Stephen McKay, Allison C. MorganAlex Pentland, Kivan Polimis, Louis Raes, Daniel E. Rigobon, Claudia V. Roberts, Diana M. Stanescu, Yoshihiko Suhara, Adaner Usmani, Erik H. Wang, Muna Adem, Abdulla Alhajri, Bedoor AlShebli, Redwane Amin, Ryan B. Amos, Lisa P. Argyle, Livia Baer-Bositis, Moritz Büchi, Bo Ryehn Chung, William Eggert, Gregory Faletto, Zhilin Fan, Jeremy Freese, Tejomay Gadgil, Josh Gagné, Yue Gao, Andrew Halpern-Manners, Sonia P. Hashim, Sonia Hausen, Guanhua He, Kimberly Higuera, Bernie Hogan, Ilana M. Horwitz, Lisa M. Hummel, Naman Jain, Kun Jin, David Jurgens, Patrick Kaminski, Areg Karapetyan, E. H. Kim, Ben Leizman, Naijia Liu, Malte Möser, Andrew E. Mack, Mayank Mahajan, Noah Mandell, Helge Marahrens, Diana Mercado-Garcia, Viola Mocz, Katariina Mueller-Gastell, Ahmed Musse, Qiankun Niu, William Nowak, Hamidreza Omidvar, Andrew Or, Karen Ouyang, Katy M. Pinto, Ethan Porter, Kristin E. Porter, Crystal Qian, Tamkinat Rauf, Anahit Sargsyan, Thomas Schaffner, Landon Schnabel, Bryan Schonfeld, Ben Sender, Jonathan D. Tang, Emma Tsurkov, Austin van Loon, Onur Varol, Julia Wang, Flora Wang, Samantha Weissman, Kirstie Whitaker, Maria K. Wolters, Wei Lee Woon, Xiafei Wang, Zhi Wang, James Wu, Catherine Wu, Kengran Yang, Jingwen Yin, Bingyu Zhao, Chenyun Zhu, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Barbara E. Engelhardt, Moritz Hardt, Dean Knox, Karen Levy, Arvind Narayanan, Brandon M. Stewart, Duncan J. Watts, Sara McLanahan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


How predictable are life trajectories? We investigated this question with a scientific mass collaboration using the common task method; 160 teams built predictive models for six life outcomes using data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a high-quality birth cohort study. Despite using a rich dataset and applying machine-learning methods optimized for prediction, the best predictions were not very accurate and were only slightly better than those from a simple benchmark model. Within each outcome, prediction error was strongly associated with the family being predicted and weakly associated with the technique used to generate the prediction. Overall, these results suggest practical limits to the predictability of life outcomes in some settings and illustrate the value of mass collaborations in the social sciences.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)8398-8403
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number15
StatePublished - Apr 14 2020


  • Life course
  • Machine learning
  • Mass collaboration
  • Prediction

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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