Skip to yearly menu bar Skip to main content


The Out-of-Distribution Problem in Explainability and Search Methods for Feature Importance Explanations

Peter Hase · Harry Xie · Mohit Bansal

Keywords: [ Machine Learning ] [ Interpretability ]


Feature importance (FI) estimates are a popular form of explanation, and they are commonly created and evaluated by computing the change in model confidence caused by removing certain input features at test time. For example, in the standard Sufficiency metric, only the top-k most important tokens are kept. In this paper, we study several under-explored dimensions of FI explanations, providing conceptual and empirical improvements for this form of explanation. First, we advance a new argument for why it can be problematic to remove features from an input when creating or evaluating explanations: the fact that these counterfactual inputs are out-of-distribution (OOD) to models implies that the resulting explanations are socially misaligned. The crux of the problem is that the model prior and random weight initialization influence the explanations (and explanation metrics) in unintended ways. To resolve this issue, we propose a simple alteration to the model training process, which results in more socially aligned explanations and metrics. Second, we compare among five approaches for removing features from model inputs. We find that some methods produce more OOD counterfactuals than others, and we make recommendations for selecting a feature-replacement function. Finally, we introduce four search-based methods for identifying FI explanations and compare them to strong baselines, including LIME, Anchors, and Integrated Gradients. Through experiments with six diverse text classification datasets, we find that the only method that consistently outperforms random search is a Parallel Local Search (PLS) that we introduce. Improvements over the second best method are as large as 5.4 points for Sufficiency and 17 points for Comprehensiveness.

Chat is not available.