Why use elastic nets?

November 4, 2016

The elastic net is a regularization method that tries to overcome some of the potential problems with L1 and L2 regularization (respectively “LASSO” or “ridge” regression in the context of linear regression).

What’s wrong with just L1 or L2?

The lasso can be seen as a constraint problem where we want to minimize where . With two-dimensional weights, this looks like

!!— picture —!!

where the weights will most likely be somewhere on the perimeter of the diamond. Because of the sharp edges of the diamond, it’s likely that the contours of the loss will intersect with this diamond at a corner, which means that one or more of the weights will be set to 0. For this reason, we say that the lasso performs feature selection - it tends to ignore features that aren’t relevant.

However, we sometimes have several features that are a highly correlated. In these cases, the lasso might ignore all but one of them.

How about L2, then? With ridge regression, we want to minimize the same expression as above, but subject to . This means that the weights will fall within this region:

!! – picture –!!

Why bother with just L1 or L2 alone, then?

There is some debate over whether elastic net regularization is always preferred to plain old L1 or L2. One argument is that you might as well use an elastic net model, since you’ll end up with the model that’s best supported by your data anyway. If it turns out that the best value of is 0 or 1, then you know that your data supports a ridge or lasso model best. If, however, you find that , then that’s the model that your data supports and you would’ve missed this if you just tried to fit an L1 or L2 model. If you don’t try the elastic net, you might miss a model that’s closer to the ground truth.

The problem is that if we continue with this line of reasoning, we might as well add more norms to the cost function such that our penalty looks like , or something similar (perhaps with even more norms). It’s probably not a good idea to complicate your model if you don’t know why you’re doing it!

Further reading

The Elements of Statistical Learning has a good explanation of the elastic net in chapters 3 and 18. This isn’t surprising, since one of the authors (Trevor Hastie) is the co-inventor of this form of regularization!

The original paper, [Regularization and variable selection via the Elastic Net] (http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/summary?doi=, is also worth reading.