Bayesian Estimation for Item Factor Analysis Models with Sparse Categorical Indicators

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6 Scopus citations


Psychometric models for item-level data are broadly useful in psychology. A recurring issue for estimating item factor analysis (IFA) models is low-item endorsement (item sparseness), due to limited sample sizes or extreme items such as rare symptoms or behaviors. In this paper, I demonstrate that under conditions characterized by sparseness, currently available estimation methods, including maximum likelihood (ML), are likely to fail to converge or lead to extreme estimates and low empirical power. Bayesian estimation incorporating prior information is a promising alternative to ML estimation for IFA models with item sparseness. In this article, I use a simulation study to demonstrate that Bayesian estimation incorporating general prior information improves parameter estimate stability, overall variability in estimates, and power for IFA models with sparse, categorical indicators. Importantly, the priors proposed here can be generally applied to many research contexts in psychology, and they do not impact results compared to ML when indicators are not sparse. I then apply this method to examine the relationship between suicide ideation and insomnia in a sample of first-year college students. This provides an important alternative for researchers who may need to model items with sparse endorsement.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)593-615
Number of pages23
JournalMultivariate Behavioral Research
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 3 2017


  • Bayesian estimation
  • item factor analysis
  • sparse categorical indicators

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Statistics and Probability
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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