Dangers of the Defaults: A Tutorial on the Impact of Default Priors When Using Bayesian SEM With Small Samples


When Bayesian estimation is used to analyze Structural Equation Models (SEMs), prior distributions need to be specified for all parameters in the model. Many popular software programs offer default prior distributions, which is helpful for novel users and makes Bayesian SEM accessible for a broad audience. However, when the sample size is small, those prior distributions are not always suitable and can lead to untrustworthy results. In this tutorial, we provide a non-technical discussion of the risks associated with the use of default priors in small sample contexts. We discuss how default priors can unintentionally behave as highly informative priors when samples are small. Also, we demonstrate an online educational Shiny app, in which users can explore the impact of varying prior distributions and sample sizes on model results. We discuss how the Shiny app can be used in teaching; provide a reading list with literature on how to specify suitable prior distributions; and discuss guidelines on how to recognize (mis)behaving priors. It is our hope that this tutorial helps to spread awareness of the importance of specifying suitable priors when Bayesian SEM is used with small samples.

Frontiers in Psychology