On the incompatibility of accuracy and equal opportunity

Carlos Pinzón, Catuscia Palamidessi, Pablo Piantanida, Frank Valencia

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


One of the main concerns about fairness in machine learning (ML) is that, in order to achieve it, one may have to trade off some accuracy. To overcome this issue, Hardt et al. (Adv Neural Inf Process Syst 29, 2016) proposed the notion of equality of opportunity (EO), which is compatible with maximal accuracy when the target label is deterministic with respect to the input features. In the probabilistic case, however, the issue is more complicated: It has been shown that under differential privacy constraints, there are data sources for which EO can only be achieved at the total detriment of accuracy, in the sense that a classifier that satisfies EO cannot be more accurate than a trivial (i.e., constant) classifier. In this paper, we strengthen this result by removing the privacy constraint. Namely, we show that for certain data sources, the most accurate classifier that satisfies EO is a trivial classifier. Furthermore, we study the admissible trade-offs between accuracy and EO loss (opportunity difference) and characterize the conditions on the data source under which EO and non-trivial accuracy are compatible.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2405-2434
Number of pages30
JournalMachine Learning
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2024


  • Accuracy
  • Equal opportunity
  • Fairness
  • Impossibility
  • Trade-off


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