Tech Blog

Understanding Precision and Recall in Machine Learning

Mar 29, 2024

By Jacob Petrisko, Senior Machine Learning Engineer

Precision and recall are important metrics for evaluating the performance of machine learning models and algorithms. Whether detecting objects in images or classifying text as spam, balancing precision and recall is essential for building reliable systems. This post will discuss these concepts and explore their significance in the development of artificial intelligence.

What are Precision and Recall?


Precision measures the accuracy of positive predictions made by a model. It answers the question: “Of all the items identified as positive, how many are truly positive?” A high precision indicates the model has made few false positive predictions.


Recall, also known as sensitivity, measures the model’s ability to find all the positive occurrences. It answers the question: “Of all the truly positive items, how many were identified correctly by the model?” A high recall shows the model successfully identified most positive instances.

The Trade-off Between Precision and Recall

Choosing to optimize precision or recall is a common step in the model evaluation phase. Increasing precision often decreases recall, while increasing recall typically decreases precision.

High Precision, Low Recall

A model with high precision but low recall tends to be conservative in its predictions. It sacrifices identifying true positives by selecting high-confidence predictions that reduce the number of false positives. This scenario is suitable for tasks where false positives are costly.

High Recall, Low Precision

A model with high recall but low precision tends to be liberal in its predictions. It identifies more true positives at the expense of increasing the number of false positives by including low-confidence predictions. This combination is chosen for tasks where missing positive instances is undesirable.

a stylized graphic depicting examples of true positives and false positives when a service is used to detect images of dogs. The true positives are images of dogs, and the false positives are deceptive images of cats.

Real-World Scenario

When detecting spam emails, it is more important to prioritize precision over recall. Marking legitimate emails as spam (false positives) can disrupt users’ communication and cause frustration. Users generally prefer a few spam emails entering their inboxes (false negatives) rather than important messages being mistakenly flagged. Focusing on high precision ensures that most emails classified as spam are truly unwanted, reducing user inconvenience.


Strategies for Improving Precision and Recall

Achieving the preferred precision and recall requires the proper selection of various factors, including confidence thresholds, model architectures, and data distributions:


Confidence Thresholds

Fine-tuning the model’s prediction confidence thresholds can help balance precision and recall for each class. Lowering the threshold can increase recall at the cost of decreasing precision, while raising it can improve precision but lower recall.


Model Architectures

Choosing state-of-the-art models tailored to the specific characteristics of the data and task can inherently improve precision and recall.


Data Distributions

Addressing class imbalances through techniques like oversampling, undersampling, or using weighted loss functions can mitigate the impact of skewed class distributions on precision and recall.



Precision and recall are popular metrics in machine learning, providing valuable insights into the performance of algorithms and models. Balancing precision and recall is vital for building robust and dependable systems that meet the demands of real-world applications. By understanding and optimizing these metrics, we can harness the power of artificial intelligence to solve complex challenges across various domains.