Exploring Counterfactual Explanations Through the Lens of Adversarial Examples: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis

Martin Pawelczyk · Chirag Agarwal · Shalmali Joshi · Sohini Upadhyay · Himabindu Lakkaraju


As machine learning (ML) models becomemore widely deployed in high-stakes applications, counterfactual explanations have emerged as key tools for providing actionable model explanations in practice. Despite the growing popularity of counterfactual explanations, the theoretical understanding of these explanations is still lacking behind. In this work, we systematically analyze counterfactual explanations through the lens of adversarial examples. We do so by formalizing the similarities between popular counterfactual explanation and adversarial example generation methods identifying conditions when they are equivalent. We then derive upper bounds between the solutions output by counterfactual explanation and adversarial example generation methods, which we validate on several real world data sets. By establishing these theoretical and empirical similarities between counterfactual explanations and adversarial examples, our work raises fundamental questions about the design and development of existing counterfactual explanation algorithms.

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