I'm working with some real world data and the regression models are yielding some counterintuitive results. Normally I trust the statistics but in reality some of these things can not be true. The main problem that I am seeing is that an increase in one variable is causing an increase in the response when, in fact in reality, they must be negatively correlated.

Is there a way to force a specific sign for each of the regression coefficients? Any R code to do this would be appreciated as well.

Thanks for any and all help!


3 Answers 3


There may well be such a way but I would say that it is not advisable in your circumstances.

If you have a result that is impossible either:

1) There is a problem with your data 2) There is a problem with your definition of "impossible" or 3) You are using the wrong method

First, check the data. Second, check the code. (Or ask others to check it). If both are fine then perhaps something unexpected is happening.

Fortunately for you, you have a simple "impossibility" - you say two variables cannot be positively correlated. So, make a scatter plot and add a smoother and see. A single outlier might cause this; or it might be a nonlinear relationship. Or something else.

But, if you are lucky, you've found something new. As my favorite professor used to say "If you're not surprised, you haven't learned anything".

  • $\begingroup$ (+1 to both Peter and Glen) @JRW - If you do fix the sign, I'd like to be a fly on the wall when you try to explain to your audience the coefficient you "obtained," and its confidence interval. Moreover, they might legitimately ask, Did you fix the sign and/or range of others? If not, why not? $\endgroup$
    – rolando2
    Commented Jun 27, 2014 at 18:42
  1. beware the distinction between the marginal correlation and the partial correlation (correlation conditional on other variables). They may legitimately be of different sign.

    That is $\text{corr}(Y, X_i)$ may in fact be negative while the regression coefficient in a multiple regression is positive. There is not necessarily any contradiction in those two things. See also Simpson's paradox, which is somewhat related (especially the diagram). In general you cannot infer that a regression coefficient must be of one sign merely based on an argument about the marginal correlation.

  2. Yes, it's certainly possible to constrain regression coefficients to be $\geq 0$ or $\leq 0$*. There are several ways to do so; some of these can be done readily enough in R, such as via nnls. See also the answers to this question which mention a number of R packages and other possible approaches.

    However I caution you against hastily ignoring the points in 1. just because many of those are easily implemented.

    * (you can use programs that do non-negative to do non-positive by negating the corresponding variable)


To answer your specific question, you can try the nnls package which does least squares regression with non-negative constraints on the coefficients. You can use it to get the signs you want by changing the signs of the appropriate predictors.

By the way, here is a very simple way to create a dataset to demonstrate how it is possible to have positive correlations and negative regression coefficients.

> n <- rnorm(200)
> x <- rnorm(200)
> d <- data.frame(x1 = x+n, x2= 2*x+n, y=x)
> cor(d)
      x1        x2         y
 x1 1.0000000 0.9474537 0.7260542
 x2 0.9474537 1.0000000 0.9078732
 y  0.7260542 0.9078732 1.0000000
> plot(d)
> lm(y~x1+x2-1, d)

lm(formula = y ~ x1 + x2 - 1, data = d)

x1  x2  
-1   1  
  • $\begingroup$ I just toyed arround with this nnls package a bit. Is there any way to get an adjusted R-squared value (or something equivalent), or would I have to try and calculate it myself somehow? $\endgroup$
    – JRW
    Commented Jun 26, 2014 at 21:10

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