If we have 2 normal, uncorrelated random variables $X_1, X_2$ then we can create 2 correlated random variables with the formula

$Y=\rho X_1+ \sqrt{1-\rho^2} X_2$

and then $Y$ will have a correlation $\rho$ with $X_1$.

Can someone explain where this formula comes from?

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    $\begingroup$ An extensive discussion of this and related issues appears in my answer at stats.stackexchange.com/a/71303. Among other things, it makes plain that (1) the Normality assumption is irrelevant and (2) you need to make additional assumptions: the variances of $X_1$ and $X_2$ must be equal in order for the correlation of $Y$ with $X_1$ to be $\rho$. $\endgroup$
    – whuber
    Mar 12, 2015 at 13:42
  • $\begingroup$ Very interesting link. I'm not sure I understand what you mean by normality being irrelevant. If $X_1$ or $X_2$ is not normal, and it becomes harder to control the density of $Y$ through the Kaiser-Dickman algorithm. This is the whole reason for specialized algorithms to generate non-normal correlated data (e.g., Headrick, 2002; Ruscio & Kaczetow, 2008; Vale & Maurelli, 1983) For example, imagine your goal is to generate $X$~normal, $Y$~uniform, with $\rho$=.5. Using $X_2$~uniform results in a $Y$ that is not uniform ($Y$ ends up being a linear combination of a normal and uniform). $\endgroup$
    – Anthony
    Mar 12, 2015 at 17:25
  • $\begingroup$ @Anthony The question only asks about correlation, which is purely a function of first and second moments. The answer does not depend on any other properties of the distributions. What you are discussing is a different subject altogether. $\endgroup$
    – whuber
    Mar 12, 2015 at 23:51

3 Answers 3


Suppose you want to find a linear combination of $X_1$ and $X_2$ such that

$$ \text{corr}(\alpha X_1 + \beta X_2, X_1) = \rho $$

Notice that if you multiply both $\alpha$ and $\beta$ by the same (non-zero) constant, the correlation will not change. Thus, we're going to add a condition to preserve variance: $\text{var}(\alpha X_1 + \beta X_2) = \text{var}(X_1)$

This is equivalent to

$$ \rho = \frac{\text{cov}(\alpha X_1 + \beta X_2, X_1)}{\sqrt{\text{var}(\alpha X_1 + \beta X_2) \text{var}(X_1)}} = \frac{\alpha \overbrace{\text{cov}(X_1, X_1)}^{=\text{var}(X_1)} + \overbrace{\beta \text{cov}(X_2, X_1)}^{=0}}{\sqrt{\text{var}(\alpha X_1 + \beta X_2) \text{var}(X_1)}} = \alpha \sqrt{\frac{\text{var}(X_1)}{\alpha^2 \text{var}(X_1) + \beta^2 \text{var}(X_2)}} $$

Assuming both random variables have the same variance (this is a crucial assumption!) ($\text{var}(X_1) = \text{var}(X_2)$), we get

$$ \rho \sqrt{\alpha^2 + \beta^2} = \alpha $$

There are many solutions to this equation, so it's time to recall variance-preserving condition:

$$ \text{var}(X_1) = \text{var}(\alpha X_1 + \beta X_2) = \alpha^2 \text{var}(X_1) + \beta^2 \text{var}(X_2) \Rightarrow \alpha^2 + \beta^2 = 1 $$

And this leads us to

$$ \alpha = \rho \\ \beta = \pm \sqrt{1-\rho^2} $$

UPD. Regarding the second question: yes, this is known as whitening.


The equation is a simplified bivariate form of Cholesky decomposition. This simplified equation is sometimes called the Kaiser-Dickman algorithm (Kaiser & Dickman, 1962).

Note that $X_1$ and $X_2$ must have the same variance for this algorithm to work properly. Also, the algorithm is typically used with normal variables. If $X_1$ or $X_2$ are not normal, $Y$ might not have the same distributional form as $X_2$.


Kaiser, H. F., & Dickman, K. (1962). Sample and population score matrices and sample correlation matrices from an arbitrary population correlation matrix. Psychometrika, 27(2), 179-182.

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    $\begingroup$ I suppose you don't need standardized normal variables, just having the same variance should be enough. $\endgroup$ Mar 12, 2015 at 12:50
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    $\begingroup$ No, the distribution of $Y$ is not a mixture distribution as you claim. $\endgroup$ Mar 12, 2015 at 14:39
  • $\begingroup$ Point taken, @Dilip Sarwate. If either $X_1$ or $X_2$ is nonnormal, then $Y$ becomes a linear combination of two variables that might not result in the desired distribution. This is the reason for specialized algorithms (instead of Kaiser-Dickman) for generated non-normal correlated data. $\endgroup$
    – Anthony
    Mar 12, 2015 at 17:27

Correlation coefficient is the $\cos$ between two series if they are treated as vectors (with $n^{th}$ data point being $n^{th}$ dimension of a vector). The above formula simply creates a decomposition of a vector into its $\cos\theta$, $sin\theta$ components (with respect to $X_1,X_2$).
if $\rho = cos \theta$ , then $\sqrt{1-{\rho}^2}=\pm sin \theta$.

Because if $X_1, X_2$ are uncorrelated, the angle between them is a right angle (ie, they can be considered as orthogonal, albeit non-normalized, basis vectors ).

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Welcome to our site! I believe your post will get more attention if you mark up the mathematical expressions using $\TeX$: enclose them between dollar signs. There's help available when you're editing. $\endgroup$
    – whuber
    Mar 23, 2015 at 0:53

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