I am studying Larry Wasserman's lecture notes on Statistics which uses Casella and Berger as its primary text. I am working through his lecture notes set 2 and got stuck in the derivation of lemma used in Hoeffding's inequality (pp.2-3). I am reproducing the proof in the notes below and after the proof I will point out where I am stuck.


Suppose that $\mathbb{E}(X) = 0$ and that $ a \le X \le b$. Then $\mathbb{E}(e^{tX}) \le e^{t^2 (b-a)^2/8}$.


Since $a \le X \le b$, we can write $X$ as a convex combination of $a$ and $b$, namely $X = \alpha b + (1 - \alpha) a$ where $\alpha = \frac{X-a}{b-a}$. By convexity of the function $y \to e^{ty}$ we have

$e^{tX} \le \alpha e^{tb} + (1 - \alpha) e^{ta} = \frac{X-a}{b-a} e^{tb} + \frac{b-X}{b-a} e^{ta}$

Take expectations of both sides and use the fact $\mathbb{E}(X) = 0$ to get

$\mathbb{E}(e^{tX}) \le \frac{-a}{b-a} e^{tb} + \frac{b}{b-a} e^{ta} = e^{g(u)}$

where $u = t(b-a)$, $g(u) = -\gamma u + \log(1-\gamma + \gamma e^{u})$ and $\gamma = -a /(b-a)$. Note that $g(0) = g^{'}(0) = 0$. Also $g^{''}(u) \le 1/4$ for all $u > 0 $.

By Taylor's theorem, there is a $\varepsilon \in (0, u)$ such that $g(u) = g(0) + u g^{'}(0) + \frac{u^2}{2} g^{''}(\varepsilon) = \frac{u^2}{2} g^{''}(\varepsilon) \le \frac{u^2}{8} = \frac{t^2(b-a)^2}{8}$

Hence $\mathbb{E}(e^{tX}) \le e^{g(u)} \le e^{\frac{t^2(b-a)^2}{8}}$.

I could follow the proof till

$\mathbb{E}(e^{tX}) \le \frac{-a}{b-a} e^{tb} + \frac{b}{b-a} e^{ta} = e^{g(u)}$ but I am unable to figure out how to derive $u, g(u), \gamma$.

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ It is interesting that the maximum value of $\text{var}(X)$ is $\sigma_{\max}^2 = (b-a)^2/4$ and thus the result is effectively $$E[e^{tX}] \leq e^{\sigma_{\max}^2t^2/2}$$ which looks far too familiar to be arising out of sheer coincidence. I suspect there may be another, possibly easier, way to derive the result via a probabilistic argument. $\endgroup$ Jan 14, 2012 at 1:42
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    $\begingroup$ @DilipSarwate My understanding is that the maximum variance occurs for an uniform random variable $ X \sim \mathcal{U}(a,b)$. The variance of $X$ is $\mathsf{Var}(X) = \frac{(b-a)^2}{12}$. Can you please explain how you got $\frac{(b-a)^2}{4}$? $\endgroup$
    – Anand
    Jan 14, 2012 at 3:59
  • $\begingroup$ By concentrating the mass on the endpoints... $\endgroup$
    – Elvis
    Jan 14, 2012 at 7:39
  • $\begingroup$ @DilipSarwate I added a few comments in the proof, that may clarify a liitle bit why the worst case is the max variance. $\endgroup$
    – Elvis
    Jan 14, 2012 at 10:43
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    $\begingroup$ @DilipSarwate - See lemma 1 and exercise 1 here: terrytao.wordpress.com/2010/01/03/… . It seems there is a simpler derivation relying on Jensen's inequality and taylor's expansion. Yet the details of this are unclear to me. Perhaps someone can make sense of it. (derivation of (9) to (10) and exercise 1) $\endgroup$
    – Leo
    Aug 13, 2013 at 20:21

3 Answers 3


I’m not sure I understood your question correctly. I’ll try to answer: try to write $$-\frac{a}{b-a} e^{tb} + \frac{b}{b-a} e^{ta}$$ as a function of $u = t(b-a)$ : this is natural as you want a bound in $e^{u^2 \over 8}$.

Helped by the experience, you will know that it is better to chose to write it in the form $e^{g(u)}$. Then $$e^{g(u)} = -\frac{a}{b-a} e^{tb} + \frac{b}{b-a} e^{ta}$$ leads to $$\begin{align*} g(u) &= \log\left( -\frac{a}{b-a} e^{tb} + \frac{b}{b-a} e^{ta} \right)\\ &= \log\left( e^{ta} \left( -\frac{a}{b-a} e^{t(b-a)} + \frac{b}{b-a} \right)\right)\\ &= ta + \log\left( \gamma e^u + (1-\gamma) \right)\\ &= -\gamma u + \log\left( \gamma e^u + (1-\gamma) \right),\\ \end{align*}$$ with $\gamma = - {a \over b-a}$.

Is that the kind of thing you were asking for?

Edit: a few comments on the proof

  1. The first trick deserves to be looked at carefully: if $\phi$ is a convex function, and $a\le X\le b$ is a centered random variable, then $$\mathbb{E}(\phi(X)) \le -{a\over b-a} \phi(b) + {b \over b-a} \phi(a) = \mathbb{E}(\phi(X_0)),$$ where $X_0$ is the discrete variable defined by $$\begin{align*} \mathbb P(X_0=a) &= {b \over b-a}\\ \mathbb P(X_0=b) &= -{a \over b-a}.\end{align*}$$ As a consequence, you get that $X_0$ is the centered variable with support in $[a,b]$ which has the highest variance: $$\mathsf{Var} (X) = \mathbb{E}(X^2) \le \mathbb{E}(X_0^2) = {ba^2 - ab^2 \over b-a } = - ab.$$ Note that if we fix a support width $(b-a)$, this is less than $(b-a)^2\over 4$ as Dilip says in the comments, this is because $(b-a)^2 + 4ab \ge 0$; the bound is attained for $a=-b$.
  2. Now turn to our problem. Why is it possible to get a bound depending only on $u = t(b-a)$? Intuitively, it is just a matter of rescaling of $X$: if you have a bound $\mathbb{E}\left( e^{tX} \right) \le s(t)$ for the case $b-a=1$, then the general bound can be obtained by taking $s( t(b-a) )$. Now think to the set of centered variables with support of width 1: there isn’t so much freedom, so a bound like $s(t)$ should exist.

    An other approach is to say simply that by the above lemma on $\mathbb{E}(\phi(X))$, then more generally $\mathbb{E}(\phi(tX)) \le \mathbb{E}(\phi(tX_0))$, which depends only on $u$ and $\gamma$: if you fix $u = u_0 = t_0 (b_0 - a_0)$ and $\gamma = \gamma_0 = - {a_0 \over b_0-a_0}$, and let $t, a, b$ vary, there is only one degree of freedom, and $t = {t_0 \over \alpha}$, $a = \alpha a_0$, $b = \alpha a_0$. We get $$-{a\over b-a} \phi(tb) + {b \over b-a} \phi(ta) = -{a_0\over b_0-a_0} \phi(tb_0) + {b_0 \over b_0-a_0} \phi(a_0).$$ You just have to find a bound involving only $u$.

  3. Now we are convinced that it can be done, it must be much easier! You don’t necessarily think to $g$ to begin with. The point is that you must write everything as a function of $u$ and $\gamma$.

    First note that $\gamma = -{a\over b-a}$, $1 -\gamma = {b\over b-a}$, $at = -\gamma u$ and $bt = (1-\gamma)u$. Then $$\begin{align*} \mathbb{E}(\phi(tX)) \le &-{a\over b-a} \phi(tb) + {b \over b-a} \phi(ta) \\ = & \gamma \phi((1-\gamma)u) + (1-\gamma) \phi(-\gamma u) \end{align*}$$

    Now we are in the particular case $\phi=\exp$... I think you can finish.

I hope I clarified it a little bit.

  • $\begingroup$ thats exactly what I was looking for. Thanks a lot. $\endgroup$
    – Anand
    Jan 13, 2012 at 23:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Anand I know it’s a hard to follow advice, however I think you shouldn’t start by focusing on technical details but rather try to get why such a bound can exist... then the proof should appear easier. I tried to show you the why in the second part, added this morning (you need to sleep on a question like this – at least I need to). I think it’s terrible how this kind of intuitions doesn’t appear in most textbooks... even if you get the technical part, as long as you don’t have the ideas everything looks magic. Thank you and CrossV for giving me the opportunity to think to this in details! $\endgroup$
    – Elvis
    Jan 14, 2012 at 13:20
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    $\begingroup$ Wow! +1 for the edit. Thanks. But wouldn't it be nice if it were possible to get something like $$E[e^{tX}] \leq e^{E[t^2X^2/2]} = e^{(t^2/2)E[X^2]} = e^{(t^2/2)\text{var}(X)} \leq e^{t^2\sigma_{\max}^2/2}?$$ $\endgroup$ Jan 14, 2012 at 13:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Elvis Thanks for the advise and for taking the time to write down the intuitive part. I need to spend some time to understand this! $\endgroup$
    – Anand
    Jan 14, 2012 at 14:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Elvis Taking about intuition, I want to clarify my understanding. To get sharper bounds one needs higher moments. Markov uses the first moment, Chebyshev the second moment and the Hoeffding uses mgf. Is this correct? If someone can expand and clarify this part it would be great. $\endgroup$
    – Anand
    Jan 14, 2012 at 14:34

As @DilipSarwate noticed we effectively have

\begin{equation} E[e^{tX}] \leq e^{\sigma_{\max}^2t^2/2}, \end{equation}

which seems to be more than a mere coincidence and can leads us to think that there is a probabilistic argument to derive the result.

And it is the case. The gist of the demonstration goes as follow :

We want to prove that if X is a bounded random variable then it is a $\frac{(b-a)^2}{4}-$ sub-gaussian random variable.

To do so we will first consider the logarithmic moment-generating function $g(t) = \log\mathbb{E}[e^{t\eta}]$. This function is indeed well-defined on $R$ as $\forall t \in R, e^{t\eta} > 0$ and therefore $\mathbb{E}[e^{t\eta}]>0$. We also have that g is differentiable as $\mathbb{E}[e^{t\eta}] >0 $ and $t\mapsto \mathbb{E}[e^{t\eta}]$ is differentiable (because $\forall t \in R,\: |\mathbb{E}[\eta e^{t\eta}]| \leqslant (|a| + |b|)e^{(|a|+|b|)t} < \infty$).

We then have : \begin{align*} \forall t \in R,\: g'(t) = \frac{\mathbb{E}[\eta e^{t\eta}]}{\mathbb{E}[e^{t\eta}]} \end{align*}

Showing with similar arguments that g' is in turn differentiable we get : \begin{equation} \begin{split} \forall t \in R,\: g''(t) & = \frac{\mathbb{E}[\eta^2 e^{t\eta}]\mathbb{E}[e^{t\eta}] - \mathbb{E}[\eta e^{t\eta}]^2}{\mathbb{E}[e^{t\eta}]^2} & = \mathbb{E}[\eta^2\frac{e^{t\eta}}{\mathbb{E}[e^{t\eta}]}] - \mathbb{E}[\eta\frac{e^{t\eta}}{\mathbb{E}[e^{t\eta}]}]^2 \end{split} \end{equation}

We can now notice that $g''$ is the variance of the random variable Y of density $dy(t) = \frac{e^{t\eta}}{\mathbb{E}[e^{t\eta}]}dP_{\eta}(t)$. The law of Y being absolutely continuous with X's one we know that Y's support is [a,b]. We also know that for any real-valued random variable $Var(U) \leqslant \mathbb{E}[(U-c)^2] \: \forall c \in R$ which when we take $c=\frac{a+b}{2}$ yields $Var(U) \leqslant \mathbb{E}[(U - \frac{a+b}{2})^2] \leqslant (\frac{b-a}{2})^2$

We thus get $\forall t \in R, \: g''(t) \leqslant (\frac{b-a}{2})^2 $ We can also remark that $g(0) = 0 = \mathbb{E} \eta = g'(0)$

\begin{equation} \begin{split} \forall t \in R,\: g(t) & = g(t) - g(0) = \int_{0}^{t} g'(s) \,ds = \int_{0}^{t}\int_{0}^{s} g''(u) \,du\,ds & \leqslant \int_{0}^{t}\int_{0}^{s} (\frac{b-a}{2})^2 \,du\,ds \leqslant (\frac{b-a}{2})^2 \int_{0}^{t} s \,ds & \leqslant \frac{(b-a)^2}{4}\frac{t^{2}}{2} \leqslant \frac{(b-a)^2t^{2}}{8} \end{split} \end{equation}

At last by composing this inequality with the exponential we get the desired result.


I would like to add a more compact answer that expands on @JBD's and @DilipSarwate's ideas that is taken entirely from "Concentration Inequalities" by Boucheron, Lugosi, and Massart. In summary, the idea is that we examine the second order Taylor expansion of the logarithm of the left hand side of Hoeffding's lemma. This allows us to make quick use of the well-known variance upper bound for bounded random variables.

Let $\psi_X(t)$ denote the logarithmic MGF ($\log\mathbb{E}[e^{tX}]$). And furthermore, let $Z$ be a random variable with density

$$f_Z(z)=e^{-\psi_X(\theta)}e^{\theta z}$$

for some $\theta$. Then

$$\psi''_X(\theta)=e^{-\psi_X(\theta)}\mathbb{E}\left[X^2e^{\theta X}\right]-e^{-2\psi_X(\theta)}\left(\mathbb{E}\left[Xe^{\theta X}\right]\right)^2$$ $$=\mathbb{V}[Z]\leq \frac{(b-a)^2}{4}.$$

Then as $\psi_X(0)=\psi'_X(0)=0$, we have by Taylor's theorem for some $\theta\in[0,t]$ that


$$\leq^* \frac{t^2(b-a)^2}{8}$$

$$\iff e^{\psi_X(t)}=\mathbb{E}[e^{tX}]\leq e^{\frac{t^2(b-a)^2}{8}}$$

where $\leq^*$ follows as the density of $Z$ is concentrated on $[a,b]$. It moreover appears that Terry Tao took a similar approach in his concentration of measure notes here.

  • $\begingroup$ Why is $\psi_X^{''}(t)=\mathbf{V}[X]$? $\endgroup$ Jul 2, 2023 at 2:48
  • $\begingroup$ It's of course not - I forgot the argument $\endgroup$ Jul 8, 2023 at 13:23

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