I am doing an introduction to ML with tensorflow and I came across softmax activation function. Why is in the softmax formula e? Why not 2? 3? 7?

$$ \text{softmax}(x)_i = \frac{\exp(x_i)}{\sum_j \exp(x_j)} $$

$$ \begin{eqnarray} \sum_j a^L_j & = & \frac{\sum_j e^{z^L_j}}{\sum_k e^{z^L_k}} = 1. \tag{79}\end{eqnarray} $$

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  • $\begingroup$ Possible duplicate of What is the reason why we use natural logarithm (ln) rather than log to base 10 in specifying function in econometrics? $\endgroup$
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 6, 2017 at 12:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Tim I think the answer to that question really doesn't get at the heart of the issue here. Usually you're not trying to interpret the softmax variables in the same way as you would with functions in econometrics. I thought it was more that it was easier to calculate the derivatives of softmax. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Aug 6, 2017 at 13:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Tim I understand why compounded interest limit yields 'e' but I am unable to transpose the reason for this connection into softmax. $\endgroup$
    – Gillian
    Commented Aug 6, 2017 at 13:36
  • $\begingroup$ It seems it could be any arbitrary base and it would give us approximatelly (maybe even precisely?) correct image of what the distribution looks like. And working with irrational numbers such as 'e' surely slows down computation. $\endgroup$
    – Gillian
    Commented Aug 6, 2017 at 13:44
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ How does this slow the computation? In any case you'd be dealing with floating-point numbers... $\endgroup$
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 6, 2017 at 13:48

4 Answers 4


Using a different base is equivalent to scaling your data

Let $\mathbf{z} = \left(\ln a\right) \mathbf{y}$

Now observe that $e^{z_i} = a^{y_i}$ hence:

$$ \frac{e^{z_i}}{\sum_j e^{z_j}} = \frac{a^{y_i}}{\sum_j a^{y_j}}$$

Multiplying vector $\mathbf{y}$ by the natural logarithm of $a$ is equivalent to switching the softmax function to base $a$ instead of base $e$.

You often have a linear model inside the softmax function (eg. $z_i = \mathbf{x}' \mathbf{w}_i$). The $\mathbf{w}$ in $\mathbf{x}' \mathbf{w}$ can scale the data so allowing a different base wouldn't add any explanatory power. If the scaling can change, there's a sense in which different base $a$ are all equivalent models.

So why base $e$?

In exponential settings, $e$ is typically the most aesthetically beautiful, natural base to use: $\frac{d}{dx} e^x = e^x$. A lot of math can look prettier on the page when you use base $e$.

  • $\begingroup$ Would the function be the same if e to the z was replaced with ln(z) ? $\endgroup$
    – Jack Vial
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 17:05
  • $\begingroup$ @Jack I'm not sure I follow what you specifically had in mind? $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 17:24
  • $\begingroup$ If e^x = ln(x). Can the softmax function be written using ln(x) instead of e^x? $\endgroup$
    – Jack Vial
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 18:01
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ MatthewGunn I think he wanted to know if rewriting the softmax equation to: $\text{softmax}(x)_i = \frac{\ln(x_i)}{\sum_j \ln(x_j)}$ would yield the same result as $$\text{softmax}(x)_i = \frac{\exp(x_i)}{\sum_j \exp(x_j)}$$. However the statement @Jack made that: "$e^x =ln(x)$" isn't true, so I am not sure where he was going with that $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 21:45
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @SebastianNielsen My point was that $f(x) = \frac{a^x}{a^x + 1} $ and $f(x) = \frac{e^{bx}}{e^{bx} + 1}$ are literally the same function for $b = \ln a$. Basic math: $e^{x \ln a} = e^{\ln a^x} = a^x$. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 22, 2018 at 22:06

Some math becomes easier with $e$ as a base, that's why. Otherwise, consider this form of softmax: $\frac{e^{ax_i}}{\sum_j e^{ax_j}}$, which is equivalent to $\frac{b^{x_i}}{\sum_j b^{x_j}}$, where $b=e^a$.

Now, consider this function: $\sum_i\frac{e^{ax_i}}{\sum_j e^{ax_j}} x_i$. You can play with coefficient $a$ making the function less or more soft max.

When $a\to\infty$, it is $\max(x)$ because $\lim_{a\to\infty}\frac{e^{ax_i}}{\sum_j e^{ax_j}}=\mathrm{argmax}(x)$.

When $a=1$ it is $\mathrm{softmax}(x)\cdot x$ - a smoother version of max.

When $a=0$ it is as soft as it gets: a simple average $\frac 1 n \sum_i x_i$


This is indeed a somewhat arbitrary choice:

The choice of the softmax function seems somehow arbitrary as there are many other possible normalizing functions. It is thus unclear why the log-softmax loss would perform better than other loss alternatives.

Some potential reasons why this may be preferred over other normalizing functions:

  • it frames the inputs as log-likelihoods
  • it is easily differentiable

In the context of classification, we want to predict the most likely class $c^*$ that a feature vector $\mathbf x$ belongs to as $$c^* = \argmax_{i} P(C = c_i \mid \mathbf x)$$ where $c_1,\dots,c_N$ are the $N$ different classes. It is often convenient to re-write $P(C = c_i \mid \mathbf x)$ using Bayes' rule. Note that \begin{align} P(C = c_i \mid \mathbf x) &= \frac{p(\mathbf x \mid C = c_i)P(C = c_i)}{p(\mathbf x)} \\ &= \frac{p(\mathbf x \mid C = c_i)P(C = c_i)}{\sum_{j=1}^N p(\mathbf x \mid C = c_j) P(C = c_j)} \end{align} For any $a,b \in \mathbb R$, $$a^{\log_a(b)} = b$$ So, \begin{align} P(C = c_i \mid \mathbf x) &= \frac{p(\mathbf x \mid C = c_i)P(C = c_i)}{\sum_{j=1}^N p(\mathbf x \mid C = c_j) P(C = c_j)} \\ &= \frac{a^{\log_a\left(p(\mathbf x \mid C = c_i)P(C = c_i)\right)}}{\sum_{j=1}^N a^{\log_a\left(p(\mathbf x \mid C = c_j) P(C = c_j)\right)}} \end{align} Letting $a = e$ such that \begin{align} z_i &= \ln\left(p(\mathbf x \mid C = c_i)P(C = c_i)\right) \\ z_j &= \ln\left(p(\mathbf x \mid C = c_j)P(C = c_j)\right) \end{align} and $$\mathbf z = \begin{bmatrix} z_1 \\ \vdots \\ z_N\end{bmatrix}$$ we get \begin{align} P(C = c_i \mid \mathbf x) &= \frac{\exp\left(\ln\left(p(\mathbf x \mid C = c_i)P(C = c_i)\right)\right)}{\sum_{j=1}^N \exp\left(\ln\left(p(\mathbf x \mid C = c_j) P(C = c_j)\right)\right)} \\ &= \frac{\exp\left(z_i\right)}{\sum_{j=1}^N \exp\left(z_j\right)} \\ &= \text{softmax}(\mathbf z)_i \end{align} However, we could have chosen $a$ to be any other real number other than $e$. So, there isn't really anything special about $e$ except its nice properties.


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