Let $p(x)$ be some "true" distribution which we want to model using a simpler distribution $q(x)$. Why is the KL divergence $$KL(q||p)=\int q(x)\log{\frac{q(x)}{p(x)}}$$ a good way to represents the loss of information in using $q$ instead of $p$? Is the KL divergence some "ad hoc method" or it has a deeper meaning? Shouldn't be the entropy difference $$H(q)-H(p)$$ the right quantity to use?

  • $\begingroup$ @kjetilbhalvorsen it's not a duplicate. I'm not asking why isn't the KL a metric. $\endgroup$
    – ToTo10
    Aug 22, 2017 at 13:29
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    $\begingroup$ Thats notwhat you have written $\endgroup$ Aug 22, 2017 at 14:03
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    $\begingroup$ Read through all the answers there; I think you will find the information you need. If it isn't what you want / you still have a question afterwards, come back here & edit your question to state what you learned & what you still need to know. Then we can provide the information you need without just duplicating material elsewhere that already didn't help you. $\endgroup$ Aug 22, 2017 at 15:30

1 Answer 1


KL divergence is very closely related to entropy. It helps to understand the motivation behind the expression for entropy.

For some distribution $p(x)$ we call $h(x) = -\log p(x)$ the information received by observing variable $x$. It's called "information" because it has the nice property that if we observe two completely independent events, $x$ and $y$, then the information gained is the sum of the information gained from each event. I.e. if $x$ and $y$ are independent, $p(x,y) = p(x) p(y),$ then $h(x,y) = -\log p(x) - \log p(y) = h(x) + h(y).$ Likewise, if $x$ and $y$ are completely mutually occurring, then it follows that observing $x$ and $y$ simply gives us the exact same information as observing $x$ alone. That is $p(x,y) = p(x) \implies h(x,y) = h(x).$ Also, this form of $h(x)$ ensures that the information gained is always positive, and more information is gained by observing events that are less likely.

To that end, entropy is the expected amount of information gained by observing a variable drawn from a distribution $p$. That is, $$ H[p] = E[h_p(x)] = \int p(x) h_p(x) dx = - \int p(x) \log p(x) dx, $$

where I'm calling $h_p(x)$ the information gained from observing $x$ if $x$ is drawn from distribution $p.$

The KL divergence is often used in situations where $p$ is some unknown true distribution, and $q$ is a proxy distribution that we're using to estimate $p.$ $KL(p \mid \mid q)$ is the expected difference in information received by observing $x$ if $q$ was the true distribution, vs if $p$ was the true distribution, and that expectation is taken over a single distribution. Another way of saying it is that it's the expected additional information we need to receive from observing $x$ in order to get all the information we need.

Suppose you couldn't draw from $p(x)$ but could only evaluate it for a given $x$ (or, at the very least, you could evaluate the ratio $p(x)/q(x)$). But you could draw from your proxy distribution $q(x),$ and you want to learn $p.$ Then the expected deficit of information you gain (or the expected additional information you need to gain in order to learn $p$) is

$$ KL(q \mid \mid p) = E_q[h_p(x) - h_q(x)] = \int q(x) [h_p(x) - h_q(x)] dx = \int q(x) \log \frac{q(x)}{p(x)} dx. $$

I gave an intuitive interpretation of the $KL$ divergence, but one thing about this form is that it's guaranteed to be non-negative. Even though individual instances of $q(x) \log \frac{q(x)}{p(x)}$ might be negative, the instances where $q>p$ will outweigh the others. (More explicitly, the Gibbs' inequality guarantees that it's non-negative.) This means that, as long as $p(x)$ is the true distribution you will always need more information if you're using a proxy, $q(x),$ to draw from. By contrast, your suggestion of using $H[q] - H[p]$ has no such guarantee.

  • $\begingroup$ " $KL(p||q)$ is the expected difference.. single distribution" why do you do that? The expected difference in information would be to me $$E_p[h_p(x)]-E_q[h_q(x)]$$ I don't see any meaning in the expression $E_q[h_p(x)]$ $\endgroup$
    – ToTo10
    Aug 22, 2017 at 14:36
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    $\begingroup$ The entropy difference is not an expectation of anything, because it's not summed over a single probability distribution. If you had two variables, $a$ and $b$, and wanted to calculate the expected difference $E[a-b]$ you wouldn't do $\sum p_i a_i - \sum q_i b_i$ because that's just a meaningless quantity. You would evaluate $\sum p_i (a_i - b_i).$ The thing you're trying to learn is a probability distribution. $E_q[h_p(x)]$ is the expected information you learned about $p$ if you're drawing from distribution $q.$ (E.g. if $p>0$ only in regions where $q=0$ you'll learn nothing about $p.$) $\endgroup$ Aug 22, 2017 at 14:47

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