Suppose I am interested in a linear regression model, for $$Y_i = \beta_0 + \beta_1x_1 + \beta_2x_2 + \beta_3x_1x_2$$, because I would like to see if an interaction between the two covariates have an effect on Y.

In a professors' course notes (whom I do not have contact with), it states: When including interaction terms, you should include their second degree terms. ie $$Y_i = \beta_0 + \beta_1x_1 + \beta_2x_2 + \beta_3x_1x_2 +\beta_4x_1^2 + \beta_5x_2^2$$ should be included in the regression.

Why should one include second degree terms when we are only interested in the interactions?

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    $\begingroup$ If model has $x_1x_2$, it should include $x_1$ and $x_2$. But $x_1^2$ and $x_2^2$ are optional. $\endgroup$
    – user158565
    Dec 1, 2018 at 23:30
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    $\begingroup$ Your professor's opinion seems to be unusual. It might stem from a specialized background or set of experiences, because "should" is definitely not a universal requirement. You might find stats.stackexchange.com/questions/11009 to be of some interest. $\endgroup$
    – whuber
    Dec 1, 2018 at 23:32
  • $\begingroup$ @user158565 hi! May I ask why we should also include $x_1$ and $x_2$? I did not originally think of that, but now that you mentioned it..! $\endgroup$
    – fool
    Dec 1, 2018 at 23:34
  • $\begingroup$ @whuber hi! Thanks for the link! I think including the main effect makes sense, but I have trouble extending that to having to include second order terms. // user158565 I think the link above answered that, thank you! $\endgroup$
    – fool
    Dec 1, 2018 at 23:45
  • $\begingroup$ Would you please post a link to the data? $\endgroup$ Dec 2, 2018 at 0:46

2 Answers 2


It depends on the goal of inference. If you want to make inference of whether there exists an interaction, for instance, in a causal context (or, more generally, if you want to interpret the interaction coefficient), this recommendation from your professor does make sense, and it comes from the fact that misspecification of the functional form can lead to wrong inferences about interaction.

Here is a simple example where there is no interaction term between $x_1$ and $x_2$ in the structural equation of $y$, yet, if you do not include the quadratic term of $x_1$, you would wrongly conclude that $x_1$ interacts with $x_2$ when in fact it doesn't.

    n <- 1e3
    x1 <- rnorm(n)
    x2 <- x1 + rnorm(n)
    y <- x1 + x2 + x1^2 + rnorm(n)
    summary(lm(y ~ x1 + x2 + x1:x2))
    lm(formula = y ~ x1 + x2 + x1:x2)
        Min      1Q  Median      3Q     Max 
    -3.7781 -0.8326 -0.0806  0.7598  7.7929 
                Estimate Std. Error t value Pr(>|t|)    
    (Intercept)  0.30116    0.04813   6.257 5.81e-10 ***
    x1           1.03142    0.05888  17.519  < 2e-16 ***
    x2           1.01806    0.03971  25.638  < 2e-16 ***
    x1:x2        0.63939    0.02390  26.757  < 2e-16 ***
    Signif. codes:  0 ‘***’ 0.001 ‘**’ 0.01 ‘*’ 0.05 ‘.’ 0.1 ‘ ’ 1
    Residual standard error: 1.308 on 996 degrees of freedom
    Multiple R-squared:  0.7935,    Adjusted R-squared:  0.7929 
    F-statistic:  1276 on 3 and 996 DF,  p-value: < 2.2e-16

This can be interpreted as simply a case of omitted variable bias, and here $x_1^2$ is the omitted variable. If you go back and include the squared term in your regression, the apparent interaction disappears.

    summary(lm(y ~ x1 + x2 + x1:x2 + I(x1^2)))   
    lm(formula = y ~ x1 + x2 + x1:x2 + I(x1^2))
        Min      1Q  Median      3Q     Max 
    -3.4574 -0.7073  0.0228  0.6723  3.7135 
                  Estimate Std. Error t value Pr(>|t|)    
    (Intercept) -0.0419958  0.0398423  -1.054    0.292    
    x1           1.0296642  0.0458586  22.453   <2e-16 ***
    x2           1.0017625  0.0309367  32.381   <2e-16 ***
    I(x1^2)      1.0196002  0.0400940  25.430   <2e-16 ***
    x1:x2       -0.0006889  0.0313045  -0.022    0.982    
    Signif. codes:  0 ‘***’ 0.001 ‘**’ 0.01 ‘*’ 0.05 ‘.’ 0.1 ‘ ’ 1
    Residual standard error: 1.019 on 995 degrees of freedom
    Multiple R-squared:  0.8748,    Adjusted R-squared:  0.8743 
    F-statistic:  1739 on 4 and 995 DF,  p-value: < 2.2e-16

Of course, this reasoning applies not only to quadratic terms, but misspecification of the functional form in general. The goal here is to model the conditional expectation function appropriately to assess interaction. If you are limiting yourself to modeling with linear regression, then you will need to include these nonlinear terms manually. But an alternative is to use more flexible regression modeling, such as kernel ridge regression for instance.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you @CarlosCinelli , in conclusion, are you saying we should include terms of same degree - to account for potential misspecification of the functional form - and let the regression determine which terms are significant? $\endgroup$
    – fool
    Dec 2, 2018 at 19:56
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    $\begingroup$ @KevinC the main question here is: do you want to interpret the interaction term? If you do, then misspecification of the functional form is a real issue. Adding quadratic terms is just one simple way of capturing non-linearities, but the general issue is modeling the conditional expectation function appropriately. $\endgroup$ Dec 2, 2018 at 20:17
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    $\begingroup$ Please do not include rm(list=ls()) in code posted here! If people just copy&paste and run the code, they could get a surprise ... I removed it for now. $\endgroup$ Dec 2, 2018 at 22:34

The two models you listed in your answer can be re-expressed to make it clear how the effect of $X_1$ is postulated to depend on $X_2$ (or the other way around) in each model.

The first model can be re-expressed like this:

$$Y = \beta_0 + (\beta_1 + \beta_3X_2)X_1 + \beta_2X_2+ \epsilon,$$

which shows that, in this model, $X1$ is assumed to have a linear effect on $Y$ (controlling for the effect of $X_2$) but the the magnitude of this linear effect - captured by the slope coefficient of $X_1$ - changes linearly as a function of $X_2$. For example, the effect of $X_1$ on $Y$ may increase in magnitude as the values of $X_2$ increase.

The second model can be re-expressed like this:

$$Y = \beta_0 + (\beta_1 + \beta_3X_2)X_1 + \beta_4 X_1^2 + \beta_2X_2 +\beta_5X_2^2 + \epsilon,$$

which shows that, in this model, the effect of $X_1$ on $Y$ (controlling for the effect of $X_2$) is assumed to be quadratic rather than linear. This quadratic effect is captured by including both $X_1$ and $X_1^2$ in the model. While the coefficient of $X_1^2$ is assumed to be independent of $X_2$, the coefficient of $X_1$ is assumed to depend linearly on $X_2$.

Using either model would imply that you are making entirely different assumptions about the nature of the effect of $X_1$ on $Y$ (controlling for the effect of $X_2$).

Usually, people fit the first model. They might then plot the residuals from that model against $X_1$ and $X_2$ in turns. If the residuals reveal a quadratic pattern in the residuals as a function of $X_1$ and/or $X_2$, the model can be augmented accordingly so that it includes $X_1^2$ and/or $X_2^2$ (and possibly their interaction).

Note that I simplified the notation you used for consistency and also made ther error term explicit in both models.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Hi @IsabellaGhement , thank you for your explanation. In summary, there are really no "rules" in that we should add quadratic terms if we include interaction terms. At the end of the day, it comes back to the assumptions we are making about our model, and the results of our analysis (ie. residual plots). Is this correct? Thanks again :)! $\endgroup$
    – fool
    Dec 2, 2018 at 20:13
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    $\begingroup$ That's right, Kevin! There are no "rules", because each data set is different and is also meant to answer different questions. That is why it is important for us to be aware that each model we fit to that data set implies different assumptions, which need to be supported by the data for us to trust the model results. The model diagnostic plots (e.g., plot of residuals vs. fitted values) help us verify to what extent - if any - the data support the model assumptions. $\endgroup$ Dec 2, 2018 at 21:44
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @KevinC: Great! Happy holidays to you too, Kevin! ☃🎉🎁🎈 $\endgroup$ Dec 8, 2018 at 14:52

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