Does anyone have a simple example of a mixture of non-normal distributions that is normal? To make life simple, pick specific $f_1(y)$ and $f_2(y)$, both with mean 0, such that $$(1/2)f_1(y) + (1/2)f_2(y) = \frac{\exp(-y^2/2)}{\sqrt{2\pi}}.$$

Such distributions would provide a neat counterexample to the commonly stated "fact" that normality of the regression residuals implies normality of the conditional distributions. Let $Y|X = 1 \sim f_1(y)$ and $Y|X =2 \sim f_2(y)$. Further, let $X$ take the values 1 and 2 each with probability 1/2. Then the marginal distribution of the true residuals is normal, while the conditional distributions of $Y$ are not.

(Comment: It is the marginal distribution of the residuals that is most often used to check the normality assumption.)

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ This is trivial, but a mixture of a half-normal and a negative half-normal is normal. Wouldn't really occur in practice but it's an example. $\endgroup$
    – Noah
    Sep 10 '20 at 1:13
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Noah and I guess that would generalise to a mixture of any set of $n$ suitably truncated Normals being Normal. $\endgroup$
    – epp
    Sep 10 '20 at 1:24
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure I understand the counterexample argument. If $X$ is included the model that you're fitting, then the model isn't linear and you can't fit it with a linear regression anyway (as the data are not Normally distributed around a mean that is a linear function of $X$). If $X$ is not included in the model, then there is no problem. $Y$ can then follow a Normal distribution around the remaining IVs in your model, and the residuals will converge to that distribution. Whether you could further model those residuals as a mixture of non-Normals is irrelevant to the regression. $\endgroup$ Sep 10 '20 at 1:29
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Noah, that example does not work. The residuals are differences from the mean. So the mixture in your case will be the mixture of two half-normals shifted to a common mean of zero, resulting in a bimodal residual distribution. That's why I said to make the two components have mean 0. $\endgroup$ Sep 10 '20 at 11:14
  • $\begingroup$ Ruben van Bergen, of course my example is linear. The conditional means of $Y$ are both zero, so that $E(Y| X=x) = \beta_0 + \beta_1 x$, where $\beta_0 = \beta_1 = 0$. The example can be easily adjusted to any values of $\beta_0, \beta_1$ by applying location shifts to the conditional distributions. I also disagree about irrelevance. As I said, it is common statistical practice to conclude from the marginal normality of the residuals that the conditional distributions are normal. My counterexample shows that this practice is based on a faulty premise. $\endgroup$ Sep 10 '20 at 11:19

I can show you all examples, not just the simple ones.


Here they are, schematically:


The bottom panels show how the density function $f$ of a distribution $F$ is split into two parts vertically along a nearly arbitrary curve. The cyan portion of the split is a fraction $\lambda$ of $f;$ the upper left plots its graph. The remaining portion (gray) therefore is a fraction $1-\lambda$ of $f$ whose graph is plotted in the upper right. This is how all mixtures arise.

(Notice that little is assumed about the density $f$ except that it exists.)


The mixture distribution $F$ is Normal, which means there is a mean $\mu$ and variance $\sigma^2$ for which $F$ has a density function $f(z;\mu,\sigma).$ The details of $f$ don't matter!

Let $\lambda:\mathbb{R}\to[0,1]$ be any (measurable) non-negative function. This means the following integrals involving $\lambda$ are defined and non-negative:

$$\pi_\lambda = \int_\mathbb{R} \lambda(z)f(z;\mu,\sigma)\,\mathrm{d}z \le \sup(\lambda)\, \int_\mathbb{R}f(z;\mu,\sigma)\,\mathrm{d}z \le (1)(1)=1;$$

$$1-\pi_\lambda = 1 - \int_\mathbb{R} \lambda(z)f(z;\mu,\sigma)\,\mathrm{d}z = \int_\mathbb{R} (1-\lambda(z))_f(z;\mu,\sigma)\,\mathrm{d}z \le 1.$$

(The first inequality is an easy special case of Holder's Inequality.)

Define two distributions as

$$F_{\lambda}(x) = \frac{1}{\pi_\lambda}\int_{-\infty}^x \lambda(z)f(z;\mu,\sigma)\,\mathrm{d}z;$$

$$F_{1-\lambda}(x) = \frac{1}{1-\pi_\lambda}\int_{-\infty}^x (1-\lambda(z))f(z;\mu,\sigma)\,\mathrm{d}z.$$

It is straightforward to establish that these are distribution functions and, by construction,

$$F = \pi_\lambda F_\lambda + (1-\pi_\lambda) F_{1-\lambda}\tag{*}$$

exhibits the original normal distribution as a mixture of these two.

Conversely, whenever there exist differentiable functions with property $(*),$ then a version of $\lambda$ can be recovered via

$$\lambda(z) = \left\{\begin{aligned}\frac{F^\prime_\lambda(z)}{f(z;\mu,\sigma)} &\quad&f(z;\mu,\sigma)\ne 0\\ 0 & &\text{otherwise}\end{aligned}\right.$$

and because $0 \le \pi_\lambda\le 1,$ the range of $\lambda$ is contained in $[0,1],$ QED.

Finally, it is possible for the component distributions to be Normal: for instance, when $\lambda$ is a constant function that will be the case. That is the only possibility, though: see https://stats.stackexchange.com/a/429877/919 for the proof.


As requested in comments, it would be of interest to choose $\lambda$ to meet a set of criteria, such as

  1. Give the components equal weights, which means $$\frac{1}{2}=\pi_\lambda = \int \lambda(z) f(z)\,\mathrm{d}z.$$

  2. Since these are intended to model errors in a regression setting (with $\mu=0,$ we would like each of the components also to have zero mean: $0 = E_{F_\lambda}[X].$ In light of (1), that is equivalent to $$0 = \int z\lambda(z) f(z)\,\mathrm{d}z.$$

  3. Since regression errors are often assumed to be homoscedastic -- of equal variances -- we would like the variances of $F_\lambda$ and $F_{1-\lambda}$ to be equal. Since they have means of zero, when $f$ is a Normal density, this is achieved when $$\sigma^2 = 2\int z^2\lambda(z) f(z)\,\mathrm{d}z.$$

Although there are many solutions to these equations, one simple (striking) solution is obtained by supposing $\lambda$ and $1-\lambda$ are both simple functions: that is, piecewise constant. By making $\lambda$ symmetric around $0$ we can assure that (2) holds. The simplest of such simple functions is zero except on some positive interval $[a,b]$ and its negative $[-b,-a],$ where it equals $1.$

Without any loss of generality take $\sigma^2=1,$ so that $f = \phi$ is the standard Normal density with the property $\phi^(z) = -z\phi(z).$ Using this fact we may compute

$$\int \lambda(z)\phi(z)\,\mathrm{d}z = 2 \int_a^b \phi(z)\,\mathrm{d}z = 2(\Phi(b)-\Phi(a))$$

(where $\Phi$ is the standard Normal distribution function) and

$$\begin{aligned} \int z^2 \lambda(z)\phi(z)\,\mathrm{d}z &= 2 \int_a^b z^2\phi(z)\,\mathrm{d}z \\ &= 2(\Phi(b) - \Phi(a) + a\phi(b) - b\phi(b)). \end{aligned}$$

This permits numerical solution of (1) and (3). The work is streamlined by noting from (1) that, given $0 \le a\lt \Phi^{-1}(3/4),$

$$b = b(a) = \Phi^{-1}(\Phi(a) + 1/4).$$

That leaves us to solve (3) for $a \ge 0$. Here is an R implementation to illustrate:

f <- function(a) {
  b <- qnorm(1/4 + q <- pnorm(a))
  pnorm(b) - q + a * dnorm(a) - b * dnorm(b) - 1/4
uniroot(f, c(0, qnorm(3/4)- 1e-6))$root -> a
qnorm(pnorm(a) + 1/4) -> b

This calculation gives $a \approx 0.508949$ and $b \approx 1.59466.$ Here are plots of the two component densities $f_\lambda$ and $f_{1-\lambda}:$

Figure 2

To illustrate the intended application, here are bivariate data with 150 responses at $X=0$ with errors distributed as $F_\lambda$ and 150 responses at $X=1$ with errors distributed as $F_{1-\lambda}.$ To the right is a quantile plot of the collected residuals.

Figure 3

Although separately neither group of residuals appears Normal, they are both centered at zero, have nearly the same variance, and collectively look perfectly Normal.


  1. The basic construction readily generalizes to mixtures with more than two components.

  2. The example in the application can be extended, by using simple (indicator) functions supported on intervals $[a_i,b_i]$ with $0\le a_1 \lt b_1 \le a_2 \lt b_2 \cdots \lt b_k,$ to create component distributions that match the first $2k$ moments of the Normal distribution their mixture creates. With sufficiently large $k,$ the component distributions will be difficult to discriminate even with largish datasets (at which point one might legitimately wonder whether their non-Normality matters at all).

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ No problem! I understand exactly where you're going with this. You can view your latest criteria in terms of developing $\lambda$ in terms of an orthogonal basis of functions relative to the Normal measure (a problem closely related to the Hermite polynomials).Sticking with step functions, though, the simplest solution is to take $\lambda(z)$ to be the indicator of the interval $[0.50895, 1.5947]$ applied to $|z|.$ Thus, at one value of $X$ the absolute residuals will all be in this interval and at the other value of $X$ none of the absolute residuals will be in this interval. $\endgroup$
    – whuber
    Sep 11 '20 at 14:48
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Oh that is perfect. Delightful even. Can you give me the math forms of 0.50895 and 1.5947? Sorry for being dense if I am. $\endgroup$ Sep 11 '20 at 21:00
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I apologize for being too brief. I'll present these results in an edit to the answer. $\endgroup$
    – whuber
    Sep 11 '20 at 22:47
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Thanks for the edits! They illustrate the application perfectly. It is now perfectly clear that normality of the residuals does not imply normality of the conditional distributions. Several folks should take note ... (Aside: This all came me after grading numerous regression projects where students would look at the residual q-q plot and conclude "approximately normal," even though $Y$ itself was highly discrete, with obviously non-normal conditionals for that reason.) $\endgroup$ Sep 12 '20 at 1:44
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I believe they do. I wonder what you mean by "continuous" components, though, because even when $\lambda$ is discontinuous, $F_\lambda$ is a continuous distribution. I suspect what you have in mind might be the requirement that $f_\lambda$ is never zero. One way to achieve that is to express $F=cF+(1-c)F$ as a mixture of normals, $0\lt c\le1,$ and then take one of the components to be the mixture $cF_\lambda+(1-c)F/2.$ Thus, the only effective additional criterion is the symmetry one and that can be solved using a similar numerical technique (requiring at least four variables instead of two). $\endgroup$
    – whuber
    Sep 13 '20 at 13:19

A very simple example from the Skew normal distribution with density $$ 2\phi(x)\Phi(\alpha x) $$ Choose for the twocomponents $\alpha, -\alpha$ then $$ \frac12 2 \phi(x) \Phi(-\alpha x) + \frac12 2 \phi(x) \Phi(\alpha x) $$ is the standard normal density $\phi(x)$, by using symmetry, since $\Phi(-\alpha x) = 1-\Phi(\alpha x)$, but unfortunately the two mixture components do not have equal mean.

A simple example with equal means is got by exploiting $1=\sin^2 x +\cos^2 x$ so simply define mixture components by $$ \phi(x) = \sin^2(x) \phi(x) + \cos^2(x) \phi(x) $$ and both components have mean zero.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ That's the kind of simple I was looking forward, but the component means are not equal, are they? They have the same sign as \$alpha$, right? It is most crucial for the regression application that the means of the components be equal (to 0, wlog). $\endgroup$ Sep 10 '20 at 21:07
  • $\begingroup$ They are not equal, unfortunately. I will try to find some simple example that have equal means, but ... $\endgroup$ Sep 12 '20 at 16:14
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Thanks. whuber has a good example that works to make the point, but I like the idea of finding simple continuous ones (with equal means and variances) for a more realistic counterexample. $\endgroup$ Sep 12 '20 at 18:58

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.