I have been trying to construct a $1-\alpha$ confidence interval for the mean. The distribution from which a sample is drawn is exponential distribution with density:

$$p(x) = \frac{1}{\beta}e^{-x/\beta}$$

The exponential distribution has mean $\mu=\beta$ and standard deviation $\sigma=\beta$. As far as my knowledge is concerned, for a sample $X_1, X_2, \cdots, X_n$ of size $n$, the confidence interval :

$$\left(\bar{X}_n-z_{\alpha/2}\frac{\sigma}{\sqrt{n}}, \bar{X}_n+z_{\alpha/2}\frac{\sigma}{\sqrt{n}}\right)$$

should trap the true $\mu$ with $1-\alpha$ chance (I am not saying that this interval contains $\mu$ with probability $1-\alpha$; that will be wrong since $\mu$ is not a random variable).

However, this assumes that population standard deviation $\sigma$ is known. Since I want to simulate a situation where that too needs to be estimated, I constructed the forllowing interval:

$$\left(\bar{X}_n-t_{\alpha/2}\frac{\hat{\sigma}}{\sqrt{n}}, \bar{X}_n+t_{\alpha/2}\frac{\hat{\sigma}}{\sqrt{n}}\right)$$

where, $$\hat{\sigma}=\sqrt{\frac{1}{n-1}\sum_{i=1}^n (X_i-\bar{X}_n)^2}$$

and $t_{\alpha/2}$ is the critical t-value obtained for the Student's t-distribution for $n-1$ degrees of freedom.

I wrote a small python script to verify that with this modification, the constructed interval is indeed $95\%$ confidence interval when $\alpha=0.05$. For my simulations, I chose $n=10$, so that we have $9$ degrees of freedom, $t_{\alpha/2}=2.262$. I could verify that the first interval where population variance is known indeed contains true $\mu$ around $95\%$ of the time. (I generate $10000$ intervals and count how many contain the known $\mu$). However, the second one seems to contain $\mu$ only $90\%$ of the time. I am not sure why even after correctly choosing the correct critical $t$ this is happening. If I increase $t_{\alpha/2}=3.182$ corresponding to 3 degrees of freedom, I do get $95\%$ interval again! But of course this makes no sense because the degrees of freedom is $9$ in this case. Any idea what is happening?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Your confidence interval formula is inappropriate for your probability model. It will be approximately correct for very large samples -- much larger than $n=10$ -- due to the Central Limit Theorem. Try your script with, say, $n=500.$ $\endgroup$
    – whuber
    Commented Apr 18, 2021 at 15:28
  • $\begingroup$ The way you’ve written your exponential PDF, the mean is $\beta$, and the variance is $\beta^2$. You can’t know one without knowing the other. You seem to get this, but others might not pick up on this fact.) $\endgroup$
    – Dave
    Commented Apr 18, 2021 at 15:40
  • $\begingroup$ @whuber : I didn't get you. What is the appropriate way in this case? $\endgroup$
    – Peaceful
    Commented Apr 18, 2021 at 15:52

1 Answer 1


If you have a random sample of size $n$ from $\mathsf{Exp}(\mathrm{rate}=1/\beta),$ (with mean $\beta),$ then $\bar X/\beta \sim \mathsf{Gamma}(\mathrm{shape}=n,\mathrm{rate} = n).$ Thus a 95% CI for $\beta$ is of the form $\left(\frac{\bar X}{U},\, \frac{\bar X}{L}\right),$ where $L$ and $U$ cut probability $0.025$ from lower and upper tails, respectively of $\mathsf{Gamma}(n,n).$

For example, let's take a random sample of size $n=30$ from an exponential distribution with mean $\mu = 15.$ In R below, I got $\bar X =14.08$ and 95% CI $(10.14,\, 20.86),$ which does happen to contain $\mu = 15.$ Of course, with real data from a real population, one never knows for sure if the 95% CI covers the unknown $\mu.$

x = rexp(30, 1/15)
    Min.  1st Qu.   Median     Mean  3rd Qu.     Max. 
 0.05992  4.10425 11.88384 14.07736 24.64535 45.78687 
mean(x)/qgamma(c(.975,.025), 30, 30)
[1] 10.14004 20.86475

Three additional runs with no seed specified, gave intervals $(12.89,\, 26.52),$ $(7.36,\, 15.15),$ and $(11.02,\, 22.67).$ But a run using todays date as set.seed(418) missed the mark with CI $(15.29,\, 31.46).$

  • $\begingroup$ @BrudeET: So do you mean that my assumption of t-distribution is violated for exponential? $\endgroup$
    – Peaceful
    Commented Apr 18, 2021 at 16:11
  • $\begingroup$ You wrongly assume normal data when you use a z-interval. In my method you can start with $P(L \le \bar X/\beta \le U) = 0.95,$ with $L$ and $U$ chosen as stated. Then 'pivot' to isolate $\beta$ in the inequality to get $P(\bar X/U \le \beta \le \bar X/L) = 0.95,$ which provides the basis for the form of CI that I suggested. $\endgroup$
    – BruceET
    Commented Apr 18, 2021 at 16:14
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks! I should also pay attention to how fast $\bar{X}_n$ approaches normal distribution. For different underlying distributions, convergence is different. $\endgroup$
    – Peaceful
    Commented Apr 18, 2021 at 16:20
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Better yet, use exactly the right CI for the situation at hand, if you can find it. No use needlessly relying of the CLT or other methods of approximation. // The CLT works OK when $\sigma$ is known because $Z = \frac{\bar X -\mu}{\sigma/\sqrt{n}}$ converges to standard normal as $n$ becomes large. But you have to be somewhat more cautious assuming that the dist'n of $T = \frac{\bar X -\mu}{S/\sqrt{n}}$ is approximated by Student's dist'n. // Some people seem to think t intervals are automatically OK if $n > 30,$ but that is not really correct. $\endgroup$
    – BruceET
    Commented Apr 18, 2021 at 16:33
  • $\begingroup$ That's a very useful advice. Thanks. So when exactly is t-distribution helpful? When n is large, we anyway don't need it. When n is small, you seem to imply that only when the underlying distribution is normal, t-distribution is of any use. $\endgroup$
    – Peaceful
    Commented Apr 19, 2021 at 2:41

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