I'm a med student, conducting a retrospective analysis of weight/growth disturbances during chemo treatment.
I wonder, if I should:

  • assume, that growth is a variable normally distributed across the population
  • test for (or visually assess) the normality once (when?)
  • test for (or visually assess) normality separately, for each sample/each test performed

Why is that a problem for me:

  • there are many samples and subsamples (gender, treatment protocol, time point of measurment)
  • samples have different means (supposedly effect of the treatment or small sample size)
  • sample sizes are different (ranging ~5-60)
  • treatment can hypothetically change the distribution of the variable (however I doubt it, since I've already generated some histograms and sometimes (bigger sample size) values look normally distributed)
  • each analysis will exclue different cases (database is not complete, I must perform pairwise deletion)
  • tests for normality are useless with small samples?

Here are some examples.: http://imgur.com/a/zb2hM

  • X axis is an SDS for weight(it must compared indirectly, since patients are at different age; population's SD and mean are known for the specified age)
  • Samples differ with sample size, case's gender, treatment etc.


  • Should I test for normality or assume normality?
  • Should I test for normality separately in each sample or just once?
  • How should I test for normality?
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Hi Marcin, welcome to CV. Thanks for taking the effort in making such a clear, well laid out post. However, it's not usual to 'sign off' with your name on a question, since your user information underneath already functions as a signature. As such, the faq (see the link in the previous sentence) requests that you don't 'sign' a post. (I have removed it for you.) $\endgroup$
    – Glen_b
    Commented May 16, 2013 at 23:47
  • $\begingroup$ You may find the discussion here and here of relevance, even if they don't cover all aspects of your question. $\endgroup$
    – Glen_b
    Commented May 17, 2013 at 1:09
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Marcin, you may have noticed that your post has collected several edits. These attempt to improve/clarify your question (in the case of Jeromy's edits) or bring them in line with community expectations (in my case). If you feel that the edits alter things too much from your intent, you can also edit them (though I think Jeromy's edits help quite a lot). $\endgroup$
    – Glen_b
    Commented May 17, 2013 at 6:08

1 Answer 1


Lets consider your null hypothesis: Your variable is normally distributed, but the mean may differ across sub-samples. If you apply a linear regression with indicator variables for all subsamples to this problem, then the residual will be the distribution of the dependent variable with the differences in means "filtered out". In this case (an indicator variable for each subsample except for the reference sample) the residual is literally equivalent to computing a new variable which is your old variable minus the relevant sub-sample mean, thus removing the differences in means across subsamples (all these subsample means are now 0). If the variances are the same in the different subsamples, then the distribution of this residual will be the usual bell shaped Gaussian (some say normal) distribution. This has the advantage of pooling the results from your different subsamples which tend to be too small to meaningfully assess the degree of Gaussianity.

I prefer to assess the degree of Gaussianity visually, as a distribution can deviate from Gaussianity in many different ways. This matters in the sense that that determines whether it is a problem at all (regardless of "significance"), what the source might be, and what the solution might be. None of that information can be obtained by staring at a p-value. Others disagree; some find staring at graphs too subjective. It really depends on why you want to test for Gaussianity and who you are trying to convince.

Below is an example of multiple types of graphs you could look at using two subsamples (using Stata). In the first 4 graphs I look at the distribution of the residuals in the pooled dataset. In the last 4 graphs I look at the distribution of the dependent variable, but instead of comparing it to a simple normal distribution I compare it with the implied mixture of normal distributions where each sub-sample has a different mean. Both are ways of assessing your null hypothesis.

clear all
set seed 12345
set obs 1000

// first 500 observations get subsamp = 0
// last 500 observations get subsamp = 1
gen subsamp = ( _n <= 500 )

// y is normally distributed for 
// each subsample, but mean = 0
// for subsamp == 0 and mean = 4
// for subsamp == 1
gen y = 4*subsamp + rnormal()

// run linear regression
reg y subsamp

// inspect normality of residuals
predict resid, resid
qnorm resid

enter image description here

// you can add conficence bands to this plot
qenvnormal resid, gen(lb ub) overall reps(20000)
qplot resid lb ub,                                 ///
      ms(oh none ..) c(. l l )  lc(gs10 ..)        ///
      ytitle("residual") xtitle(Normal quantiles)  ///
      trscale(`e(rmse)' * invnormal(@))            ///

enter image description here

// if you are more into histograms then you may 
// like hanging rootograms
hangroot resid, ci

enter image description here

// or its complement, the suspended rootogram
hangroot resid, ci notheor susp

enter image description here

// you can also compare the marginal distribution of 
// y with the implied mixture of (in this case) two 
// normals:
margdistfit, qq

enter image description here

margdistfit, pp

enter image description here

margdistfit, cumul

enter image description here

margdistfit, hangroot

enter image description here

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for help. I'm a begineer, so this is how I understand your post: - the best practice is to assess the normality visually - putting all subsamples in one graph faciliates it Am I right? Also: 1.I'm new to residuals. Is there any difference between residuals distribution and sample distribution (apart from easiness to depict all subsamples in one graph)? 2.I'm not familiar with STATA. Did you somehow distinguished the residuals from different subsamples in the first graph? (I understand that's the point) 3.Why variances must be equal? (any other resasons apart from the t-test assumption?) $\endgroup$
    – mjktfw
    Commented May 17, 2013 at 16:12
  • $\begingroup$ I have edited my answer to answer these questions $\endgroup$ Commented May 21, 2013 at 8:08

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