Suppose we have some data sample $x_1, x_2, ... x_n$ that came from some true probability distribution function $f(x; \theta)$.

Based on this sample, i am interested in estimating $\theta$ using Maximum Likelihood Estimation, but I incorrectly assume that it came from some distribution $g(x; \theta)$.

I have the following question about misspecification and robustness:

As my choice of $g(x; \theta)$ deviates further away from $f(x; \theta)$ : How strongly do the properties of the MLE's of $\hat{\theta}$ get affected relative to their true values $\theta$ ?

Here are my guesses:

  • Bias: Even under the correct distribution MLE estimates can be biased. Therefore, under the incorrect distribution, the MLE estimates have the possibility of being even more biased?
  • Consistency: The MLE estimates for $g(x, \theta)$ will converge in probability (for large samples) to the true values of $g(x, \theta)$ .... but obviously will not converge to the correct values of $f(x, \theta)$
  • Asymptotic Normal: For large sample sizes, under the incorrect distribution, the estimates of $g(x, \theta)$ will still be asymptotically normal - but this will be meaningless as they are not cantered around the correct location of $f(x, \theta)$
  • Minimum Variance: Again, I think this property will also be respected under the incorrect choice of distribution, but unfortunately this will be meaningless as the distribution choice was incorrect.

Is this the right intuition?

  • $\begingroup$ Glen_b : just re-read and made the edits - thanks! Do you have any opinions about the conclusions I wrote? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 4 at 13:52
  • 3
  • $\begingroup$ It must depend on what you mean by "deviates" and how you measure the deviation. Your intuition about bias appears flawed: using $g$ might produce solutions that are less biased. Your intuition about consistency is incorrect, because the estimates very well could converge to the correct value of $\theta,$ depending on the relationship between how the two families are parameterized. The asymptotic normality and minimum variance properties also appear dubious: indeed, why should there be any convergence at all when you use the wrong family? $\endgroup$
    – whuber
    Commented Mar 4 at 15:56
  • $\begingroup$ @pnaxso yours is a well-studied problem. Look for "quasi-MLE" on Cross Validated and elsewhere. $\endgroup$
    – Durden
    Commented Mar 4 at 18:33

1 Answer 1


There's a problem before you even get to these questions: how do the $\theta$s match up. That is, you have a family $f_\eta$ and a family $g_\theta$, and some mapping between $\theta$ and $\eta$. This mapping has to be special to get any reasonable answer. I mean, suppose $f$ are $N(\theta,1)$ densities and $g$ are $N(0,\theta)$ densities -- you wouldn't normally call $s^2$ a biased estimate of $\mu$; it's Not Even Wrong.

For this reason it's traditional to talk about an assumed family $g_\theta$ and a single data generating distribution $F$.

There are various things known.

  1. Under the same sorts of regularity conditions that you usually use for correctly-specified models, $\hat\theta$ converges to something, which you could call $\theta^*$, or $\theta(F)$. [Huber, or generally, estimating equation theory]
  2. Again under the same sorts of conditions, you get $$\sqrt{n}(\hat\theta-\theta^*)\sim N(0,\sigma^2_\theta)$$ [Huber, or generally, estimating equation theory]
  3. In general there is no guarantee of anything else really. In particular, there's no guarantee that the map from $\eta$ to the corresponding $\theta$ value, $\theta(F_\eta)$, is one-to-one or smooth or whatever. (eg, my example of $N(\theta,1)$ vs $N(0,\theta)$)
  4. However, if $\theta$ and $\eta$ are basically the same sort of parameter so it makes sense, you often will find $\eta\mapsto\theta$ is smooth and invertible and so on -- eg if they're both location parameters
  5. It can even be that $\hat\theta\equiv\hat\eta$, for example, the sample average is the MLE of the mean for all exponential family models
  6. There's a specially interesting case, which is contiguous misspecification, where you have a sequence $F_n$ getting closer to $G$ as $n$ increases, so the likelihood ration $dF_n/dG_\theta$ is bounded for the 'nearest' $G_\theta$. In that case, we have an exact formula for $\theta^*$ from "LeCam's Third Lemma" [LeCam, but you want to read van der Vaart's Asymptotic Statistics or something, not the original]. There's a bias that's proportional to $dF/dG$ but no change in the variance compared to a correctly-specified model.

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