Puzzling Regression Anatomy

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Consider a regression model with the following causal structure:

The variable x1 affects y directly and also indirectly via x2. The following R code implements the model and simulates a corresponding data set.

n = 10000
beta1 = 1; beta2=1
x1 = rnorm(n,0,1)
x2 = x1+rnorm(n,0,1)
y = beta1*x1 + beta2*x2 + rnorm(n,0,1)

Assume we want to consistently estimate the direct linear effect beta1 from x1 on y. To do so, we can simply estimate a multiple linear regression where we add x2 as a control variable:


## (Intercept)          x1          x2 
## 0.007553765 0.998331323 1.000934100

But what does it intuitively mean to add x2 as control variable? The Frisch-Waugh-Lovell Theorem implies that we get the same estimator for beta1 as in the multiple regression above by the following procedure:

# y.tilde is residual of regression 
# y on x2
y.tilde = resid(lm(y~x2))

# x1.tilde is residual of regression 
# x1 on x2
x1.tilde = resid(lm(x1~x2))

# Regression y.tilde on x1.tilde
# we get the same estimate for beta1
# as in the multiple regression with x1 and x2
coef(lm(y.tilde ~ x1.tilde))

##   (Intercept)      x1.tilde 
## -5.104062e-17  9.983313e-01

Hence, controlling for x2 means that we essentially regress the residual variations of y and x1 that cannot be linearly explained by x2 on each other. So far this seems intuitive.

The interesting thing is that one gets the same estimate for beta1 also with one of the following two regressions below (but only the regression above also yields correct standard errors):

# Approach A
lm(y.tilde ~ x1)
# Approach B
lm(y ~ x1.tilde)

Approach A regresses the residual variation of y that cannot be linearly predicted by x2 on x1. Approach B regresses y on the residual variation of x1 that cannot be linearly predicted by x2.

Only one approach yields a consistent estimate of beta1. Make a guess which one…

Let’s check:

# A: Inconsistent
coef(lm(y.tilde ~ x1))[2]

##        x1 
## 0.4860465

# B: Consistent
coef(lm(y ~ x1.tilde))[2]

##  x1.tilde 
## 0.9983313

So only approach B works. Angrist and Pischke (2009) refer to it as regression anatomy. For me that result was a bit puzzling for a long time because my intuitive interpretation of what it means to control for x2 was more in line with approach A. I first want to shed light on that intuition and explain why approach A does not work. Afterward I want to give some intuition for the working approach B.

An intuition for control variables and why approach A fails

I have different intuitions what controlling for x2 means in the linear regression:

y = beta0 + beta1*x1 + beta2*x2 + eps

One of my intuitions is the following:

“By controlling for x2, we essentially subtract the variation that can be linearly explained by x2 from y, i.e. up to an estimation error we subtract beta2*x2.”

This interpretation suggests that approach A should work, but that approach fails to get a consistent estimate for beta1. So is the intuition above wrong? Not completely, but the qualification “up to an estimation error” causes trouble for approach A. Consider the following code.

# Modified approach A
y.tilde2 = y - beta2*x2
coef(lm(y.tilde2 ~x1))[2]

##        x1 
## 0.9992699

It is a modified version of approach A. It computes the residual variation y.tilde2 by directly subtracting beta2*x2 from y. Now we get a consistent estimator of beta1 when regressing y.tilde2 on x1.

But approach A differs because we subtract beta2.hat*x2 from y where beta2.hat is estimated in the first stage regression:

# Same result as original approach A
beta2.hat = coef(lm(y~x2))[2]
beta2.hat # inconsistent estimate of beta2

##       x2 
## 1.510801

y.tilde = y-beta2.hat*x2
coef(lm(y.tilde ~x1))[2] # inconsistent estimate of beta1

##        x1 
## 0.4860465

The problem with approach A is that we don’t estimate beta2.hat consistently in the regression of y on x2. Instead, since x1 and x2 are correlated, beta2.hat also captures some of the direct effect of x1 on y. This means in y.tilde we have already removed some of the effect from x1 on y that we want to estimate. Therefore approach A yields an estimator for beta1 that is biased towards 0.

Remark: In the original computation of approach A, we also subtract the estimated constant from the initial regression when computing y.tilde, but that has no effect on the slope coefficient in the second stage regression.

Interestingly, in some empirical papers an approach similar to approach A is performed, i.e. one first computes residuals of y from a first regression and then regresses those residuals on another set of explanatory variables. But the computation above shows that one should really be careful with this approach, since it only works if the first regression yields consistent estimates.

Let us consider an example where such an approach would work. Consider the following modified model:

We now have an additional variable z that affects x2 but is uncorrelated with x1.

z = rnorm(n,0,1)
x2 = x1+z+rnorm(n,0,1)
y = beta1*x1 + beta2*x2 + rnorm(n,0,1)

We now conduct a variation of approach A where y.tilde3 are the residuals of an instrumental variable regression of y on x2 using z as instrument:

reg1 = ivreg(y~x2|z)
coef(reg1)[2] # consistent beta2.hat

##       x2 
## 1.006464

y.tilde3 = resid(reg1)
coef(lm(y.tilde3 ~ x1))[2] # consistent beta1.hat

##        x1 
## 0.9756005

We now see that regressing y.tilde3 on x1 yields a consistent estimator of beta1.

Why does approach B work

Let us now discuss why approach B works. Given our causal structure I find it more intuitive to first discuss why a similar approach works to consistently estimate beta2.

# x2.tilde is residual from regression
# of x2 on x1
x2.tilde = resid(lm(x2~x1))
# consistent estimate of beta2
coef(lm(y ~ x2.tilde))[2]

## x2.tilde 
## 0.996786

Here I have the following intuition why it works. Intuitively, to consistently estimate the causal effect of x2 on y we need to distill variation of x2 that is uncorrelated with x1. If we regress x2 on x1, the residuals x2.tilde of this regression are by construction uncorrelated with x1. They describe the variation of x2 that cannot be linearly predicted by x1. That is exactly the variation of x2 needed to consistently estimate beta2.

The equivalent procedure also works to estimate beta1 consistently:

x1.tilde = resid(lm(x1~x2))
coef(lm(y ~ x1.tilde))[2] # consistent

## x1.tilde 
##  0.98519

So even though x2 does not influence x1 we can similarly distill in x1.tilde the relevant variation in x1 that is uncorrelated with x2. For the regression anatomy it is irrelevant which causal direction has generated the correlation between x1 and x2.

Final remarks

I find it amazing that over many years I still often learn new intuitions for basic econometric concepts like multiple linear regression. Currently, I think introducing multiple regression via the Frisch-Waugh-Lovell theorem and the regression anatomy can be much more helpful to build intuition in an applied empirical course than covering the matrix algebra. (Of course, it is a different story if you want to prove econometric theorems.) For an example of such a course, you can check out the open online material (videos, quizzes, interactive R exercises) of my course Market Analysis with Econometrics and Machine Learning.


Angrist, Joshua D., and Jörn-Steffen Pischke. 2009. Mostly Harmless Econometrics: An Empiricist’s Companion.

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