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In statistics, omitted-variable bias (OVB) is the bias that appears in estimates of parameters in a regression analysis when the assumed specification is incorrect, in that it omits an independent variable (possibly non-delineated) that should be in the model.

Omitted-variable bias in linear regression

Two conditions must hold true for omitted-variable bias to exist in linear regression:

  • the omitted variable must be a determinant of the dependent variable (i.e., its true regression coefficient is not zero); and
  • the omitted variable must be correlated with one or more of the included independent variables.

As an example, consider a linear model of the form

y_i = x_i \beta + z_i \delta + u_i,\qquad i = 1,\dots,n


  • xi is a 1 × p row vector, and is part of the observed data;
  • β is a p × 1 column vector of unobservable parameters to be estimated;
  • zi is a scalar and is part of the observed data;
  • δ is a scalar and is an unobservable parameter to be estimated;
  • the error terms ui are unobservable random variables having expected value 0 (conditionally on xi and zi);
  • the dependent variables yi are part of the observed data.

We let

 X = \left[ \begin{array}{c} x_1 \\ \vdots \\ x_n \end{array} \right] \in \mathbb{R}^{n\times p},


 Y = \left[ \begin{array}{c} y_1 \\ \vdots \\ y_n \end{array} \right],\quad Z = \left[ \begin{array}{c} z_1 \\ \vdots \\ z_n \end{array} \right],\quad U = \left[ \begin{array}{c} u_1 \\ \vdots \\ u_n \end{array} \right] \in \mathbb{R}^{n\times 1}.

Then through the usual least squares calculation, the estimated parameter vector \hat{\beta} based only on the observed x-values but omitting the observed z values, is given by:

\hat{\beta} = (X'X)^{-1}X'Y\,

(where the "prime" notation means the transpose of a matrix).

Substituting for Y based on the assumed linear model,

 \begin{align} \hat{\beta} & = (X'X)^{-1}X'(X\beta+Z\delta+U) \ & =(X'X)^{-1}X'X\beta + (X'X)^{-1}X'Z\delta + (X'X)^{-1}X'U \ & =\beta + (X'X)^{-1}X'Z\delta + (X'X)^{-1}X'U. \end{align}

Taking expectations, the final term

(X'X) − 1X'U

falls out by the assumption that U has zero expectation. Simplifying the remaining terms:

 \begin{align} E[ \hat{\beta} ] & = \beta + (X'X)^{-1}X'Z\delta \ & = \beta + \text{bias}. \end{align}

The second term above is the omitted-variable bias in this case. Note that the bias is equal to the weighted portion of zi which is "explained" by xi.


  • Greene, WH (1993). Econometric Analysis, 2nd ed.. Macmillan. pp. 245–246.  


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