I have some numerical data from which I generate a PDF via:

pdf = HistogramDistribution[data];

Which can then be easily visualised thus:

DensityPlot[PDF[pdf, {x, y}], {x, 1.5, 3.3}, {y, -46, -44}, PlotPoints -> 100]

What I would like to do is be able to quickly draw 90% credible intervals on top of this plot.

  • $\begingroup$ Jay, what sort of "confidence intervals" do you want? The most natural ones would be confidence intervals for the density estimates themselves: that is, confidence intervals for values of the PDF. However, Platomaniac's answer seems to think you intended confidence intervals for the mean. The two are completely different things, so please clarify your intentions. $\endgroup$
    – whuber
    Mar 1, 2013 at 16:12
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This is a parameter estimation problem, where the PDF is the posterior probability for a set of parameters - obtained using Bayes theorem. By confidence interval/region, I mean I want a region where there is a 90% chance the true parameter values lie. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Mar 1, 2013 at 18:09
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The usual terminology for this is a 90% credible region, Jay. There typically exist infinitely many such regions in multivariate situations, so it helps to provide some constraints, such as asking for a credible region of the smallest diameter that encloses the mode (if the parameters are comparable to one another), for example, or to insist that the credible region be bounded by an isocontour of the density. $\endgroup$
    – whuber
    Mar 1, 2013 at 18:14
  • $\begingroup$ I apologise for mixing these up, back to the stats textbook I guess.. :\ $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Mar 1, 2013 at 18:43

3 Answers 3


In comments it became clear that the question seeks a 90% credible region. This would be a region in which 90% of the probability occurs. Among such regions, a unique and natural one to choose is where the minimum value of the probability density is as large as possible (a "highest probability density set"). Such a region is bounded by an isocontour of the density. That isocontour can be found with a numeric search.

To illustrate, let's generate and display some moderately interesting data. These are draws from a mixture of two bivariate normals:

base = RandomVariate[BinormalDistribution[{2.4, -44.9}, {0.25, 0.3}, 2/3], 400];
contam =  RandomVariate[BinormalDistribution[{2.4, -45.3}, {0.1, 0.2}, -0.9], 100];
data = base~Join~contam;
ListPlot[{base, contam}]

Scatterplot of data

We need an estimate of the PDF that can readily be integrated; it should also be reasonably smooth. This suggests a kernel density rather than a histogram density (which is not smooth). Although there is some latitude to choose the bandwidth, reasonable choices will produce similar credible intervals. A Gaussian kernel assures smoothness:

pdf = SmoothKernelDistribution[data, 0.1, "Gaussian"];
plot = ContourPlot[PDF[pdf, {x, y}], {x, 1.5, 3.3}, {y, -46, -44}, 
  PlotRange -> {Full, Full, Full}, Contours -> 23, ColorFunction -> "DarkRainbow"]

Contour plot of density

To find the credible region we will need to compute probabilities for regions defined by probability density thresholds $t$. Let's define the integrand in terms of $t$ and then numerically find which $t$ achieves the desired level by means of FindRoot. There may be problems with some root-finding methods (they can have trouble computing Jacobians) and there will be convergence issues with the numerical integration (Gaussians and other rapidly-decreasing kernels will do that), but fortunately we need relatively little accuracy for any of these computations. Here, the initial bracketed values of $0$ and $2$ for the threshold were read off the contour plot (there are some simple ways to estimate them from the ranges of the data and the kernel bandwidth).

f[x_, y_, t_: 0] := With[{z = PDF[pdf, {x, y}]}, z Boole[z >= t]];
r = FindRoot[NIntegrate[f[x, y, t], {x, 1.5, 3.3}, {y, -46, -44}, 
    AccuracyGoal -> 3, PrecisionGoal -> 6] - 0.9, {t, 0, 2}, 
  Method -> "Brent", AccuracyGoal -> 3, PrecisionGoal -> 6]

$\{t\to 0.218172\}$

There's our threshold: the credible region consists of all $(x,y)$ where the PDF equals or exceeds this value. Due to the low accuracy and precision goals used in the search, though, it behooves us to double-check it using better accuracy. We want the integral to be close to $0.90$:

NIntegrate[f[x, y, t /. r], {x, 1.5, 3.3}, {y, -46, -44}] /. r


That's more than close enough. (If we were to obtain another $500$ independent samples of this distribution, its $90$% quantile could easily lie anywhere between the $87$th and $93$rd quantiles of this sample. Thus, we shouldn't demand more than a few percentage points accuracy when estimating the $90$% credible region. Clearly the accuracy depends on the sample size, but even so it would be rare to pin a $90$% quantile down to better than $0.1$% or so.)

To display the solution, we may overlay a contour of the PDF at that threshold on the original plot.

ci = ContourPlot[PDF[pdf, {x, y}] == (t /. r), {x, 1.5, 3.3}, {y, -46, -44}, 
  ContourStyle -> Directive[Thick, White]];
Show[plot, ci]

Credible interval plot

If you request too much detail, by using too small a bandwidth, you can run into problems. Here, I halved the bandwidth from $0.1$ to $0.05$. The excessive detail has broken the contours up and created "islands" of locally high density. That's usually unrealistic. We can conclude in this example that the bandwidth of $0.1$ is about as small as we would care to use; it's a reasonable compromise between excessive detail and excessive smoothing.

enter image description here

Comparing this credible region contour to the preceding one gives some indication of how much the region itself may depend on small, incidental, arbitrary decisions during the analysis: there's considerable uncertainty about its precise position in $(x,y)$ coordinates. However, no matter which of these contours we were to use, we would have reasonable confidence that they enclose somewhere around $87$% to $93$% of the true probability and that interval could be narrowed by collecting more data.

  • $\begingroup$ I didn't notice you cross 10k. Congrats, and +1, of course. $\endgroup$
    – rcollyer
    Mar 1, 2013 at 19:31
  • $\begingroup$ Very nice work! $\endgroup$ Mar 1, 2013 at 19:33
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @rcollyer I did not mean to suggest that; rather, this site is a minor outlet for his vast knowledge which has earned 100,000 points over multiple SE sites; if he spent 100% if his SE time here I have no doubt I'd be firmly in 2nd place. $\endgroup$
    – Mr.Wizard
    Mar 1, 2013 at 20:24
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @rcollyer You forgot I require signage. $\endgroup$
    – Mr.Wizard
    Mar 1, 2013 at 20:30
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @PlatoManiac I think your answer is nice and will be helpful for future visitors; not only that, it's the accepted one! Please don't delete it. I have been commenting on it only out of genuine curiosity and a desire to clarify which replies truly answer which interpretations of the question. To all others: (1) thank you for your kind recognition; (2) the achievement of high reputations here is a mark of this community's generosity and understanding of how SE works; (3) all comments about rep are understood to be both friendly and to have traces of levity--especially "firmly in 2nd place." :-) $\endgroup$
    – whuber
    Mar 1, 2013 at 21:13

Though confidence region for multivariate data has a rigorous definition. You can try using Quantile for simplicity. Other than the ellipsoid quantile (black dashed region) I also show here the convex hull based quantile (the filled region).


Now plotting the confidence region is simple!

Show[DensityPlot[Evaluate@PDF[dist, {x, y}], {x, 1.5, 3.3}, {y, -46, -44}, 
PlotPoints -> 100, ColorFunction -> "Pastel", Exclusions -> None, 
PlotRange -> All], 
Graphics[{Directive[LightOrange, Opacity[.4]], 
EdgeForm[Directive[Orange, Opacity[.6], Thick]], 
FilledCurve[BSplineCurve[Graphics[confConv][[1, 1]], SplineClosed -> True]]}],
Graphics[{Directive[Black, Opacity[.7]], Thick, Dashed, conf}],PlotRange -> All]

enter image description here

For Weighted Data:

weight = RandomVariate[NormalDistribution[10, 2.43], 10^4];
weightedData = WeightedData[data, weight];
smdistwt = HistogramDistribution[weightedData, "FreedmanDiaconis"];
dataWeighted = RandomVariate[smdistwt, 10^4];
confwt = EllipsoidQuantile[dataWeighted, .9];
confConvwt = PolytopeQuantile[dataWeighted, .9];

enter image description here

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Why not use DensityHistogram instead of DensityPlot? You can eliminate Evaluate and it can calculate the PDF for you. $\endgroup$
    – rcollyer
    Mar 1, 2013 at 13:36
  • $\begingroup$ @rcollyer you are right! Being lazy I just took from the code supplied by the OP and the doc ;) However I could not figure out how to get the quantile from a bi-variate distribution. Any clue? The EllipsoidQuantile is very slow fro large data. PolytopeQuantile too is pretty slow but comparatively faster. $\endgroup$ Mar 1, 2013 at 14:02
  • $\begingroup$ It is a "newer" function, so I'm not surprised it is not well known. I only know about because I've been forced to learn most of them. As to better quantiles, no clue. Not my area of expertise, I'm afraid. Plotting them, however, I'd probably use Epilog, but Show works just fine. $\endgroup$
    – rcollyer
    Mar 1, 2013 at 14:15
  • $\begingroup$ NB: This is a confidence region for the mean, not for the PDF. I have asked the OP for clarification. (A CI for the PDF would be a pair of surfaces enclosing the PDF; it could not be depicted in any clear fashion with a contour plot or array plot.) $\endgroup$
    – whuber
    Mar 1, 2013 at 16:14
  • $\begingroup$ @whuber You are correct CI/CR in a real PDF context will be hard to effectively visualize. Plot3D with some opacity and filling or the absolute deviation from the PDF as a RegionPlot3D might be an option. Please feel free to edit my answer if any improvement crosses your mind. $\endgroup$ Mar 1, 2013 at 17:17

I second whuber in his reasoning on statistics. He mentions that using NIntegrate is both slow and unstable. It may give very accurate results if it works but a faster and more stable approach is to evaluate the density on a regular grid such that each point on the grid in 2D represents a rectangle of equal size. The density value t defining the smallest credible, or highest posterior density, region containing say 90 % of the probability can be found by a binary search on the cumulative sum

Needs["Combinatorica`"] (* for BinarySearch *)

findCredibilityLevel[data_, levels_List] := Module[{srtdata, cumsum, index},
  srtdata = data // Flatten // Sort;
  cumsum = Accumulate[srtdata];
  (*overcover interval with Floor, Ceil would undercover*)      
  index = Floor[BinarySearch[cumsum, (1 - #)*Last[cumsum]]] & /@ levels;

I make sure I have at least 90 % in there, if you wanted to have at most 90 %, you could use the Ceil function to round the result of BinarySearch to an integer.

Note that this method works in any input dimension including 1D under the regular-grid assumptions thanks to Flatten.

Continuing whuber's example, here is everything ready for copy&paste

xmin = 1.5; xmax = 3.3; ymin = -46; ymax = -44; npix = 100;
base = 
 RandomVariate[BinormalDistribution[{2.4, -44.9}, {0.25, 0.3}, 2/3], 
contam = RandomVariate[
   BinormalDistribution[{2.4, -45.3}, {0.1, 0.2}, -0.9], 100];
data = base~Join~contam;

pdf = SmoothKernelDistribution[data, 0.1, "Gaussian"];
plot = ContourPlot[PDF[pdf, {x, y}], {x, xmin, xmax}, {y, ymin, ymax},
    PlotRange -> {Full, Full, Full}, Contours -> 23, 
   ColorFunction -> "DarkRainbow"];

dx = (xmax - xmin)/npix;
dy = (ymax - ymin)/npix;
data = Table[
   PDF[pdf, {xmin + i dx, ymin + j dy}], {i, 1, npix}, {j, 1, npix}];
t = findCredibilityLevel[data, 0.9];
ci = ContourPlot[
   PDF[pdf, {x, y}] == t, {x, xmin, xmax}, {y, ymin, ymax}, 
   ContourStyle -> Directive[Thick, White]];
Show[plot, ci]

For the samples I drew here, I get t=0.2495 for 90 %, or 0.9, region, which is reasonably similar to whuber's result with different random numbers.

enter image description here

  • $\begingroup$ +1 This looks like an effective approach. Thank you for sharing it. $\endgroup$
    – whuber
    Sep 29, 2016 at 16:37
  • $\begingroup$ BTW, GeometricFunctions`BinarySearch[] is an undocumented function that you could use instead; the usage should be the same as the one in Combinatorica. $\endgroup$ Dec 21, 2016 at 2:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Fred Schoen nice! do you think findCredibilityLevel is a fast implementation? What about memory usage? $\endgroup$
    – Valerio
    Nov 3, 2017 at 17:15
  • $\begingroup$ It is certainly much faster than running numerical integration repeatedly. Perhaps you can find a better data access pattern for the sorted and flattened array. Feel free to optimize! In the typical 2D application, you may have lists of length 10k to 1 million $\endgroup$ Nov 15, 2017 at 15:49

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