Nonlinear regression is a form of regression analysis in which data is fit to a model and then expressed as a mathematical function. Simple linear regression relates two variables (X and Y) with a straight line (y = mx + b), while nonlinear regression relates the two variables in a nonlinear (curved) relationship.

The goal of the model is to make the sum of the squares as small as possible.  The sum of squares is a measure that tracks how far the Y observations vary from the nonlinear (curved) function that is used to predict Y.

It is computed by first finding the difference between the fitted nonlinear function and every Y point of data in the set. Then, each of those differences is squared. Lastly, all of the squared figures are added together. The smaller the sum of these squared figures, the better the function fits the data points in the set. Nonlinear regression uses logarithmic functions, trigonometric functions, exponential functions, power functions, Lorenz curves, Gaussian functions, and other fitting methods.

Key Takeaways

  • Both linear and nonlinear regression predict Y responses from an X variable (or variables).
  • Nonlinear regression is a curved function of an X variable (or variables) that is used to predict a Y variable
  • Nonlinear regression can show a prediction of population growth over time.

Nonlinear regression modeling is similar to linear regression modeling in that both seek to track a particular response from a set of variables graphically. Nonlinear models are more complicated than linear models to develop because the function is created through a series of approximations (iterations) that may stem from trial-and-error. Mathematicians use several established methods, such as the Gauss-Newton method and the Levenberg-Marquardt method.

Often, regression models that appear nonlinear upon first glance are actually linear. The curve estimation procedure can be used to identify the nature of the functional relationships at play in your data, so you can choose the correct regression model, whether linear or nonlinear. Linear regression models, while they typically form a straight line, can also form curves, depending on the form of the linear regression equation. Likewise, it’s possible to use algebra to transform a nonlinear equation so that mimics a linear equation—such a nonlinear equation is referred to as “intrinsically linear.”

Linear regression relates two variables with a straight line; nonlinear regression relates the variables using a curve.

Example of Nonlinear Regression

One example of how nonlinear regression can be used is to predict population growth over time. A scatterplot of changing population data over time shows that there seems to be a relationship between time and population growth, but that it is a nonlinear relationship, requiring the use of a nonlinear regression model. A logistic population growth model can provide estimates of the population for periods that were not measured, and predictions of future population growth.

Independent and dependent variables used in nonlinear regression should be quantitative. Categorical variables, like region of residence or religion, should be coded as binary variables or other types of quantitative variables.

In order to obtain accurate results from the nonlinear regression model, you should make sure the function you specify describes the relationship between the independent and dependent variables accurately. Good starting values are also necessary. Poor starting values may result in a model that fails to converge, or a solution that is only optimal locally, rather than globally, even if you’ve specified the right functional form for the model.