# A significance test for the lasso

In the sparse linear regression setting, we consider testing the significance of the predictor variable that enters the current lasso model, in the sequence of models visited along the lasso solution path. We propose a simple test statistic based on lasso fitted values, called the covariance test statistic, and show that when the true model is linear, this statistic has an $\operatorname {Exp}(1)$ asymptotic distribution under the null hypothesis (the null being that all truly active variables are contained in the current lasso model). Our proof of this result for the special case of the first predictor to enter the model (i.e., testing for a single significant predictor variable against the global null) requires only weak assumptions on the predictor matrix $X$. On the other hand, our proof for a general step in the lasso path places further technical assumptions on $X$ and the generative model, but still allows for the important high-dimensional case $p>n$, and does not necessarily require that the current lasso model achieves perfect recovery of the truly active variables. Of course, for testing the significance of an additional variable between two nested linear models, one typically uses the chi-squared test, comparing the drop in residual sum of squares (RSS) to a $\chi^2_1$ distribution. But when this additional variable is not fixed, and has been chosen adaptively or greedily, this test is no longer appropriate: adaptivity makes the drop in RSS stochastically much larger than $\chi^2_1$ under the null hypothesis. Our analysis explicitly accounts for adaptivity, as it must, since the lasso builds an adaptive sequence of linear models as the tuning parameter $\lambda$ decreases. In this analysis, shrinkage plays a key role: though additional variables are chosen adaptively, the coefficients of lasso active variables are shrunken due to the $\ell_1$ penalty. Therefore, the test statistic (which is based on lasso fitted values) is in a sense balanced by these two opposing properties - adaptivity and shrinkage - and its null distribution is tractable and asymptotically $\operatorname {Exp}(1)$.

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