Moving averages or LOESS?

Moving averages can be quite useful when visualizing data, or to fill holes in missing data. I suspect one reason for the popularity is that Excel can produce them (one of the trend lines it offers). Another reason may be that the concept of moving averages isn’t difficult: it’s just a repeated application of means.

In this post, I want to advocate the use of smoothed trend lines (LOESS) in many of the applications moving averages are used. Like moving averages, we’re talking of a non-parametric method, but unlike moving averages we’re less dependent on analysts deciding on the level of smoothness since there are adequate automatic methods.

Let’s look at an example. We begin with defining the data:

data <- c(1.3, 1.5, 1.9, 1.6, 1.7, 0.9, 1.8, 1.9, 2.4, 2.3, 1.8)

Then we define the moving average function, as this isn’t built into R.

mav <- function(x,n=5){filter(x,rep(1/n,n), sides=2)}

We can now calculate the moving average, but as ever, it’s better to have look:

mav(data) # just the moving averages
plot(data) # plot the data (as circles)
lines(mav(data)) # plot the moving average (as line)

What does it look like with a LOESS trendline?


Yes, that’s a built-in function, and yes, it works out of the box with no additional argument. If needed (normally there is no need, as Luke Keele demonstrates), the span can be set manually, and for more complex applications the sister function loess.smooth() can be quite useful, too.


Fox, John. 2000. Nonparametric Simple Regression: Smoothing Scatterplots. Quantitative Applications in the Social Sciences 130. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Keele, Luke. 2006. “How to Be Smooth: Automated Smoothing in Political Science.”

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