Discrete Random Variables and Outcomes

A discrete random variable can take on a finite/countable number of values. It is a random variable where it is possible to list all the outcomes. Recall that a random variable is just a quantity whose future outcomes are not known with certainty. The shorthand notation for a discrete random variable is P(x) = P(X = x).

Example 1: Discrete random variable outcomes

Consider a dividend with 7 possible year end values: $3, $5, $6, $9, $13, $14, and $15.

Each of these is known as an outcome. The set of possible outcomes can be expressed as:

Div{$3, $5, $6, $9, $13, $14, $15}

Example 2: Discrete random variable outcomes

Suppose we flipped a coin three times. What are the possible outcomes and what is the probability of each?

Solution

The best approach to such a question may involve a probability tree:

$$
\begin{array}{}
\text{Probability Tree} \\
\end{array}
$$
$$
\begin{array}
\hline
{} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} & \text{H} & \text{HHH} \\
{} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} & \text{H} & \text{HH} & \Huge \begin{matrix} \diagup \\ \diagdown \end{matrix} & {} \\
{} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} & \text{T} & \text{HHT} \\
{} & {} & \text{H} & \Huge \begin{matrix} \diagup \\ \diagdown \end{matrix} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} \\
{} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} & \text{H} & \text{HTH} \\
{} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} & \text{T} & \text{HH} & \Huge \begin{matrix} \diagup \\ \diagdown \end{matrix} & {} \\
{} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} & \text{T} & \text{HTT} \\
\text{Start} & \Huge \begin{matrix} \diagup \\ \diagdown \end{matrix} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} \\
{} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} & \text{H} & \text{THH} \\
{} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} & \text{H} & \text{HH} & \Huge \begin{matrix} \diagup \\ \diagdown \end{matrix} & {} \\
{} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} & \text{T} & \text{THT} \\
{} & {} & \text{T} & \Huge \begin{matrix} \diagup \\ \diagdown \end{matrix} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} \\
{} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} & \text{H} & \text{TTH} \\
{} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} & \text{T} & \text{HH} & \Huge \begin{matrix} \diagup \\ \diagdown \end{matrix} & {} \\
{} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} & {} & \text{T} & \text{TTT} \\
\end{array}
$$

From the probability tree, we can get all the possible outcomes. Given that the probability of a head equals that of a tail:

$$ P(H) = P(T) = 0.5 $$

Suppose the random variable X represents the number of heads observed. The probability of not flipping heads at all is simply the number of outcomes without a head divided by the total number of outcomes. Thus:

$$ P(X = 0) =\cfrac {1}{8} = 12.5\%. $$

Interpretation: In 12.5% of all trials, we can expect that heads will be flipped exactly once.

Similarly, the probability of flipping just one head is the number of outcomes with only one head divided by the total number of outcomes. Thus:

$$ P(X = 1) = \cfrac {3}{8} $$

We can calculate P(X = 2) and P(X = 3) following a similar technique.

Finally, we can summarize the information in form of a probability distribution as follows:

$$
\begin{array}{l|c|c|c|c}
\textbf{Heads(outcomes)} & \text{0} & \text{1} & \text{2} & \text{3} \\
\hline
\textbf{Probability} & \text{1/8} & \text{3/8} & \text{3/8} & \text{1/8} \\
\end{array}
$$

Note that \(\sum P(X = x) = 1\).

In some instances, discrete variables may be treated as if they are continuous especially when the number of possible outcomes is quite large. For example, stock price movements on most exchanges are quoted in dollars and cents. However, the probability of a change of exactly $1.22 or $1.25 is very low (essentially zero). Such probabilities may not have material significance. For this reason, analysts may prefer working with price ranges. For instance:

$$ P($2 \le \text{ price change } \le $3) $$

Reading 9 LOS 9b:

Describe the set of possible outcomes of a specified discrete random variable

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