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Random Variable: What is it in Statistics?

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Types of Variable > Random Variable

What is a Random Variable?

In algebra you probably remember using variables like “x” or “y” which represent an unknown quantity like y = x + 1. You solve for the value of x, and x therefore represents a particular number (or set of numbers, if you’re talking about a function). Then you get to statistics and different kinds of variables are used, including random variables. These variables are still quantities, but unlike “x” or “y” (which are simply just numbers), random variables have distinct characteristics and behaviors.

Random variables are denoted by capital letters

If you see a lowercase x or y, that’s the kind of variable you’re used to in algebra. It refers to an unknown quantity or quantities. If you see an uppercase X or Y, that’s a random variable and it usually refers to the probability of getting a certain outcome.

Random variables are associated with random processes

sample space
A random process is (just like you would guess) an event or experiment that has a random outcome. For example: rolling a die, choosing a card, choosing a bingo ball, playing slot machines or any one of hundreds of thousands of other possibilities. It’s something you can’t exactly predict an outcome for; you might have a range of possibilities so you calculate the probability of a particular outcome.

Random variables give numbers to outcomes of random events

Random variables are numerical in the same way that x or y is numerical, except it is attached to a random event. Let’s take rolling a die as an example. It’s a random event, but you can quantify (i.e. give a number to) the outcome. Let’s say you wanted to know how many sixes you get if you roll the die a certain number of times. Your random variable, X could be equal to 1 if you get a six and 0 if you get any other number.

This is just an example…you can define X and Y however you like (i.e. 2 if you roll a six and 9 if you don’t).

A few more example of random variables:
X = total of lotto numbers
Y = number of open parking spaces in a parking lot
Z = number of aces in a card hand


Random variables are most often used in conjunction with a probability of a random event happening. Say you wanted to see if the probability of getting four aces in a hand when playing cards is less than 5 percent. You could write it as:
P (getting four aces in a hand of 52 cards when four are dealt at a time <.05) = That can get kind of wordy, especially if you have to write it over and over. If you define the random variable, X getting four aces in a hand: X = getting four aces in a hand of 52 cards when four are dealt at a time ...then you can write: P (X<.05) ...because you've defined X. If you are familiar with computer programming, it's a very similar concept to defining variables in a programming language so that your later calculations can draw on those variables. The good news is that in elementary statistics or AP statistics, the random variables are usually defined for you, so you don’t have to worry about defining them yourself.

Mean of a Random Variable

The mean of a discrete random variable is the weighted mean of the values. The formula is:
μx = x1*p1 + x2*p2 + … + x2*p2 = Σ xipi.
In other words, multiply each given value by the probability of getting that value, then add everything up.

For continuous random variables, there isn’t a simple formula to find the mean. You’ll want to look up the formula for the probability distribution your variables fall into. For example, the mean for the normal distribution is the center of the curve, while the mean for the uniform distribution is b + a / 2.

Variance of a Random Variable: Overview

The formula for calculating the variance of a discrete random variable is:

σ2 = Σ(xi-μ)2f(x)

Note: This is also one of the AP Statistics formulas.
Σ means to “add everything up” and f(x) is the probability. You might also see “Pi” instead of f(x), but they mean the same thing.

Variance of a Random Variable: Steps

Sample problem: Find the variance of X for the following set of probability distribution data which represents the number of misshapen pizzas for every 100 pizzas produced in a certain factory:
x: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
f(x): 0.01, 0.25, 0.4, 0.3, 0.4

Step 1: Multiply each value of x by f(x) and add them up to find the mean, μ:
2 * 0.1 +
3 * 0.25 +
4 * 0.4 +
5 * 0.3 +
6 * 0.4 =

Step 2: Use the variance formula to find the variance. This time we’re going to subtract the mean, μ, from each x-value, square it, and then multiply by the f(x) values:
σ2 = Σ(xi-μ)2f(p) =
(2 – 4.11)2(0.01) +
(3 – 4.11)2(0.25) +
(4 – 4.11)2(0.4) +
(5 – 4.11)2(0.3) +
(6 – 4.11)2(0.04) =
The variance of the random variable is 0.74
That’s it!

Tip: It is possible to calculating the variance of a random variable that’s continuous, but that requires knowledge of calculus, which is beyond elementary statistics. However, if you know calculus, the formula for the variance of a continuous random variable is:
Variance of a Random Variable

Example 2: Variance of a Discrete Random Variable (Probability Table)
Question: Find the variance for the following data, giving the probability (p) of a certain percent increase in stocks 1, 2, and 3:
discrete random variable variance

Step 1: Find the expected value (which equals the mean of the distribution):
=((-4.00% * 0.22) + (5.00% * 0.43) + (16.00%*0.35)) = 6.87%.

Step 2: Subtract the mean from each X-value, then square the results:
(-4.00% – 6.87%)2 = 118.1569
(5.00% – 6.87%)2 = 3.4969
(16.00% – 6.87%)2 = 83.3569

Step 3: Multiply the results in Step 2 by their associated probabilities (from the table):
118.1569 * 0.22 = 25.9945
3.4969 * 0.43 = 1.5037
83.3569 * 0.35 = 29.1749

Step 4: Add the results from Step 3 together:
25.9945 + 1.5037 + 29.1749= 56.67%

Binomial Random Variable

A binomial random variable is a count of the number of successes in a binomial experiment.

binomial random variable

Rolling dice can be a binomial experiment under the right conditions.

For a variable to be classified as a binomial random variable, the following conditions must all be true:

  • There must be a fixed sample size (a certain number of trials).
  • For each trial, the success must either happen or it must not.
  • The probability for each event must be exactly the same.
  • Each trial must be an independent event.

Examples of binomial random variables

  • The number of heads when you flip a fair coin 30 times.
  • Number of winning scratch-off lottery tickets when you purchase 20 of the same type.
  • Number of people who are right-handed in a random sample of 200 people.
  • Number of people who respond “yes” to whether they voted for Obama in the 2012 election.
  • Number of Starbucks customers in a sample of 40 who prefer house coffee to Frappuccinos.

Two important characteristics of a binomial distribution (random binomial variables have a binomial distribution):

  1. n = a fixed number of trials.
  2. p = probability of success for each trial.

For example, tossing a coin ten times to see how many heads you flip: n=10, p=.5 (because you have a 50% chance of flipping a head).


  1. If you aren’t counting something, then it isn’t a binomial random variable.
  2. The number of trials in your experiment must be fixed. For example, “the number of times you roll a die before rolling a 3” is not a binomial random variable, because there is an indefinite number of trials. On the other hand, rolling a die 30 times and counting how many times you roll a 3 is a binomial random variable.


Next: Types of Random Variables

  1. Discrete and Continuous Variables.
  2. Independent Random Variables.
Stephanie Glen. "Random Variable: What is it in Statistics?" From Elementary Statistics for the rest of us!

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