Mathematical and Applied Statistics Lesson of the Day – The Motivation and Intuition Behind Markov’s Inequality

Markov’s inequality may seem like a rather arbitrary pair of mathematical expressions that are coincidentally related to each other by an inequality sign:

P(X \geq c) \leq E(X) \div c, where c > 0.

However, there is a practical motivation behind Markov’s inequality, and it can be posed in the form of a simple question: How often is the random variable X “far” away from its “centre” or “central value”?

Intuitively, the “central value” of X is the value that of X that is most commonly (or most frequently) observed.  Thus, as X deviates further and further from its “central value”, we would expect those distant-from-the-centre vales to be less frequently observed.

Recall that the expected value, E(X), is a measure of the “centre” of X.  Thus, we would expect that the probability of X being very far away from E(X) is very low.  Indeed, Markov’s inequality rigorously confirms this intuition; here is its rough translation:

As c becomes really far away from E(X), the event X \geq c becomes less probable.

You can confirm this by substituting several key values of c.


  • If c = E(X), then P[X \geq E(X)] \leq 1; this is the highest upper bound that P(X \geq c) can get.  This makes intuitive sense; X is going to be frequently observed near its own expected value.


  • If c \rightarrow \infty, then P(X \geq \infty) \leq 0.  By Kolmogorov’s axioms of probability, any probability must be inclusively between 0 and 1, so P(X \geq \infty) = 0.  This makes intuitive sense; there is no possible way that X can be bigger than positive infinity.

Your thoughtful comments are much appreciated!

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