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

In 2 recent Statistics Lessons of the Day, I

Chebyshev’s inequality is just a special version of Markov’s inequality; thus, their motivations and intuitions are similar.

P[|X - \mu| \geq k \sigma] \leq 1 \div k^2

Markov’s inequality roughly says that a random variable X is most frequently observed near its expected value, \mu.  Remarkably, it quantifies just how often X is far away from \mu.  Chebyshev’s inequality goes one step further and quantifies that distance between X and \mu in terms of the number of standard deviations away from \mu.  It roughly says that the probability of X being k standard deviations away from \mu is at most k^{-2}.  Notice that this upper bound decreases as k increases – confirming our intuition that it is highly improbable for X to be far away from \mu.

As with Markov’s inequality, Chebyshev’s inequality applies to any random variable X, as long as E(X) and V(X) are finite.  (Markov’s inequality requires only E(X) to be finite.)  This is quite a marvelous result!

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Mathematical Statistics Lesson of the Day – Chebyshev’s Inequality

The variance of a random variable X is just an expected value of a function of X.  Specifically,

V(X) = E[(X - \mu)^2], \ \text{where} \ \mu = E(X).

Let’s substitute (X - \mu)^2 into Markov’s inequality and see what happens.  For convenience and without loss of generality, I will replace the constant c with another constant, b^2.

\text{Let} \ b^2 = c, \ b > 0. \ \ \text{Then,}

P[(X - \mu)^2 \geq b^2] \leq E[(X - \mu)^2] \div b^2

P[ (X - \mu) \leq -b \ \ \text{or} \ \ (X - \mu) \geq b] \leq V(X) \div b^2

P[|X - \mu| \geq b] \leq V(X) \div b^2

Now, let’s substitute b with k \sigma, where \sigma is the standard deviation of X.  (I can make this substitution, because \sigma is just another constant.)

\text{Let} \ k \sigma = b. \ \ \text{Then,}

P[|X - \mu| \geq k \sigma] \leq V(X) \div k^2 \sigma^2

P[|X - \mu| \geq k \sigma] \leq 1 \div k^2

This last inequality is known as Chebyshev’s inequality, and it is just a special version of Markov’s inequality.  In a later Statistics Lesson of the Day, I will discuss the motivation and intuition behind it.  (Hint: Read my earlier lesson on the motivation and intuition behind Markov’s inequality.)