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Probability mass function

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The graph of a probability mass function. All the values of this function must be non-negative and sum up to
In probability theory and statistics, a probability mass function (pmf) is a function that gives the
probability that a discrete random variable is exactly equal to some value.[1] The probability mass function is
often the primary means of defining a discrete probability distribution, and such functions exist for either
scalar or multivariate random variables whose domain is discrete.
A probability mass function differs from a probability density function (pdf) in that the latter is associated
with continuous rather than discrete random variables; the values of the latter are not probabilities as such: a
pdf must be integrated over an interval to yield a probability.[2]


1 Formal definition

2 Measure theoretic formulation

3 Examples

4 References

5 Further reading

Formal definition

The probability mass function of a fair dice. All the numbers on the die have an equal chance of appearing
on top when the dice stops rolling.
Suppose that X: S A (A R) is a discrete random variable defined on a sample space S. Then the
probability mass function fX: A [0, 1] for X is defined as[3][4]

Thinking of probability as mass helps to avoid mistakes since the physical mass is conserved as is the total
probability for all hypothetical outcomes x:

When there is a natural order among the hypotheses x, it may be convenient to assign numerical values to
them (or n-tuples in case of a discrete multivariate random variable) and to consider also values not in the
image of X. That is, fX may be defined for all real numbers and fX(x) = 0 for all x X(S) as shown in the
Since the image of X is countable, the probability mass function fX(x) is zero for all but a countable number
of values of x. The discontinuity of probability mass functions is related to the fact that the cumulative
distribution function of a discrete random variable is also discontinuous. Where it is differentiable, the
derivative is zero, just as the probability mass function is zero at all such points.[citation needed]

Measure theoretic formulation

A probability mass function of a discrete random variable X can be seen as a special case of two more
general measure theoretic constructions: the distribution of X and the probability density function of X with
respect to the counting measure. We make this more precise below.
Suppose that
is a probability space and that
is a measurable space whose underlying algebra is discrete, so in particular contains singleton sets of B. In this setting, a random variable
is discrete provided its image is a countable set. The pushforward measure
---called a
distribution of X in this context---is a probability measure on B whose restriction to singleton sets induces a
probability mass function


for each b in B.

Now suppose that

is a measure space equipped with the counting measure. The probability
density function f' of X with respect to the counting measure, if it exists, is the Radon-Nikodym derivative of
the pushforward measure of X (with respect to the counting measure), so
function from B to the non-negative reals. As a consequence, for any b in B we have

and f is a

demonstrating that f is in fact a probability mass function.

Suppose that S is the sample space of all outcomes of a single toss of a fair coin, and X is the random
variable defined on S assigning 0 to "tails" and 1 to "heads". Since the coin is fair, the probability mass
function is

This is a special case of the binomial distribution.

An example of a multivariate discrete distribution, and of its probability mass function, is provided by the
multinomial distribution.


This article needs additional citations for verification. Please help improve this article by adding
citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed. (April 2012)
Stewart, William J. (2011). Probability, Markov Chains, Queues, and Simulation: The Mathematical
Basis of Performance Modeling. Princeton University Press. p. 105. ISBN 978-1-4008-3281-1.
Probability Function at Mathworld
Kumar, Dinesh (2006). Reliability & Six Sigma. Birkhuser. p. 22. ISBN 978-0-387-30255-3.

Rao, S.S. (1996). Engineering optimization: theory and practice. John Wiley & Sons.
p. 717. ISBN 978-0-471-55034-1.

Further reading

Johnson, N.L., Kotz, S., Kemp A. (1993) Univariate Discrete Distributions (2nd Edition). Wiley.
ISBN 0-471-54897-9 (p 36)

Theory of probability distributions

probability mass function (pmf)

probability density function (pdf)

cumulative distribution function (cdf)

quantile function

raw moment

central moment



standard deviation




moment-generating function (mgf)

characteristic function

probability-generating function (pgf)




Probability theory

Types of probability distributions

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