This week we’ll deal with memory. More specifically, we’ll tackle the question of when a distribution do not have any memory whatsoever, meaning that it doesn’t depend on past experience in any way. It turns out that there is a unique continuous distribution with this property, the exponential distribution, and a unique discrete distribution with this property, the geometric distribution. Let’s dig in.

This post is part of my series on distributions:

  1. Poisson
  2. Uniform
  3. Geometric and Exponential
  4. Normal

Definition (Geometric distribution). A random variable $X$ has the geometric distribution with parameter $p\in(0,1)$ if it’s counting the number of failed iid Bernoulli trials with parameter $p$ until it reaches a successful trial. We write $X\sim\text{Geom}(p)$, which has density $f\colon\{0,1,2,\dots\}\to\mathbb R$ given as $f(k):=(1-p)^kp$.

Definition (Exponential distribution). A random variable $X$ has the exponential distribution with parameter $\lambda$ if it counts how long the waiting time is until it reaches a successful Bernoulli trial, where trials are continuously performed with $\lambda$ successes every time unit. We write $X\sim\text{Expo}(\lambda)$, which has density $f\colon(0,\infty)\to\mathbb R$ given as $f(x):=\lambda e^{-\lambda x}$.

I’ll get to a couple of examples of both of these distributions in a bit. Also, a disclaimer: I’ll mostly be focusing on the exponential distribution in this blog post, primarily to avoid redundancy. Here’s a few plots of this distribution, with the associated python code.

Exponentially distributed random variables

from scipy.stats import expon
from matplotlib import pyplot as plt
import seaborn as sns
import numpy as np

fig, ax = plt.subplots(1, 4, figsize = (16,3))
lambdas = [.3, .6, 1.0, 1.3]
t = np.arange(0, 10, 0.2)

for (i, lamb) in enumerate(lambdas):
    # generate uniformly distributed random variables
    rvs = expon.rvs(size = 500, scale = 1/lamb)
    # plot the values of the random variables
      bins = 100,
      color = 'limegreen',
      kde = False, # don't include a kernel density estimator
      ax = ax[i],
      norm_hist = True # normalise the values
    ax[i].axes.set_xlim(0, 10)
    ax[i].axes.set_ylim(0, 1)
    ax[i].axes.plot(t, expon.pdf(t, scale = 1/lamb), 'b--') # plot pdf
    ax[i].title.set_text(f"lambda = {lamb}")

title = "Exponentially distributed random variables"
fig.suptitle(title, y = 1.1, fontsize = 18)

As I mentioned, we’ll be dealing with the concept of a distribution having memory, or lack thereof. We start out with the precise definition and then discuss why it captures the right idea.

Defintion (Memoryless distribution). A distribution $\mathcal D$ is memoryless if $X\sim\mathcal D$ implies $P(X\geq s+t\mid X\geq s)=P(X\geq t)$ for all $s,t>0$.

To understand why this could justified as being memoryless, take the example of $X$ counting the lifespan of a given radioactive particle. In this case the equation is stating that the probability of decaying is independent of how much decay it has previously emitted: we “forget” that we might have decayed some already. Note that $X\sim\text{Expo}(\lambda)$, with $\lambda$ the rate of decay per time unit.

On a more discrete note, we could consider buying scratch cards. Even if we have bought ten scratch cards and won nothing, that does not increase the odds of winning if we buy another one! Note that this is following a geometric distribution, as we are counting the number of failed trials until the first success.

An equivalent formulation of this property is that $P(X\geq s+t) = P(X\geq s)P(X\geq t)$, which can be seen using Bayes’ Rule: we firstly have that

\[P(X\geq s+t \mid X\geq s) = \frac{P(X\geq s+t)P(X\geq s \mid X\geq s+t)}{P(X\geq s)} = \frac{P(X \geq s+t)}{P(X\geq s)},\]

so that if $\mathcal D$ is memoryless then the lefthand side is $P(X\geq t)$, yielding

\[P(X\geq s+t) = P(X\geq s)P(X\geq t),\]

and if this equation holds then Bayes’ rule applied to the above implies that

\[P(X\geq s+t \mid X\geq s) = P(X\geq t)\]

The two examples mentioned above show that the exponential and geometric distributions are both memoryless. To show that they’re the unique discrete and continuous distribution with this property we thus need to show that any given memoryless distribution must be one of the two. In showing this we encounter a healthy mix of calculus and differential equations, so buckle up and I’ll try my best to go through it step by step.

Theorem. The exponential distribution is the unique memoryless continuous distribution on $(0,\infty)$, and the geometric distribution is the unique memoryless discrete distribution on $\{0,1,2,\dots\}$.

We’ll just focus on the exponential distribution here. Assume that we have some positive random variable $X\sim\mathcal D$ such that $\mathcal D$ is memoryless. We want to show that $\mathcal D = \text{Expo}(\lambda)$ for some $\lambda$.

Let $F$ be the CDF of $\mathcal D$ and define $G\colon(0,\infty)\to\mathbb R$ as $G(x):=P(X>x)$. Since $F=1-G$, we need to show that $G(x)=e^{-\lambda x}$ for some $\lambda$, since the CDF for $\text{Expo}(\lambda)$ is precisely $x\mapsto 1-e^{-\lambda x}$, which can be seen by the following calculation:

\[\int_0^x f(y)dy = -\int_0^x-\lambda e^{-\lambda y}dy = -(e^{-\lambda x} - e^{-\lambda\cdot 0}) = 1 - e^{-\lambda x}.\]

We established above that $G(s+t)=G(s)G(t)$, so if we differentiate with respect to $s$ (which is possible as $X$ is continuous, making $G$ differentiable), we get that $G’(s+t)=G’(s)G(t)$, so setting $s=0$ and defining $c:=G’(0)$ and $y:=G(t)$, we arrive at

\[y' = G'(t) = G'(0+t) = G'(0)G(t) = cG(t) = cy.\]

This is a separable differential equation with $\tfrac{dy}{dt} = cy$, so we do the separation and integrate:

\[\log(y) = \int \frac{1}{y}dy = \int cdt = ct + C\]

for some constant $C$, and setting $K:=e^C$ this means that $y = e^{ct+C} = Ke^{ct}$. As $G(0) = P(X>0) = 1$ we get that $K = \tfrac{G(0)}{e^{c\cdot 0}} = 1$.

This means that $y = e^{ct}$, so if we choose $\lambda := -c$ we get what we want: $G(t) = e^{-\lambda t}$. Note that this makes sense, i.e. that $\lambda > 0$, because $G$ is decreasing, so that $c = G’(0) < 0$. QED

So whenever we have data which seems to be memoryless, then there’s a unique choice for the distribution: exponential if we’re looking for a continuous one, and geometric if we want to be discrete. Hoorah!