What is a Conditional Distribution in Statistics?


If X and Y are two jointly distributed random variables, then the conditional distribution of Y given X is the probability distribution of Y when X is known to be a certain value.

For example, the following two-way table shows the results of a survey that asked 100 people which sport they liked best: baseball, basketball, or football.

If we want to know the probability that a person prefers a certain sport given that they are male, then this is an example of a conditional distribution.

The value of one random variable is known (the person is male), but the value of the other random variable is unknown (we don’t know their favorite sport).

To find the conditional distribution of sports preference among males, we would simply look at the values in the row for Male in the table:

Conditional distribution example

The conditional distribution would be calculated as:

  • Males who prefer baseball: 13/48 = .2708
  • Males who prefer basketball: 15/48 = .3125
  • Males who prefer football: 20/48 = .4167

Notice that the sum of the probabilities adds up to 1: 13/48 + 15/48 + 20/48 = 48/48 = 1.

We can use this conditional distribution to answer questions like: Given that an individual is male, what is the probability that baseball is their favorite sport?

From the conditional distribution we calculated earlier, we can see that the probability is .2708.

In technical terms, when we calculate a conditional distribution we say that we’re interested in a particular subpopulation of the overall population. The subpopulation in the previous example was males:

Subpopulation for a conditional distribution

And when we want to calculate a probability related to this subpopulation, we say that we’re interested in a particular character of interest. The character of interest in the previous example was baseball:

Conditional distribution in statistics

To find the probability that the character of interest occurs in the subpopulation, we simply divide the value of the character of interest (e.g. 13) by the total values in the subpopulation (e.g. 48) to get 13/48 = .2708.

Conditional Distributions & Independence

We can say that random variables X and Y are independent if and only if the conditional distribution of Y given X is, for all possible realizations of X, equal to the unconditional distribution of Y.

For example, in the previous table can we see that the events “prefers baseball” and “male” are independent?

To answer this, let’s calculate the following probabilites:

  • P(prefers baseball)
  • P(prefers baseball | male)  “prefers baseball, given that they are male

The probability that a given individual prefers baseball is:

  • P(prefers baseball) = 36/100 = .36.

The probability that a given individual prefers baseball, given that they are male is

  • P(prefers baseball | male) = 13/48 = .2708.

Since P(prefers baseball) is not equal to P(prefers baseball | male), the random variables of Sports Preference and Gender are not independent.

Why Use Conditional Distributions?

Conditional probability distributions are useful because we often collect data for two variables (like Gender and Sports Preference) but we’re interested in answering questions about probability when we happen to know the value of one of the variables.

In the previous example, we considered the scenario where we knew that a given individiual was male and we simply wanted to know the probability that the individual preferred baseball.

There are many instances in real life where we happen to know the value of one variable and we can use a conditional distribution to find the probability of another variable taking on a certain value.

Additional Resources

What is a Marginal Distribution?
What is a Joint Probability Distribution?
How to Find Conditional Relative Frequency in a Two-Way Table

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