In probability theory, the expected value
of a random variable, intuitively, is the long-run average value of repetitions of the experiment it represents. For example, the expected value in rolling a six-sided die is 3.5, because the average of all the numbers that come up in an extremely large number of rolls is close to 3.5. Less roughly, the law of large numbers states that the arithmetic mean of the values almost surely converges to the expected value as the number of repetitions approaches infinity. The expected value is also known as the expectation
, mathematical expectation
, mean value
, or first moment
More practically, the expected value of a discrete random variable is the probability-weighted average of all possible values. In other words, each possible value the random variable can assume is multiplied by its probability of occurring, and the resulting products are summed to produce the expected value. The same principle applies to a continuous random variable, except that an integral of the variable with respect to its probability density replaces the sum. The formal definition subsumes both of these and also works for distributions which are neither discrete nor continuous; the expected value of a random variable is the integral of the random variable with respect to its probability measure.
The expected value does not exist for random variables having some distributions with large "tails", such as the Cauchy distribution. For random variables such as these, the long-tails of the distribution prevent the sum/integral from converging.
The expected value is a key aspect of how one characterizes a probability distribution
; it is one type of location parameter. By contrast, the variance is a measure of dispersion of the possible values of the random variable around the expected value. The variance itself is defined in terms of two expectations: it is the expected value of the squared deviation of the variable's value from the variable's expected value.
The expected value plays important roles in a variety of contexts. In regression analysis, one desires a formula in terms of observed data that will give a "good" estimate of the parameter giving the effect of some explanatory variable upon a dependent variable. The formula will give different estimates using different samples of data, so the estimate it gives is itself a random variable. A formula is typically considered good in this context if it is an unbiased estimator—that is, if the expected value of the estimate (the average value it would give over an arbitrarily large number of separate samples) can be shown to equal the true value of the desired parameter.
In decision theory, and in particular in choice under uncertainty, an agent is described as making an optimal choice in the context of incomplete information. For risk neutral agents, the choice involves using the expected values of uncertain quantities, while for risk averse agents it involves maximizing the expected value of some objective function such as a von Neumann–Morgenstern utility function. One example of using expected value in reaching optimal decisions is the Gordon–Loeb model of information security investment. According to the model, one can conclude that the amount a firm spends to protect information should generally be only a small fraction of the expected loss (i.e., the expected value of the loss resulting from a cyber/information security breach).