# How many coin-flips till heads?

Given a possibly-unfair coin, what’s the expected number of coin-flips until you get heads?

The answer isn’t surprising, but proving it to myself was harder than I expected.

Let’s get rigorous with random variables.

\[\begin{align} & X : \text{number of coin flips} \\ & p : \text{probability of heads} \\ \end{align}\]So, choose some example probababilities, then write the general formula.

\[\begin{align} P(X=1) & = p \\ P(X=2) & = p(1-p) \\ P(X=3) & = p(1-p)^2 \\ \\ P(X=x) & = p(1-p)^{x-1} \\ \end{align}\]Now the expected value…

\[\begin{align} E[X] & = 1*P(X=1) + 2*P(X=2) + \ldots \\ & = p + 2*p(1-p) + 3*p(1-p)^2 + \dotsm \\ & = \sum_{i=1}^\infty{ip(1-p)^{i-1}} \\ & = p \sum_{i=1}^\infty{i(1-p)^{i-1}} \end{align}\]Now let’s take a break and fool around with the geometric series formula. Here it is:

\[\frac{1}{1-k} = \sum_{n=0}^\infty k^n = 1 + k + k^2 + k^3 + \cdots\]Take the derivative.

\[\begin{align} \frac{d}{dk}\left(\frac{1}{1-k}\right) & = \frac{d}{dk}\left( 1 + k + k^2 + \dotsm \right) \\ \frac{1}{(1-k)^2} & = 1 + 2k + 3k^2 + \dotsm \\ & = \sum_{i=1}^\infty ik^{i-1} \\ \end{align}\]Cool, that formula just saved the day.

\[\sum_{i=1}^\infty ik^{i-1} = \frac{1}{(1-k)^2}\]Substituting \(k = 1 - p\) we get:

\[\begin{align} E[X] & = p \left( \frac{1}{(1 - (1-p))^2} \right) \\ & = \frac{p}{p^2} \\ & = \frac{1}{p} \end{align}\]So with a fair coin, the answer is 2. If the coin turns up with \(p = \frac{3}{4}\), the expected number of coin-flips is \(\frac{4}{3}\).

This is a special case of the negative binomial distribution, by the way.