Statistics How To

Mutually Exclusive Event: Definition, Examples, Unions

Probability and Statistics > Probability > Mutually Exclusive Events

What is a Mutually Exclusive Event?

Mutually exclusive events are things that can’t happen at the same time. For example, you can’t run backwards and forwards at the same time. The events “running forward” and “running backwards” are mutually exclusive. Tossing a coin can also give you this type of event. You can’t toss a coin and get both a heads and tails. So “tossing a heads” and “tossing a tails” are mutually exclusive. Some more examples are: your ability to pay your rent if you don’t get paid, or watching TV if you don’t have a TV.

mutually exclusive event

A coin toss can be mutually exclusive.


The basic probability(P) of an event happening (forgetting mutual exclusivity for a moment) is:
P = Number of ways the event can happen / total number of outcomes.
Example: The probability of rolling a “5” when you throw a die is 1/6 because there is one “5” on a die and six possible outcomes. If we call the probability of rolling a 5 “Event A”, then the equation is:
P(A) = Number of ways the event can happen / total number of outcomes
P(A) = 1 / 6.

image of dice probability

It’s impossible to roll a 5 and a 6 together; the events are mutually exclusive.

The events are written like this:

P(A and B) = 0
In English, all that means the probability of event A (rolling a 5) and event B (rolling a 6) happening together is 0.

However, when you roll a die, you can roll a 5 OR a 6 (the odds are 1 out of 6 for each event) and the sum of either event happening is the sum of both probabilities. In probability, it’s written like this:

P(A or B) = P(A) + P(B)
P(rolling a 5 or rolling a 6) = P(rolling a 5) + P(rolling a 6)
P(rolling a 5 or rolling a 6) = 1/6 + 1/6 = 2/6 = 1/3.

mutually excl

It’s impossible to roll a 1 and a 2 together.

Mutually exclusive: Steps

Sample problem: “If P(A) = 0.20, P(B) = 0.35 and (P AU B) = 0.51, are A and B mutually exclusive?”

Note: a union (U) of two events occurring means that A or B occurs.

Step 1: Add up the probabilities of the separate events (A and B). In the above example:
.20 + .35 = .55

Step 2: Compare your answer to the given “union” statement (A U B).  If they are the same, the events are mutually exclusive. If they are different, they are not mutually exclusive. Why? If they are mutually exclusive (they can’t occur together), then the (U)nion of the two events must be the sum of both, i.e. 0.20 + 0.35 = 0.55.

In our example, 0.55 does not equal 0.51, so the events are not mutually exclusive.

Like the explanation? Check out more step by step examples — just like this one — in the Practically Cheating Statistics Handbook


Need help with a homework or test question? With Chegg Study, you can get step-by-step solutions to your questions from an expert in the field. Your first 30 minutes with a Chegg tutor is free!

Statistical concepts explained visually - Includes many concepts such as sample size, hypothesis tests, or logistic regression, explained by Stephanie Glen, founder of StatisticsHowTo.

Comments? Need to post a correction? Please post a comment on our Facebook page.

Check out our updated Privacy policy and Cookie Policy