In mathematics, a relation R on a set X is transitive if, for all elements a, b, c in X, whenever R relates a to b and b to c, then R also relates a to c. Each partial order as well as each equivalence relation needs to be transitive.
As a nonmathematical example, the relation "is an ancestor of" is transitive. For example, if Amy is an ancestor of Becky, and Becky is an ancestor of Carrie, then Amy, too, is an ancestor of Carrie.
On the other hand, "is the birth parent of" is not a transitive relation, because if Alice is the birth parent of Brenda, and Brenda is the birth parent of Claire, then Alice is not the birth parent of Claire. What is more, it is antitransitive: Alice can never be the birth parent of Claire.
"Is greater than", "is at least as great as", and "is equal to" (equality) are transitive relations on various sets, for instance, the set of real numbers or the set of natural numbers:
Let R be a binary relation on set X. The transitive extension of R, denoted R1, is the smallest binary relation on X such that R1 contains R, and if (a, b) ∈ R and (b, c) ∈ R then (a, c) ∈ R1. For example, suppose X is a set of towns, some of which are connected by roads. Let R be the relation on towns where (A, B) ∈ R if there is a road directly linking town A and town B. This relation need not be transitive. The transitive extension of this relation can be defined by (A, C) ∈ R1 if you can travel between towns A and C by using at most two roads.
If a relation is transitive then its transitive extension is itself, that is, if R is a transitive relation then R1 = R.
The transitive extension of R1 would be denoted by R2, and continuing in this way, in general, the transitive extension of Ri would be Ri + 1. The transitive closure of R, denoted by R* or R∞ is the set union of R, R1, R2, ... .
The relation "is the birth parent of" on a set of people is not a transitive relation. However, in biology the need often arises to consider birth parenthood over an arbitrary number of generations: the relation "is a birth ancestor of" is a transitive relation and it is the transitive closure of the relation "is the birth parent of".
For the example of towns and roads above, (A, C) ∈ R* provided you can travel between towns A and C using any number of roads.
No general formula that counts the number of transitive relations on a finite set (sequence in the OEIS) is known. However, there is a formula for finding the number of relations that are simultaneously reflexive, symmetric, and transitive – in other words, equivalence relations – (sequence in the OEIS), those that are symmetric and transitive, those that are symmetric, transitive, and antisymmetric, and those that are total, transitive, and antisymmetric. Pfeiffer has made some progress in this direction, expressing relations with combinations of these properties in terms of each other, but still calculating any one is difficult. See also Brinkmann and McKay (2005). Mala showed that no polynomial with integer coefficients can represent a formula for the number of transitive relations on a set, and found certain recursive relations that provide lower bounds for that number. He also showed that that number is a polynomial of degree two if the set[clarify] contains exactly two ordered pairs.
A relation R is called intransitive if it is not transitive, that is, if xRy and yRz, but not xRz, for some x, y, z. In contrast, a relation R is called antitransitive if xRy and yRz always implies that xRz does not hold. For example, the relation defined by xRy if xy is an even number is intransitive, but not antitransitive. The relation defined by xRy if x is even and y is odd is both transitive and antitransitive. The relation defined by xRy if x is the successor number of y is both intransitive and antitransitive. Unexpected examples of intransitivity arise in situations such as political questions or group preferences.