The Monty Hall problem and 3 ways to solve it

The Monty Hall problem is a classic probability conundrum which on the surface seems trivially simple but, alas, our intuition can lead us to the wrong answer. Full disclosure: I got it wrong when I first saw it! Here is the short Wikipedia description of the problem:

Suppose you’re on a game show, and you’re given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. You pick a door, say No. 1, and the host, who knows what’s behind the doors, opens another door, say No. 3, which has a goat. He then says to you, “Do you want to pick door No. 2?” Is it to your advantage to switch your choice?

monty-hall
On the surface the Monty Hall problem seems trivially simple: 3 doors, 1 car, 2 goats, pick 1, host opens 1, then choose to stick or switch

If you haven’t seen the problem before, have a guess now before reading on – what would you do, stick or switch? My instinctive first intuition was that it does not matter if I stick or switch. Two doors unopened, one car, that’s a 50:50 chance right there. Was I right?

Method 1: Bayes’ Theorem

Let’s tease it out using Bayes’ Theorem:

P(A|B) = P(B|A) * P(A) / P(B)

That’s the generic form of Bayes’ Theorem. For our specific Monty Hall problem let’s define the discrete events that are in play:

P(A) = P(B) = P(C) = 1/3 = the unconditional probability that the car is behind a particular door.

Note I am using upper case notation for our choice of door and as you see below I will use lower case to denote the door that Monty chooses to open.

P(a) = P(b) = P(c) = 1/2 = the unconditional probability that Monty will open a particular door. Monty will only have a choice of 2 doors because he is obviously not going to open the door you have selected.

So let’s say we choose door A initially. Remember we do not know what is behind any of the doors – but Monty knows. Monty will now open door b or c. Let’s say he opens door b. We now have to decide if we want to stick with door A or switch our choice to door C. Let’s use Bayes’ Theorem to work out the probability that the car is behind door A.

P(A|b) is the probability that the car is behind door A given Monty opens door b – this is what we want to compute, i.e. the probability of winning if we stick with door A

P(b|A) is the probability Monty will open door b given the car is behind door A. This probability is 1/2. Think about it, if Monty knows the car is behind door A, and we have selected door A, then he can choose to open door b or door c with equal probability of 1/2

P(A), the unconditional probability that the car is behind door A, is equal to 1/3

P(b), the unconditional probability that Monty opens door b, is equal to 1/2

Now we can write out the full equation:

P(A|b) = P(b|A) * P(A) / P(b) = (1/2) * (1/3) / (1/2) = 1/3

Hmmm, my intuition said 50:50 but the math says I only have a 1/3 chance of winning if I stick with door A. But that means I have a 2/3 chance of winning if I switch to door C. Let’s work it out and see.

P(C|b) is the probability that the car is behind door C given Monty opens door b – this is what we want to compute, i.e. the probability of winning if we switch to door C

P(b|C) is the probability Monty will open door b given the car is behind door C. This probability is 1. Think about it, if Monty knows the car is behind door C, and we have selected door A, then he has no choice but to open door b

P(C), the unconditional probability that the car is behind door C, is equal to 1/3

P(b), the unconditional probability that Monty opens door b, is equal to 1/2

Now we can write out the full equation:

P(C|b) = P(b|C) * P(C) / P(b) = 1 * (1/3) / (1/2) = 2/3

There it is, we have a 2/3 chance of winning if we switch to door C and only a 1/3 chance if we stick with door A.

Method 2: Write code to randomly simulate the problem many times

Bayes’ Rule is itself not the most intuitive formula so maybe we are still not satisfied with the answer. We can simulate the problem in R – grab my R code here to reproduce this graphic – by simulate I mean replay the game randomly many times and compare the sticking strategy with the switching strategy. Look at the results in the animation below and notice how as the number of iterations increase the probability of success converges on 1/3 if we stick with first choice every time and it converges on 2/3 if we switch every time.

 

animation
When we simulate the problem many times we see the two strategies (always stick vs always switch) converge on 1/3 and 2/3 respectively just as we had calculated using Bayes’ Theorem

Simulating a problem like this is a great way of verifying your math. Or sometimes, if you’re stuck in a rut and struggling with the math, you can simulate the problem first and then work backwards towards an understanding of the math. It’s important to have both tools, math/statistics and the ability to code, in your data science arsenal.

Method 3: Stop and think before Monty distracts you

Ok, let’s say we’re still not happy. We’re shaking our head, it does not fit with our System 1 thinking and we need a little extra juice to help our System 2 thinking over the line. Forget the math, forget the code, think of it like this:

You have selected one of three doors. You know that Monty is about to open one of the two remaining doors to show you a goat. Before Monty does this, ask yourself, which would you rather? Stick with the one door you have selected or have both of the two remaining doors. Yes, both, because effectively that is your choice: stick with your first choice or have both of the other doors.

monty-hall-made-easy
The Monty Hall problem can be reduced to this if we pause and think about the situation immediately before Monty opens a door to reveal a goat

Two doors or one, I know what I’d pick!

Parting thoughts

Coming at a problem from different angles: math, code, visualizations, etc, can help us out of a mental rut and/or reassure us by verifying our solutions. On the flip side, even when we ourselves fully understand a solution, we often have to explain it to a client, a manager, a decision maker or a young colleague who we are trying to teach. Therefore it is always a valuable exercise to tackle a problem in various ways and to be comfortable explaining it from different angles. Don’t stop here, google Monty Hall and you will find many other varied and interesting explanations of the Monty Hall problem.

The birthday problem

How many people would you need in a group before you could be confident that at least one pair in the group share the same birthday?

One day, back in Smurfit Business School, our statistics lecturer challenged us to a bet. He predicted, confidently (smugly even), that at least two of us shared a birthday. He bet us each the princely sum of €1. I glanced around me and I counted close to 40 students in the room. Being the savant that I am, I also know there are approximately 365 days in a year, and so I thought, you’re on! I mean, even allowing for some probability magic: 40 people, 365 days, this is free money!

I soon learned this was the famous birthday problem and although I was beginning to feel cocky as we got half way through my classmates’ birthdays, our teacher ultimately prevailed. It turns out that in a group of just 23 people the probability of a matching pair of birthdays is over 50%!

I hope this spreadsheet and the explanation below will help you understand why this is so.

  • We need at least 2 people to have any chance of having a matching pair. This is trivial. Person A has a birthday on any day. The probability of Person B matching is 1/365.
  • With 3 people, there are three possible matches: A matches B, A matches C or B matches C.
  • With 4 people there are 6 possible combinations (count the edges in the little diagram shown here).four people and six combos You might spot a pattern by now. In mathematics these are known as combinations. After a while counting manually becomes tedious but, thankfully, for any given number of people we can use the combination formula to see how many possible combinations exist – jump to column B in the spreadsheet for a closer look.
  • The probability for any one of these combinations being a matching pair is 1/365. Think of that like a bet: each individual combination is a bet with a 1/365 chance of winning. How many of these bets would we have to place to get at least one win.
    • Here’s a neat little probability trick for answering an “at least” type question. Compute the probability of not winning at all, i.e. precisely zero wins, and subtract that value from 1.*
  • Column C in the spreadsheet uses the binomial distribution formula to compute the probability of a specific number of wins from a given number of bets where each bet is independent and has an equal probability of success.
  • In our case we want to compute the probability of precisely zero wins and subtract this value from 1. This gives us the probability of at least one win.

birthday chart

In the results, we can see that 23 is the magic number where the probability of at least one match exceeds 0.5. Remember there were close to 40 in my class so my teacher knew at a glance that his probability of finding at least one pair was close to 0.9 … and there were enough suckers in the room to cover his lunch!

 

* This little problem inversion trick can be generalized further to any occasion when we are faced with a difficult question. If you’re struggling, try inverting the question. Having difficulty predicting fraud? Maybe try predicting “not fraud”! It sounds trivial, silly even, but inverting a problem can get you out of a mental rut. For a famous example, see how statistician Abraham Wald used this technique to help the Allies win WW2.