The Envelope ‘Paradox’

At the recent IMO in Hong Kong, there were several moments where the deputy leaders had to hang around, and I spent some of these moments discussing the following problem with Stephen Mackereth, my counterpart from New Zealand. He’s a mathematically-trained philosopher, so has a similar level of skepticism to me, but for different reasons, regarding supposed paradoxes in probability. Because, as we will see shortly, I don’t think this is a paradox in even the slightest fashion, I think there’s probably too much written about this on the internet already. So I’m aware that contributing further to this oeuvre is hypocritical, but we did the thinking in HKUST’s apparently famous Einstein Cafe, so it makes sense to write down the thoughts.

[And then forget about it for eight weeks. Oops.]

The ‘Paradox’

Here’s the situation. A cryptic friend gives you an envelope containing some sum of money, and shows you a second envelope. They then inform you that one of the envelopes contains twice as much money as the other. It’s implicit in this that the choice of which is which is uniform. You have the option to switch envelopes. Should you?

The supposed paradox arises by considering the amount in your envelope, say X. In the absence of further information, it is equally likely that the other envelope contains X/2 as 2X. Therefore, the average value of the other envelope is

\frac12 \left(\frac{X}{2}+2X \right)= \frac54 X > X.

So you should switch, since on average you gain money. But this is paradoxical, since the assignment of larger and smaller sums was uniform, so switching envelope should make no difference.

Probabilistic setup

This is not supposed to be a problem on a first-year probability exercise sheet. It’s supposed to be conducive to light discussion. So saying “I won’t engage with this problem until you tell me what the probability space is” doesn’t go down terribly well. But it is important to work out what is random, and what isn’t.

There are two sources of randomness, or at least ignorance. Firstly, there is the pair of values contained in the envelopes. Secondly, there is the assignment of this pair of values to the two envelopes. The second is a source of randomness, and this problem is founded on the premise that this second stage is ‘symmetric enough’ to smooth over any complications in the first stage. If we think that probability isn’t broken (and that’s what I think), then the answer is probably that the second stage isn’t symmetric enough.

Or, that the first stage isn’t very well-defined. In what follows, I’m going to make the second stage very symmetric, at the expense of setting up the first stage in what seems to me a reasonable way using the conventional language of probability theory to record our ignorance about the values in play.

So what’s the first stage? We must have a set of possible pairs of values taken by the envelopes. Let’s call this A, so

A\subset \mathbb{A}:=\{(x,2x)\,:\, x\in (0,\infty)\}.

Maybe we know what A is, but maybe we don’t, in which we should take A=\mathbb{A}, on the grounds that any pair is possible. Suppose that your friend has chosen the pair of values according to some distribution on \mathbb{A}, which we’ll assume has a density f, which is known by you. Maybe this isn’t the actual density, but it serves perfectly well if you treat it as *your* opinion on the likelihood. Then this actually does reduce to a problem along the lines of first-year probability, whether or not you get to see the amount in your envelope.

Suppose first that you do get to see the amount, and that it is x. Then the conditional probabilities that the pair is (x/2,x) or (x,2x) are, respectively

\frac{f(x/2,x)}{f(x/2,x)+f(x,2x)},\quad \frac{f(x,2x)}{f(x/2,x)+f(x,2x)}.

So you can work out your expected gain by switching, and decide accordingly. If you don’t know the value in your envelope, you can still work out the probability that it is better (in expectation) to switch, but this isn’t really a hugely meaningful measure, unless it is zero or one.

It’s worth noting that if you can view inside your envelope, and you know A has a particular form, then the game becomes determined. For example, if

A\subset \{(n,2n), n\text{ an odd integer}\},

then life is very easy. If you open your envelope and see an odd integer, you should switch, and if you see an even integer you shouldn’t.

We’ll return at the end to discuss a case where it is always better to switch, and why this isn’t actually a paradox.

Improper prior and paradox of resampling when \mathbb{E}=\infty

For now though, let’s assume that we don’t know anything about the amounts of money in the envelopes. Earlier, we said that “in the absence of further information, it is equally likely that the other envelope contains X/2 as 2X”. In the language of a distribution on \mathbb{A}, we are taking the uniform measure. Of course this not a distribution, in the same way that there isn’t a uniform distribution on the positive reals.

However, if this is your belief about the values in the pair of envelopes, what do you think is the mean value of the content of your envelope? Well, you think all values are equally likely. So, even though this isn’t a distribution, you pretty much think the value of your envelope has infinite expectation.

[This is where the philosophy comes in I guess. Is (expressing uniform ignorance about the content of the other envelope given knowledge of your own) the same as (expressing uniform ignorance of both envelopes at the beginning)? I think it is, even though it has a different consequence here, since the former can be turned into a proper distribution, whereas the latter cannot.]

Let’s briefly consider an alternative example. It’s fairly easy to conjure up distributions which are almost surely finite but which have infinite expectation. For example \mathbb{P}(X=2^k)=2^{-k} for k=1,2,…, which is the content of the *St. Petersburg paradox*, another supposed paradox in probability, but one whose resolution is a bit more clear.

Anyway, let X and Y be independent copies of such a distribution. Now suppose your friend offers you an envelope containing amount X. You look at the value, and then you are offered the opportunity to switch to an envelope containing amount Y. Should you?

Well, if expectation is what you care about, then you definitely should. Because with probability one, you are staring at a finite value in your envelope, whereas the other unknown envelope promises infinite expectation, which is certainly larger than the value that you’re looking at.

Is this also a paradox? I definitely don’t think it is. The expectation of the content of your envelope is infinite, the expected gain is infinite with probability one, which is consistent with the expected content of the other envelope being infinite. [Note that you don’t want to be claiming that the expectation of X-Y is zero.]

An example density function

As an exercise that isn’t necessarily hugely interesting, let’s assume that f, the distribution of the smaller of the pair, is \mathrm{Exp}(\lambda). So the mean of this smaller number is 1/\lambda. Then, conditional on seeing x in my envelope, the expected value of the number in the other envelope is

\frac{\frac{x}{2} e^{-\lambda x/2} + 2x e^{-\lambda x}}{e^{-\lambda x/2}+ e^{-\lambda x}}. (*)

Some straightforward manipulation shows that this quantity is at least x (implying it’s advantageous to switch) precisely when

e^{-\lambda x/2}\ge \frac12.

That is, when x\le \frac{2\log 2}{\lambda}. The shape of this interval should fit our intuition, namely that the optimal strategy should be to switch if the value in your envelope is small enough.

The point of doing this calculation is to emphasise that it ceases to be an interesting problem, and certainly ceases to be a paradox of any kind, once we specify f concretely. It doesn’t matter whether this is some true distribution (ie the friend is genuinely sampling the values somehow at random), or rather a perceived likelihood (that happens to be normalisable).

What if you should always switch?

The statement of the paradox only really has any bite if the suggestion is that we should always switch. Earlier, we discussed potential objections to considering the uniform prior in this setting, but what about other possible distributions f which might lead to this conclusion?

As at (*), we can conclude that when f(x)+f(x/2)>0, we should switch on seeing x precisely if

f(x)\ge 2f\left(\frac{x}{2}\right).

Therefore, partitioning the support of f into a collection of geometric sequences with exponent 2, it is clear that the mean of f is infinite if everything is integer-valued. If f is real-valued, there are some complications, but so long as everything is measurable, the same conclusion will hold.

So the you-should-switch-given-x strategy can only hold for all values of x if f has infinite mean. This pretty much wraps up my feelings. If the mean isn’t infinite, the statement of the paradox no longer holds, and if it is infinite, then the paradox dissolves into a statement about trying to order various expectations, all of which are infinite.

Conclusions

Mathematical summary: it’s Bayes. Things may be exchangeable initially, but not once you condition on the value of one of them! Well, not unless you have a very specific prior.

Philosophical summary: everything in my argument depends on the premise that one can always describe the protagonist’s prior opinion on the contents of the pair of envelopes with a (possibly degenerate) distribution. I feel this is reasonable. As soon as you write down \frac12 \cdot\frac{x}{2} + \frac12 \cdot2x, you are doing a conditional expectation, and it’s got to be conditional with respect to something. Here it’s the uniform prior, or at least the uniform prior restricted to the set of values that are now possible given the revelation of your number.

Second mathematical summary: once you are working with the uniform prior, or any measure with infinite mean, there’s no reason why

\mathbb{E}\left[X|Y\right]>Y,

with probability one (in terms of Y) should be surprising, since the LHS is (almost-surely) infinite while the RHS is almost surely finite, despite having infinite mean itself.

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One thought on “The Envelope ‘Paradox’

  1. This problem is almost identical to the Von Mises’ (or Bertrand’s) wine/water paradox and has certainly much to do with the principle of indifference. Keynes discusses the same problem on his book “A Treatise on Probability” (p 45) and attributes it to Von Kries.

    The principle of indifference fails quite often and we have no reason to assume it can guide us on an decisions involving uncertainty.

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