Another Two Coins Puzzle

Browsing Braingle I stumbled upon a standard probability puzzle which is very often misunderstood:

Suppose I flip two coins without letting you see the outcome, and I tell you that at least one of the coins came up heads. What is the probability that the other coin is also heads?

The standard “wrong” answer is 1/2. Supposedly, the right answer is 1/3. Here is the explanation for that “right” answer:

For two coins there are four equally probable outcomes: HH, HT, TH and TT. Obviously, TT is excluded in this case, and of the remaining three possibilities only one has two heads.

Here is the problem with this problem. Suppose I flip two coins without letting you see the outcome. If I get one head and one tail, what will I tell you? I can tell you that at least one of the coins came up heads. Or, I can tell you that at least one of the coins came up tails. The fact that I can tell you different things changes the a posteriori probabilities.

You need to base your calculation not only on your knowledge that there are only three possibilities for the outcome: HH, HT and TH, but also on the conditional probabilities of these outcomes, given what I told you. I claim that the initial problem is undefined and the answer depends on what I decide to say in each different case.

Let us consider the first of two strategies I might use:

I flip two coins. If I get two heads, I tell you that I have at least one head. If I get two tails I tell you that I have at least one tail. If I get one head and one tail, then I will tell you one of the above with equal probability.

Given that I told you that I have at least one head, what is the probability that I have two heads? I leave it to my readers to calculate it.

Suppose I follow the other strategy:

I flip two coins. If I get two tails, I say, “Oops. It didn’t work.” Otherwise, I say that I have at least one head.

Given that I told you that I have at least one head, what is the probability that I have two heads? If you calculate answers for both strategies correctly, you will have two different answers. That means the problem is not well-defined in the first place.

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2 Comments

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