More about Monty Hall Problem

The previous post is on the Monty Hall Problem. This post adds to the discussion by looking at three pieces from New York Times. Anyone who is not familiar with the problem should read the previous post or other online resources of the problem.

The first piece describes a visit by John Tierney at the home of Monty Hall, who was the host of the game show Let’s Make a Deal, the show on which the Monty Hall Problem was loosely based. The visit took place in Beverly Hills back in 1991, one year after the firestorm caused by the publication of Monty Hall Problem by Marilyn vos Savant in Parade Magazine. The purpose of the visit is to obtain more confirmation that the counter intuitive answer (switching door) is correct and to get more insight about the game from Monty Hall himself.

Before discussing the visit, here’s the statement of Monty Hall Problem. The previous post actually uses five pictures to describe 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 other 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 take the switch?”

In front of Tierney, Monty Hall performed a simulation in his dining room. Monty Hall put three miniature cardboard doors on a table and represented the car with an ignition key. The goats were played by a package of raisins and a roll of Life Savers. Monty Hall conducted 10 rounds of the game as the contestant (John Tierney) tried the non-switching strategy. The result was that the contestant won four cars and six goats.

Then in the next 10 rounds, the contestant tried switching doors. The result was markedly different – the contestant won eight cars and two goats. The simulation gives strong indication that it is more advantageous to switch door.

The standard solution: with the switching door strategy, the contestant wins the car 2/3 of the time. On the other hand, the contestant only wins the car 1/3 of the time if he/she stick with the original pick.

It turns out that the optimal solution of switching door should come with a caveat, which is given in the previous post. The caveat is that the strategy of switching door works only if the moves of the game are determined by random chance – the contestant picks a door at random, then the host picks a door at random (if the contestant’s pick happens to be the winning door). After the choices are made at random, the host will be required to offer the chance to switch. Once all these conditions are met, the switching door strategy will be optimal.

The description in the preceding paragraph works like a computer program, in which all the rules are clear cut. There is no psychological factor involved. But Monty Hall did not run his show like a computer program. He sometimes did things that are meant to trick the contestants.

Month Hall did not always followed the standard assumptions. According to the NY Times piece, sometimes Monty Hall simply opened the contestant’s original pick (if it is a goat). So the picking a door showing a goat routine did not have to be done. Sometimes, he conned the contestant into switching door (if the contestant’s original door is a car), in which case, the switching strategy would have a zero chance of winning.

So there is psychological factor to consider in the actual Monty Hall game. The host may try to trick you into making a wrong move.

In fact, the statement of the problem given above (the same wording as in Marilyn vos Savant’s column) has a loop hole of sort. It did not explicitly make clear that the host will always open a door with a goat and then offer a switch. Monty Hall said, “if the host is required to open a door all the time and offer you a switch, then you should take the switch.” Furthermore, he said “but if he has the choice whether to allow a switch or not, beware. Caveat emptor. It all depends on his mood.” Here’s his advice, “if you can get me to offer you $5,000 not to open the door, take the money and go home.”

So the actual way in which the game is played may render the “academic” solution of the Monty Hall problem useless or meaningless. In any case, whenever the standard solution of Monty Hall Problem is given, the caveat should also be given. Indeed, if the game is played according to a random chances and if the contestant always switches door, then the company that hosts the game would lose too many cars! For financial reasons, they cannot run the show like clock work.

The second piece from NY Times is on the cognitive dissonance that some people experienced with the Monty Hall problem.

The third piece is a more recent discussion and is concerned with variations of the standard Monty Hall Problem. This piece consider tweaks to the basic game in two ways. The question: does each way of tweaking reduce the probability of the host losing a car? Or what is the probability of the host losing a car? Here’s the two tweaks.

First challenge: Suppose Monty Hall’s game show is losing money, and they want to tweak the game so they don’t lose the car as frequently. They announce to the audience that once you choose the door, the host will flip a fair coin to decide which of the other doors will be opened. If the car is behind the door that they open, you lose. If it is not behind the door that they open, you get to choose whether to stick with your door or to change to the other closed door. What do you do if that happens? And now, going into the game, assuming that the contestant behaves optimally, what is the probability that the game show will lose the car?

Second challenge: Now suppose that the game show gets even greedier, and secretly tweaks the game even more. But news of their tweaking is leaked, and the contestants find out that the host is actually using a weighted coin when they are determining which other door will be opened, and the coin is weighted such that the door with the car behind it will be opened by the host with ¾ probability. (When the car is behind the door that you choose initially, the host uses a fair coin to determine which of the other doors to open.) Now, if the door that they open doesn’t have the car behind it – should you stick with your original choice or should you switch? And, assuming that the contestant behaves optimally, did the nefarious game show succeed in reducing the probability that they lose the car?

In each tweak, the problem assumes that the contestant behaves optimally in the game. I suppose that means the contestant always switches door if the switching is possible. An even more interesting exercise would be to calculate the probability under the switching scenario and under the sticking scenario.

\copyright 2017 – Dan Ma