Andy's Math/CS page

Friday, October 31, 2008

Excitement and Probability

Elections, sporting events, and other competitions can be exciting. But there is also a sense in which they are almost always dull, and this can be proved rigorously. Allow me to explain.

(What follows is an idea I hatched at UCSD and described to Russell Impagliazzo, who had, it turned out, discovered it earlier with some collaborators, for very different reasons. I wouldn't be surprised if it had been observed by others as well. The proof given here is similar to my original one, but closer to the more elegant one Russell showed me, and I'll cite the paper when I find it.)

I want to suggest that a competition is dull to watch if one side is always heavily favored to win (regardless of whether it's the side we support), or if the two sides muddle along in a dead heat until some single deciding event happens. More generally, I'd like to suggest that excitement occurs only when there is a shift in our subjective probabilities of the two (let's say just two) outcomes.

Without defending this suggestion, I'll build a model around it. If anyone is upset that this notion of excitement doesn't include the smell of popcorn, the seventh-inning stretch, or any substantive modelling of the competition itself, there's no need to read any further.

Assume we are a rational Bayesian spectator watching a competition unfold, and that we receive a regular, discrete sequence of update information \(X_1, X_2, ... X_n\) about a competition (these update variables could be bits, real numbers, etc.). Let $p_0, p_1, ... p_n$ be our subjective probabilities of 'victory' (fixing an outcome we prefer between the two) at each stage, where $p_t$ is a random variable conditioning on all the information $X_1, ... X_t$ we've received at time $t$.

For $t > 0$, let's define the excitement at time $t$ as $EXC_t = |p_{t} - p_{t - 1}|$. This random variable measures the 'jolt' we presume we'll get by the revision of our subjective probabilities on the $t$th update.

Define the total excitement $EXC$ as the sum of all $EXC_t$ 's. Now, we only want to watch this competition in the first place if the expected total excitement is high; so it's natural to ask, how high can it be?

We needn't assume that our method for updating our subjective probability corresponds to the 'true' probabilities implied by the best possible understanding of the data. But let's assume it conforms at least internally to Bayesian norms: in particular, we should have $E[p_{t + 1} | p_{t} = p] = p$.

An immediate corollary of this assumption, which will be useful, is that
\[E[p_t p_{t + 1}] = \sum_p Prob[p_t = p]\cdot p E[p_{t + 1}|p_t = p]\]
\[= \sum_p Prob[p_t = p]\cdot p^2 = E[p_t^2].\]

OK, now rather than look at the expected total excitement, let's look at the expected sum of squared excitements, an often-useful trick which allows us to get rid of those annoying absolute value signs:
\[E[EXC_1^2 +EXC_2^2 + \ldots + EXC_{n }^2]\]
\[= E[(p_1 - p_0)^2 + \ldots + (p_n - p_{n - 1})^2 ] \]
\[= E[p_0^2 + p_n^2 + 2\left(p_1^2 + \ldots + p_{n - 1}^2\right) \]
\[ \quad{}- 2\left(p_1 p_0 + p_2 p_1 + \ldots + p_n p_{n - 1} \right) ] \]

\[= E[p_0^2] + E[p_n^2] + 2(E[p_1^2] + \ldots + E[p_{n - 1}^2)] \]
\[ \quad{} - 2(E[p_0^2] + \ldots + E[p_{n - 1}^2] )\]
(using linearity of expectation and our previous corollary). Now we get a bunch of cancellation, leaving us with
\[= E[p_n^2] - E[p_0^2].\]
This is at most 1. So if we measured excitement at each step by squaring the shift in subjective probabilities, we'd only expect a constant amount of excitement, no matter how long the game!

Now, rather crudely, if $Y \geq 0$ and $E[Y] \leq 1$ then $E[\sqrt{Y}] \leq 2$. We also have the general '$\ell_1$ vs $\ell_2$' inequality
\[|Y_1| + ... + |Y_n| \leq \sqrt{ n \cdot (Y_1^2 + ... + Y_n^2)} .\]
Using both of these, we conclude that
\[E[EXC_1 + \ldots + EXC_n] \leq E\left[\sqrt{n \cdot \left(EXC_1^2 + \ldots + EXC_n^2\right)} \right] \leq 2 \cdot \sqrt{n} .\]
Thus we expect at most $2 \sqrt{n}$ total excitement, for an expected 'amortized excitement' of at most $2/\sqrt{n} = o(1)$.

Watch $n$ innings, for only $O(\sqrt{n})$ excitement? Give me break! If $n$ is large, it's better to stay home--no matter what the game.

I would love to see this theory tested against prediction markets like Intrade, which are argued to give a running snapshot of our collective subjective probability of various events. Are the histories as 'low-excitement' as our argument predicts? Even lower? (Nothing we've said rules it out, although one can exhibit simple games which have expected excitement on the order of $\sqrt{n}$.)

And if the histories exhibit more excitement than we'd predict (some sign of collective irrationality, perhaps), is there a systematic way to take advantage of this in the associated betting market? Food for thought. I'd be grateful if anyone knew where to get a record of Intrade's raw day-by-day numbers.

Finally, nothing said above rules out individual games playing out with high excitement, on the order of $n$, but it does say that such outcomes should be infrequent. I believe a more careful martingale approach would show an exponentially small possibility of such large deviations (Russell said their original proof used Azuma's inequality, which would probably suffice).

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