Tanya Khovanova’s Math Blog » Blog Archive » The Sleeping Beauty Problem Amplified


The Sleeping Beauty problem. Sleeping Beauty participates in the following experiment. On Sunday, she is put to sleep, and a fair coin is flipped. Regardless of the result of the coin flip, she is awakened on Monday and asked whether she thinks the coin was heads or tails. Regardless of her answer, if the coin was heads, the experiment ends. However, if the coin was tails, she is put back to sleep with her memory erased and awakened again on Tuesday and asked the same question. In this case, the experiment stops on Tuesday. She knows the protocol. She is awakened one morning. From her point of view, what is the probability that the coin was heads?

This problem is considered controversial. Some people, called halfers, think that when she is awakened, the probability that the coin was heads is one half. Other people, called thirders, think that when she is awakened, the probability that the coin was heads is one third.

I am a thirder, so let me explain my thinking. If it is Monday, then the probability that the coin is heads is one half. So the probability of Monday/heads is the same as Monday/tails. If the coin is tails, Sleeping Beauty can’t distinguish between Monday and Tuesday. So the probability of Monday/tails is the same as Tuesday/tails. Thus, the three cases Monday/heads, Monday/tails, and Tuesday/tails are equally probable, and the answer follows.

This problem is similar to the Monty Hall problem in some ways. The main difference is that The Monty Hall problem stopped being controversial, while Sleeping Beauty problem continues to be. The best argument that helped intuition and led to the resolution of the Monty Hall problem was increasing the number of doors. Similarly, for the Sleeping Beauty problem, we can increase the number of days she is put back to sleep when the coin is tails. Forgive me for the cruelty of this theoretical experiment.

The Sleeping Beauty Variation. Sleeping Beauty participates in the following experiment. On Sunday, she is put to sleep, and a fair coin is flipped. Regardless of the result of the coin flip, she is awakened on Monday and asked whether she thinks the coin was heads or tails. Regardless of her answer, if the coin was heads, the experiment ends. However, if the coin was tails, the experiment continues for 99 more days. Each day, she is put back to sleep with her memory erased and awakened the next day and asked the same question. She knows the protocol. She is awakened one morning. From her point of view, what is the probability that the coin was heads?

In this variation, when she is awakened, she should be almost sure that the coin was tails. I hope it will help halfers feel that, in this case, the probability of heads can’t be one half. For me, the argument is the same as before, making the probability that the coin was heads is 1 over 101.

After I wrote this essay, I discovered that Nick Bostrom made the same argument. Though, for tails, he put Sleeping Beauty to sleep one million and one times, which is about 2,740 years. He increased my one hundred days by several orders of magnitude, amplifying our point. Surely, when Sleeping Beauty awakens, she should be almost certain that the coin was tails. After Sleeping Beauty agrees to so much torture, why is the problem still controversial?

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