First posed in Scientific American in 1959, the Three Prisoners Problem remains a classic of conditional probability. The problem, or a version of it, is simple to state. There are three prisoners on death row, Adam, Bob and Charlie. They are told that each of them has had their names entered into a hat and the lucky name to be randomly chosen will be pardoned as an act of clemency to celebrate the King’s birthday. The warden knows who has been pardoned, but none of the prisoners do.

Adam asks the warden to name one of the prisoners who will definitely NOT be pardoned. Either way, he agrees that his own fate should not be revealed. If Bob is to be spared, name Charlie as one of the men to be executed. If Charlie is to be spared, name Bob as one of the men to be executed. If it is he, Adam, who is to be pardoned, the warden should just flip a coin and name either Bob or Charlie as one of the men to be executed.

The warden agrees and names Charlie as one of the men going to the gallows.

Given this information, what is the probability that Adam is going to be pardoned, and what is the chance that Bob will instead be pardoned?

Adam reasons that his chance of being spared before the conversation with the warden was 1/3, as there are three prisoners, and only one of these will be pardoned by random lot. Now, though, he reasons that one of either he or Bob is to walk free, as he knows that Charlie is not the lucky one. So now Adam reasons that his chance of being pardoned has risen to 1/2.  But is he right?

Before talking to the warden, Adam correctly concludes that his chance of evading the gallows is 1/3. It is either he, Bob or Charlie who will be released, and each has an equal chance, so each has a 1/3 chance of being pardoned.

When Adam asks the warden to name one of the OTHER men who will be executed, he is asking the warden not to name him either way, whether he is to be pardoned or not. The warden (as we are told in the question) selects which of the other men to name by flipping a coin. Now, Adam gains no new information about his fate. The information he does gain is about the fate of Bob and Charlie. By naming Charlie as the condemned man, the warden is ruling out the chance that Charlie is to be pardoned.

So Adam now knows the chance that Charlie will be spared has decreased from a 1/3 chance before the warden revealed this information to a zero chance after he reveals it.

But his own chance of being spared remains unchanged, because the warden was not able to reveal any new information relevant to his own fate. New information is a requirement for changing the probability that something will happen or not. So his probability of being pardoned remains at 1/3.

The new information he does have is that Charlie is not the lucky man, so the chance that Bob gets lucky is 2/3.

Put another way, how is it possible that Adam and Bob heard received the same information but their odds of surviving are so different? It is because, when the warden made his selection, he would never have declared that Adam was going to die. On the other hand, he might well have declared Bob to be the condemned man. In fact, there was a 50-50 chance he would have done so. Therefore, the fact that he didn’t name Bob provides valuable information as to the likelihood that Bob was pardoned while telling us nothing as to whether Adam was.

This is an example of the reality that belief updates must depend not merely on the facts observed but also on the method of establishing those facts.

In case there is still any doubt, imagine that there were 26 prisoners instead of 3. Adam asks the warden not to reveal his own fate but to name in random order 24 of the other prisoners who are to be executed. So what is the chance that Bob will be the lucky one of 26 before the warden reveals any names? It is 1/26, the same chance as each of the other prisoners. Every time, however, that the warden names a dead man walking, say Charlie or Daniel, that reduces their chances to zero and increases the chance of all those left except for Adam, who has expressly asked not be named, regardless of whether he is to be executed. So it means a lot to learn that the warden has eliminated everyone but Bob given that he had every opportunity to name Bob as one of those going to the gallows. It means nothing that he has not named Adam because he was expressly told not to, whatever his fate.

In a 26-man line-up, where the warden in random order names who are condemned, once everyone but Bob has been named for execution by the warden, Adam’s chance of surviving stays at 1/26. Bob’s chance of being pardoned rises to 25/26. This is despite the fact that there are only two remaining prisoners who have not been named for execution by the warden. Would you take 20/1 now that Adam will be spared? You might, if you were Bob, but you are not getting a good price, and you will not have long to spend it!