To be totally clear: the question is not assuming that there is ONLY one student whose neighbors both flipped heads, just that there is AT LEAST one such student. You can imagine that the teacher first asks for all students whose neighbors both flipped heads to step forward, then randomly selected one of the students that had stepped forward.

Now, take a minute to think about this before reading on…

It seemed initially obvious to me that the teacher was correct. There are exactly as many possible worlds in which the three students are HTH as there worlds in which they are HHH, right? Knowing how your neighbors’ coins landed shouldn’t give you any information about how your own coin landed, and to think otherwise seems akin to the Gambler’s fallacy.

But in fact, the teacher is wrong! It is in fact more likely that the student flipped tails than heads! Why? Let’s simplify the problem.

Suppose there are just three students standing in a circle (/triangle). There are eight possible ways that their coins might have landed, namely:

HHH

HHT

HTH

HTT

THH

THT

TTH

TTT

Now, the teacher asks all those students whose neighbors both have “H” to step forward, and AT LEAST ONE steps forward. What does this tell us about the possible world we’re in? Well, it rules out all of the worlds in which no student could be surrounded by both ‘H’, namely… TTT, TTH, THT, and HTT. We’re left with the following…

HHH

HHT

HTH

THH

One thing to notice is that we’re left with mostly worlds with lots of heads. The expected total of heads is 2.25, while the expected total of tails is just 0.75. So maybe we should expect that the student is actually more likely to have heads than tails!

But this is wrong. What we want to see is what proportion of those surrounded by heads are heads in each possible world.

HHH: 3/3 have H (100%)

HHT: 0/1 have H (0%)

HTH: 0/1 have H (0%)

THH: 0/1 have H (0%)

Since each of these worlds is equally likely, what we end up with is a 25% chance of 100% heads, and a 75% chance of 0% heads. In other words, our credence in the student having heads should be just 25%!

Now, what about for N students? I wrote a program that does a brute-force calculation of the final answer for any N, and here’s what you get:

N |
cr(heads) |
~ |

3 |
1/4 |
0.25 |

4 |
3/7 |
0.4286 |

5 |
4/9 |
0.4444 |

6 |
13/32 |
0.4063 |

7 |
1213/2970 |
0.4084 |

8 |
6479/15260 |
0.4209 |

9 |
10763/25284 |
0.4246 |

10 |
998993/2329740 |
0.4257 |

11 |
24461/56580 |
0.4323 |

12 |
11567641/26580015 |
0.4352 |

13 |
1122812/2564595 |
0.4378 |

14 |
20767139/47153106 |
0.4404 |

15 |
114861079/259324065 |
0.4430 |

16 |
2557308958/5743282545 |
0.4453 |

17 |
70667521/157922688 |
0.4475 |

These numbers are not very pretty, though they appear to be gradually converging (I’d guess to 50%).

Can anybody see any patterns here? Or some simple intuitive way to arrive at these numbers?