The Drunken Sailor and The Lindy Effect

Understand the Lindy Effect mathematically by applying it to the well-known Drunken Sailor problem.

I was scrolling through my Twitter feed on a boring Saturday afternoon when I stumbled upon this tweet:

I was immediately thrilled - finally something interesting to do!

Here’s the problem in full:

A drunken sailor stands near the edge of an abyss and takes random steps either towards or away from the edge. A step towards the edge has a probability of pp and a step away from the edge has a probability of (1 - p)(1−p). If the sailor starts nn steps from the edge, what is his chance of survival? What is the minimum value of pp for which there is no chance of survival?

Turns out the solution for this problem is not beautiful only mathematically, but also provides great insights into our daily life.

Let’s solve it first.

Solving Computationally

Before jumping into the maths, let’s try to get some intuition from code. Here’s a simple simulator for our problem:

The complete code is on CodeSandbox but the algorithm is pretty straightforward.

const MAX_ITERATIONS = 10000;

const updatePosition = (currentPosition, p) => {
  const randomVariable = Math.random();
  if ( randomVariable < p ) return currentPosition - 1;
  else return currentPosition + 1;

const simulation = (initialPosition, p) => {
  let iterations = 0;
  let currentPosition = initialPosition;
  while ( currentPosition > 0 && iterations <= MAX_ITERATIONS ) {
    currentPosition = updatePosition(currentPosition, p);
  return [currentPosition, iterations];

The trick is to think of the sailor’s position as a point in the x-axis. We update the position until he dies (currentPosition === 0) or the maximum number of iterations is reached. In every round, we compare a random variable between 0 and 1 (yielded by Math.random) with pp and move the sailor left or right accordingly.

I encourage you to play a little bit with the simulator and check how’s your intuition going. In any case, here’s a table with the % of deaths for some combinations of \(n\) and \(p\):

Deaths (n = 5) (%)Deaths (n = 15) (%)Deaths (n = 50) (%)

As one could imagine, the % of deaths increases with \(p\) and somehow decreases with \(n\)… but only for values around \(0.50\). It seems that the fate of our beloved sailor is settled for \(p > 0.5\) and therefore this should be the answer to the second question of the problem.

Let us now find the exact probability of survival.

Solving Mathematically

There are many solutions for this problem but the one I liked most was written in this post by Brett Berry. Here’s a summary:

Recall that in order to solve through code we abstracted the sailor’s position into a point in the x-axis. Let \(P(n)\) be the probability that the sailor dies when \(n\) steps away from the edge.

Representation of the sailor in the x-axis. Credit: Math Hacks.


\[ P(1)=p+(1−p)P(2) \]

The sailor surely dies if he goes to the left (with probability \(p\)). But if he manages to move right, we now have him in \(n = 2\) and therefore the probability that he dies is what we call \(P(2)\).

Well, in order to die he necessarily needs to move to the left (i.e. go from \(n = 2\) to \(n = 1\)). But what is \(P(1)\) if not the probability that the sailor moves one unit left? Therefore, \(P(2) = P(1)\) times the probability of going from \(n = 1\) to \(n = 0\), or, \(P(1)\).


\[ P(1) = p + (1−p)P(1)^2 \]
\[ (1 - p) P(1)^2 - P(1) + p = 0 \]

Which yields \(P(1) = 1\) or \(P(1) = \frac{p}{1 - p}\).
Now, notice that \(P(1)\) is a probability and therefore must be in the \([0, 1]\) range. Follows that \(\frac{p}{1 - p} \leq 1\) and then \(p \leq \frac{1}{2}\).

Finally, we can write:

\[P(1) = \begin{cases} 1 &\text{if } p \gt \frac{1}{2} \\ \frac{p}{1 - p} &\text{if } p \leq \frac{1}{2} \end{cases} \]

Once \(P(2) = P(1)^2\), it follows that:

\[ P(n) = \begin{cases} 1 &\text{if } p \gt \frac{1}{2} \\ (\frac{p}{1 - p})^n &\text{if } p \leq \frac{1}{2} \end{cases} \]

By the same reasoning presented above, \(P(3) = P(1)^3\). It follows that, for a given \(n\):

\[ P(n) = \begin{cases} 1 &\text{if } p \gt \frac{1}{2} \\ (\frac{p}{1 - p})^n &\text{if } p \leq \frac{1}{2} \end{cases} \]

Which completes our answer and matches the results found in the simulations.

Intepreting the Result

The answer to this problem is quite interesting because it reveals a big asymmetry: for any value \(p > \frac{1}{2}\), the sailor will eventually die. Certainly, for any number sufficiently big of iterations (we are using a relatively small number of 10000 iterations per simulation), the sailor dies anyway. But real life often has an upper limit and therefore I'm not interested in \(n \to \infty\).

But once life is finite and the sailor can't take random steps forever, how resilient he is? In other words, what's the probability of survival given that the sailor has been surviving for a while?

The Lindy Effect

The Lindy Effect is a theory for our very intuition. From Wikipedia:

The Lindy effect is a theory that the future life expectancy of some non-perishable things like a technology or an idea is proportional to their current age, so that every additional period of survival implies a longer remaining life expectancy.

In simple words, the longer something lives, the longer it is expected to live. We are used to perceive this as the “test of time”. If you give enough time for an idea to be tested and it survives (i.e. people keep adopting it), chances are it will survive for a while.

How does this apply to the Drunken Sailor problem?

Let us try to observe the outcome of his random walk after an arbitrary number of rounds (iterations). For example, given that the sailor survived 100 rounds, how many times does he end up alive? And for 1000? 5000?

Consider the following table for \(p = 0.5\), \(n = 10\) and \(10,000\) simulations, where \(i\) is the min number of iterations for a surviving sailor:

iSurvived at this pointDied in the endSurvival rate (%)

The table is very informative -- if a sailor manages to survive until the 1000th iteration (which is only \(\frac{1}{10}\) of the number of rounds), he increases his chance of survival by a factor of 4. If he survives until half of the iterations, his survival rate increases 800%!

The sailor is, therefore, Lindy. The longer he lives, the longer he is expected to live.

Wrapping Up

The Drunken Sailor Problem and the Lindy Effect help us understand the test of time.

Lindy enhances evolution. What survives tend to have offsprings that are alike. Things that change very quickly don’t allow evolution to do its job.

That doesn't mean that we should wait forever -- recall that even dying \(\frac{1}{3}\) less when they hit the 5,000 mark compared to when they start to walk, 31% of the sailors still die. But we should be respectful of things that have survived for a considerable amount of time.

For what is new might be fragile for events that are hard to anticipate. And drunken sailors might avoid falling off a cliff.

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