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Poisson approximation in practice

February 3, 2020

We know from basic statistics textbook that the distribution of a Binomial random variate (with probbaility of success $p$) can be approximated using a Poisson distribution (of parameter $\lambda = np$), provided certain conditions are met (usually, small $p$ and large $n$).1 An easy to remember application is that the sequence of $\text{Bin}(n,\frac{1}{n})$ distributions converges in law to the Poisson distribution with mean 1. We can see $\text{Bin}(n,\frac{1}{n})$ either as the sum of $n$ independent Bernoulli trials with small probability of success, dependent on $n$, or as the count of the total number of occurrences among $n$ independent rare events. It turns out that the later has many useful applications.

Here are two illustrations, taken from DasGupta.2 In the matching problem, cards are drawn one at a time from a well-shuffled deck containing $N$ cards, and a match occurs if the card bearing the number $j$ is drawn at precisely the $j$-th draw from the deck. Let $S_N$ be the total number of matches. We will need a little theorem, which happens to be useful when we want to prove that a Poisson limit is still applicable for the sum of dependent Bernoulli trials

Theorem: For $N\ge 1$, let $X_i=1,2,\dots,n$, $n=n(N)$ be a triangular array of Bernoulli random variables, and let $A_i$ denotes the event for which $X_i=1$. For a given $k$, let $M_k$ be the $k$-th binomial moment of $S_n$; i.e., $M_k=\sum_{j=k}^n{j\choose k}P(S_n=j)$. If there exists $0<\lambda<\infty$ such that, for every fixed $k$, $M_k\rightarrow \frac{\lambda^k}{k!}$ as $N\rightarrow\infty$, then $S_n \rightarrow_{\mathcal{L}}\text{Poi}(\lambda)$.

In the matching problem, the binomial moment $M_k$ can be shown to be $M_k = {N\choose k}\frac{1}{N(N-1)\dots (N-k+1)}$. Using Stirling’s approximation, for every fixed $k$, $M_k\rightarrow\frac{1}{k!}$; in other words, the total number of matches converges to a Poisson distribution with mean 1 as the deck size $N\rightarrow\infty$. Convergence is very fast. See also More about the matching problem.3

In the birthday problem, we are interested in the probability that two randomly chosen persons were born the same day. More formally, suppose each person in a group of $n$ people has, mutually independently, a probability $\frac{1}{N}$ of being born on any given day of a year with $N$ calendar days. Let $S_n$ be the total number of pairs of people $(i, j)$ such that they have the same birthday. Then $P(S_n > 0)$ is the probability that there is at least one pair of people in the group who share the same birthday. It turns out that if $n$ and $N$ can be expressed as $n^2=N\lambda+\mathcal{o}(N)$, for some $0<\lambda <\infty$, then $S_n\rightarrow_\mathcal{L}\text{Poi}(\lambda)$. If $N=365$, $n=30$, then $S_n\approx\text{Poi}(1.233)$.


  1. LeCam’s theorem on total variation is also useful. It states, in part, that $d_\text{TV}\left(\text{Bin}(n,\lambda/n),\text{Poi}(\lambda)\right)\le 8\lambda/n$. Further discussion can be found on maths.SE. ↩︎

  2. DasGupta, A. Asymptotic theory of statistics and probability. Springer, 2008. ↩︎

  3. Interestingly, it is possible to derive a recurrence relation for the PDF of $S_n$: (proof here) $$ \begin{array}{rcl} \Pr(S_1 = 1) &=& 1\cr \Pr(S_n = k) &=& (k+1)\Pr(S_{n+1} = k+1)\quad \text{for}\: k \in \{0,1,\dots,n\} \end{array} $$ This allows to obtain the probability density function of $S_n$ recursively for any $n$. ↩︎

statistics

See Also

» Variance-stabilizing transformations » Python and H2O » Capture-recapture sampling » Computing Student t-test » On computing variance