Maximum Likelihood Estimator

Jan 29, 2020
7 min read
Mar 11, 2022 15:59 UTC
Under parametric family distributions, there's a much better way of constructing estimators - the maximum likelihood estimator.

So far when we talk about estimators, we’re using bias, variance etc. to evaluate them. These concepts can be used in general, but if we constrain ourselves within a class of models, we can get much more mathematically useful results.

Basic concepts

Def: Let $\Theta$ be the parameter space (could be high dimensional). $F_\theta$ is a probability distribution which is uniquely determined by $\theta \in \Theta$. $\{F_\theta: \theta \in \Theta\}$ is a parametric family of distributions (parameterized by $\theta \in \Theta$).

For example, recall a Poisson distribution with mean $\theta$ is given by PMF

$$ p(x; \theta) = e^{-\theta}\frac{\theta^x}{x!},\quad x = 0, 1, 2, \cdots $$

If we collect all the PMFs together, $\{p(x; \theta), \theta \in \Theta\} = (0, \infty)$ is a parametric family.

Let’s consider a negative example. Our model is $Y_i$ are i.i.d. with mean $E[Y_i] = \mu$, which is our parameter.

$$ \{\text{All distributions with mean }\mu, \mu \in \mathbb{R}\} $$

is not a parametric family, because given a particular $\mu$, there are multiple distributions having this $\mu$ as a mean.

Another example is $\vec{\theta} = (\mu, \sigma^2)$. Note that we consider $\sigma^2$ as a parameter, not $\sigma$. $\vec{\theta} \in \Theta = (-\infty, \infty) \times (0, \infty)$ 1.

$$ {N(\mu, \sigma^2): (\mu, \sigma^2) \in \Theta } $$

is a parametric family.

Remark: it can happen that multiple parameter values correspond to the same distribution (not identifiable). For example, ${N(|\theta|, 1), \theta \in \mathbb{R}}$. What we cannot have is for one parameter value to map to multiple distributions. We often only consider the identifiable case in this course.

So why is this useful? Given $Y_1, \cdots, Y_n \overset{i.i.d.}{\sim} F_\theta$ where $\theta$ is unknown, we want to find $\theta$ which makes $F_\theta$ fit the data well.

Def: statistical analysis based on modeling data with a parametric family is called parametric statistics.

Maximum likelihood estimator

Def: Suppose $Y_1, \cdots, Y_n$ are i.i.d. samples that are either

  • from a discrete distribution with PMF $p(y; \theta)$, or
  • from a continuous distribution with PDF $f(y; \theta)$

where $\theta \in \Theta$ and $\{p(y, \theta): \theta \in \Theta\}$ or $\{f(y, \theta): \theta \in \Theta\}$ forms a parametric family. The likelihood function $L(\theta) = L(\theta; Y_1, \cdots, Y_n)$ is defined as

$$ \begin{gather*} \text{discrete}: L(\theta) = p(Y_1; \theta)p(Y_2; \theta)\cdots p(Y_n; \theta) \\ \text{continuous}: L(\theta) = f(Y_1; \theta)f(Y_2; \theta)\cdots f(Y_n; \theta) \end{gather*} $$

In other words, a likelihood function is the joint PMF or PDF with the random sample plugged in the variables. Although the likelihood function is essentially a joint PMF/PDF, we are emphasizing on the dependence on the parameter $\theta$.

Given the likelihood function $L(\theta)$, the maximum likelihood estimator (MLE) is given by

$$ \begin{equation} \label{eq:MLE} \hat\theta = \underset{\theta \in \Theta}{\arg\max}, L(\theta) \end{equation} $$

i.e. find $\theta \in \Theta$ which maximizes $L(\theta)$.

Remark: $\hat\theta$ is a statistic that only depends on $Y_1, \cdots, Y_n$. The idea of the MLE is to choose the parameter which makes the sample most probable/likely.

The $\hat\theta$ found in $\eqref{eq:MLE}$ is the same as

$$ \underset{\theta \in \Theta}{\arg\max}, \ln(L(\theta)) $$

because the $\ln(\cdot)$ function is strictly monotonically increasing. This is called the log-likelihood function. This transforms the product in the definition of the likelihood function into a summation, which makes taking the derivative much easier.

$$ \ln(L(\theta)) = \begin{cases} \ln(p(Y_1; \theta)) + \cdots + \ln(p(Y_n; \theta)), \text{ or } \\ \ln(f(Y_1; \theta)) + \cdots + \ln(f(Y_n; \theta)) \end{cases} $$

Normal distribution example

Suppose $Y_1, \cdots, Y_n \overset{i.i.d.}{\sim}N(\theta, 1)$ and $\theta \in \Theta = \mathbb{R}$. To find the likelihood, we first need the marginal PDF which is given by

$$ f(y; \theta) = \frac{1}{\sqrt{2\pi}} \exp\left\{ -\frac{(y-\theta)^2}{2} \right\} $$

The log-transform of this is

$$ \ln(f(y; \theta)) = -\frac{1}{2}\ln(2\pi) - \frac{(y-\theta)^2}{2} $$

where the first part is a constant w.r.t. $\theta$. The log-likelihood is

$$ \begin{aligned} \ell(\theta) &= \ln(L(\theta)) = \sum_{i=1}^n \ln(f(Y_i; \theta)) \\ &= -\frac{n}{2}\ln(2\pi) - \frac{1}{2}\sum_{i=1}^n (Y_i - \theta)^2 \end{aligned} $$

Taking the first derivative and setting it to 0, we have $$ \begin{aligned} \frac{d}{d\theta}\ell(\theta) &= 0 - \frac{1}{2}\sum_{i=1}^n 2(Y_i - \theta)(-1) \\ &= \sum_{i=1}^n (Y_i - \theta) = \sum_{i=1}^n Y_i - n\theta = 0 \end{aligned} $$

which gives $\hat\theta = \bar{Y}_n$. Rigorously speaking, we should then take the second-order derivative to confirm that $\hat\theta$ is the maximizer (get the concave shape). Here this step is omitted.

Note that the maximum likelihood estimator under this model led to the least squares estimator, where we minimized $\sum_{i=1}^n (Y_i - \theta)^2$.

If both parameters in $N(\mu, \sigma^2)$ are unknown, one can take partial derivatives to show that the MLE is given by

$$ (\hat\mu, \hat\sigma^2) = \left( \bar{Y}_n, \frac{1}{n}\sum_{i=1}^n (Y_i - \bar{Y}_n)^2 \right) $$

Bernoulli distribution example

Suppose $Y_i \overset{i.i.d.}{\sim} Bern(\theta)$ and $\theta \in \Theta = [0, 1]$. The marginal PMF is given by

$$ p(y; \theta) = \theta^y (1-\theta)^{1-y}, \quad y = 0, 1 $$

Log-transforming this yields

$$ \ln(p(y; \theta)) = y\ln(\theta) + (1-y)\ln(1-\theta) $$

The log-likelihood is given by

$$ \begin{aligned} \ell(\theta) &= \sum_{i=1}^n \ln(p(Y_i; \theta)) \\ &= \sum_{i=1}^n \bigg(y\ln(\theta) + (1-y)\ln(1-\theta)\bigg) \\ &= \underbrace{X_n\ln(\theta) + (n - X_n)\ln(1-\theta)}{\text{maximize w.r.t. } \theta} \text{ where } X_n = \sum{i=1}^n Y_i \end{aligned} $$

In the first case where $X_n = 0$, $\ell(\theta) = n\ln(1-\theta)$ is a monotonically decreasing function in $\theta \in [0, 1]$. The maximum is achieved at $\theta = 0$. In this case, the MLE $\hat\theta = 0$.

Similarly in the second case where $X_n = n$, $\ell(\theta) = X_n \ln(\theta)$ and the MLE $\hat\theta = 1$.

When $0 < X_n < n$, we’ll have to take the derivative.

$$ \begin{gather*} \frac{d}{d\theta} \ell(\theta) = X_n \frac{1}{\theta} - (n - X_n)\frac{1}{1-\theta} = 0 \\ \frac{X_n}{\theta} = \frac{n - X_n}{1 - \theta} \\ X_n - X_n \theta = n\theta - X_n \theta \\ \hat\theta = \frac{X_n}{n} = \bar{Y}_n \end{gather*} $$

Going back to the first two cases, we can easily see that $\bar{Y}_n$ also incorporates the two cases, so $\bar{Y}_n$ is the MLE.

Uniform distribution example

Suppose $Y_i \overset{i.i.d.}{\sim} Unif(0, \theta)$ where $\theta \in (0, \infty)$. Find the MLE.

The marginal PDF is

$$ f(y; \theta) = \begin{cases} \frac{1}{\theta}, & 0 \leq y \leq \theta \\ 0, & \text{otherwise} \end{cases} $$

To solve this problem, we first need to introduce the indicator $I{S}$. It’s defined as

$$ I{S} = \begin{cases} 1 & \text{if } S \text{ holds}, \\ 0 & \text{if } S \text{ does not hold} \end{cases} $$

where $S$ is a statement. Now we may rewrite the marginal PDF as

$$ f(y; \theta) = \frac{1}{\theta}I\{y \in [0, \theta]\} $$

The likelihood function is given by

$$ \begin{aligned} L(\theta) &= f(Y_1; \theta)f(Y_2; \theta) \cdots f(Y_n; \theta) \\ &= \frac{1}{\theta^n}I\{Y_1 \in [0, \theta]\}\cdot I\{Y_2 \in [0, \theta]\}\cdots I\{Y_n \in [0, \theta]\} \end{aligned} $$

A useful fact is that

$$ I\{S_1\}\cdot I\{S_2\} \cdots I\{S_n\} = I\{S_1, \cdots, S_n \text{ all hold}\} $$

so the product of the terms reduces to

$$ \begin{aligned} &I\{0 \leq Y_i \leq \theta \text{ for all } i = 1, \cdots n\} \\ &= I\{Y_i \leq \theta \text{ for all } i = 1, \cdots n\} \\ &= I\{\max(Y_1, \cdots, Y_n) \leq \theta\} \\ &=Y_{(n)} \end{aligned} $$

Going back to the likelihood function,

$$ \begin{gather*} L(\theta) = \frac{1}{\theta^n} I\{\theta \geq Y_{(n)}\} \\ \hat\theta = Y_{(n)} \end{gather*} $$ because $L(\theta) = 0$ when $\theta < Y_{(n)}$, and is monotonically decreasing after $\theta = Y_{(n)}$.

Remark: Often the maximizing problem in the MLE cannot be solved analytically. In this case, we have to go to numerical methods such as gradient descent.


Suppose $\{F_\theta : \theta \in \Theta\}$ is a parametric family which is identifiable. We have a one-to-one mapping $f: \Theta \rightarrow \Theta’$. If $\hat\theta’$ is the MLE for $\{F_{f(\theta’)}: \theta’ \in \Theta’\}$, then $\hat\theta = f(\hat\theta’)$ is the MLE for ${F_\theta : \theta \in \Theta}$. MLE is invariant with respect to re-parameterization.

For example, suppose $Y_i \overset{i.i.d.}{\sim} Bern(p)$ where $p \in [0, 1]$. If we’re interested in the MLE of $q = 1 - p$, then

$$ MLE(q) = 1 - \hat{p} = \bar{Y}_n $$

To understand why the MLE is a good estimate, see Fisher information, which can be seen as the curvature of the plot of the log-likelihood.

$$ I(\theta) = -E\left[ \frac{d^2}{d\theta} \ln(p(Y_1; \theta)) \right] \xlongequal{\text{if }\theta \text{ is true}} Var\left( \frac{d}{d\theta} \ln(p(Y_1; \theta)) \right) $$

Suppose $\theta$ is true. Under some conditions, the MLE $\hat\theta_n$ of $\theta$ satisfies the following theorems:

  1. $\hat\theta_n \xrightarrow{P} \theta$ (consistency).
  2. $\hat\theta_n$ is approximately distributed as $N \left(\theta, \frac{1}{nI(\theta)} \right)$ when $n$ is large.

The interpretation of the second theorem are

  1. $\hat\theta_n$ is asymptotically unbiased.
  2. MSE $\approx$ variance $\approx \frac{1}{nI(\theta)}$. View this as two parts: $1/n$ means as the sample size increases, the variance becomes smaller; $1/I(\theta)$ is the curvature, and a large curvature is better.
  3. No other consistent estimator can beat this asymptotically. This is called the Cramér–Rao lower bound .

  1. ↩︎

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