Let us have a sample $X_1, X_2, ... , X_n$ with $B_{p,m}$ distribution.

How to make an estimator for $m$ using MLE ? For simplicity, let us $n=1$

I am a little bit stuck, because I have a derivative of binominal coefficient which is uncommon in usual undergrad textbooks.. So, probably, I am doing something wrong.

Update: $p$ is known

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ You cannot take a derivative since $m$ is an integer. $\endgroup$
    – Xi'an
    Feb 28, 2021 at 11:21
  • $\begingroup$ The case with $p$ unknown $\endgroup$ Feb 28, 2021 at 13:27
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ With a sample size $n=1,$ the MLE should be one of the last things you consider using, because its theory relies on asymptotic behavior (and $n=1$ is as far from asymptotic as one can get!). In this case it is useful to consider what your loss function might be and proceed from there to select an appropriate estimator. $\endgroup$
    – whuber
    Feb 28, 2021 at 17:57
  • $\begingroup$ Can you confirm you have a single sample with only one element $n=1$? $\endgroup$ Mar 1, 2021 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ If you have just a single element PMF is constant and equal to $p$ so you cannot derive anything. $\endgroup$ Mar 1, 2021 at 19:49

3 Answers 3


We have the likelihood of $m$ by $$f(m)=\frac{m!}{(m-X)!X!}p^X(1-p)^{m-X}$$

Here $m\geq X$.

Now, let's consider when $\frac{f(m+1)}{f(m)}$ is less than 1. When it starts to be less than 1, we know that function $f$ reached a (local) maximum. After calculation we find

$$r = \frac{f(m+1)}{f(m)} = \frac{(m+1)(1-p)}{m+1-X},$$ and when $n\geq\left\lfloor\frac{X}{p}\right\rfloor$, we have $r\leq 1$. Thus, we conclude that $$\left\lfloor\frac{X}{p}\right\rfloor\text{ is the MLE of }m.$$

Here, $\lfloor y\rfloor$ denotes the largest integer that is less than $y\in\mathbb{R}.$

----- update -----

By the way, BruceET's numerical example confirms the conclusion.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Typo: when $m \to X$ or $m \to \infty$ we have $f(m) \to 0$. Also, you answer assumes that $p$ is known. In the general case where both $n$ and $p$ are unknown, the MLE of $n$ may be $\infty$. This corresponds to the cas where the Poisson lilkelihood is greater than the binomial likelihood. See my answer and the reference therein. $\endgroup$
    – Yves
    Feb 28, 2021 at 8:20
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ When $m=X$, $f(X)=p^X$, which is neither $0$ nor $-\infty$. $\endgroup$
    – Xi'an
    Feb 28, 2021 at 11:27
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, updated. $\endgroup$
    – Tan
    Feb 28, 2021 at 16:18
  • $\begingroup$ You are using $X$ index to denote the number of elements of a sample which is wrong since you already used the $n$ as index to denote the cardinality. $\endgroup$ Mar 1, 2021 at 19:47
  • $\begingroup$ @EasyPoints What is the "number of elements of a sample"? $X$ means the number of successes in $m$ independent Bernoulli trials. $\endgroup$
    – Tan
    Mar 1, 2021 at 20:11

This is along the lines you started to try.
$\sum{X_i}$ is binomial with parameters $p$ and $mn$.
The likelihood function is $$f(m)$$ $$=\frac{\Gamma(m+n+1)}{\Gamma(m+n-\sum{X_i}+1)\Gamma(\sum{X_i}+1)}p^{\sum{X_i}}(1-p)^{mn-\sum{X_i}}$$ for $\max{X_i}\le m$.

Start by treating the likelihood function as if it were a function of a continuous variable $m \in (\max{X_i},\infty)$.

The derivative of the log of the likelihood is $$f'(m)=\log{(1-p)}+\psi (mn+1)-\psi{\left(mn-\sum{X_i}+1\right)}$$ where $\psi$ is the digamma function.
This simplifies to $$f'(m)=\log{(1-p)}+\frac{1}{mn-\sum{X_i}+1}+...+\frac{1}{mn}$$ The second derivative is $$f''(m)=\psi^{(1)} (mn+1)-\psi^{(1)}{\left(mn-\sum{X_i}+1\right)}$$ where $\psi^{(1)}$ is the polygamma function.
This simplifies to $$f''(m)=-\frac{1}{\left(mn-\sum{X_i}+1 \right)^2}-...-\frac{1}{(mn)^2}$$ The second derivative is always negative.
That means the derivative is a decreasing function.
Also, $f'(m)\rightarrow \log{(1-p)}<0$ as $m\rightarrow \infty$ because there are a fixed, finite number of other terms in $f'(m)$ and each of those other terms converge to 0.
If the derivative at the lowest possible $m$, that is at $\max{X_i}$, is less than or equal to 0, then the mle is $\max{X_i}$. On the other hand, if $f'(\max{X_i})>0$, then let $M$ be the largest integer such that $f'(M)>0$. The mle is either $M$ or $M+1$. Just plug both of them into the likelihood function to see which of them makes $f$ bigger.

Note that
a) $\left(\max{X_i},\sum{X_i} \right)$ is a sufficient statistic
b) $$f'(m)=\log{(1-p)}+\sum_{j=1}^{\sum{X_i}}\frac{1}{mn-\sum{X_i}+j}\approx \log{(1-p)}+\int_{mn-\sum{X_i}+0.5}^{mn+0.5}x^{-1}dx$$ $$=\log{(1-p)}+\log{(mn+0.5)}-\log{(mn-\sum{X_i}+0.5)}$$ and the approximate solution to $f'(m)=0$ is therefore $m\approx \frac{\sum{X_i}-0.5 p}{n p}$.

Here are some examples from simulated data using the following R program:

mlem=function(X,p) {
  if ((log(1-p)+sum(1/c((mtry*n+sX+1):(mtry*n))))<0) {
    } else {
    while ((log(1-p)+sum(1/c((mtry*n-sX+1):(mtry*n))))>0) mtry=mtry+1
    if (dbinom(sX,n*(mtry-1),p)>dbinom(sX,n*mtry,p)) mle=mtry-1 else mle=mtry
#return the mle, max Xi, Max integer M with f'(M)>0, approximate solution

for (i in 1:3) {

The first line shows the true values of the parameters used to simulate the data. The second line shows the simulated values of $X_i$:

Example 1.
m=46 n=14 p=0.2875775
17 18 8 13 17 14 13 19 13 15 14 9 17 11
mle= 49, M= 49

Example 2.
m=37 n=20 p=0.04205953
3 2 2 5 2 2 2 2 1 0 4 3 2 2 0 1 2 1 1 1
mle=45, M=45

Example 3.
m=38 n=14 p=0.1428
5 3 3 4 5 4 8 2 5 7 3 6 4 3
mle=31, M=30

These examples show that the mle is not always equal to $M$ or always equal to $M+1$ where $M$ is the largest integer with $f'$ positive; it can be either of those. In all three of those examples, the mle was the nearest integer to $\frac{\sum{X_i}-0.5 p}{n p}$.

Sometimes, the mle is equal to $\max{X_i}$ as in this example simulated from data with $M=10$, $N=20$, and $p=0.8$:
9 7 8 6 6 10 8 6 8 8 6 8 8 8 10 6 9 10 9 6
Here, $f'(10)\approx -0.104$ and so the mle is $10$. Again in this example, it turns out that the mle is the nearest integer to $\frac{\sum{X_i}-0.5 p}{n p}$.

If $f'(\max{X_i})<0$, then the mle is $\max{X_i}$.
Otherwise, find the largest integer $M$ such that $f'(M)>0$ using the formula above. $f'(x)$ is a decreasing function that goes to $-\infty$ as $x\rightarrow \infty$, so it is guaranteed that such an $M$ can be found. That $M$ will be close to $\frac{\sum{X_i}-0.5 p}{n p}$. Either $M$ or $M+1$ will be the mle.


I don't see how to do this with only one observation, if $p$ is unknown. If $p$ is known, here are some clues. [More generally, this is a much-studied problem; perhaps see this paper and its references.]

If $p = 0.3$ and your observation is $X = 12,$ then the method of moments estimator is $X/p = 40.$

Perhaps it is reasonable to guess that the MLE will be approximately the same.

Here is a graphical solution, using R:

m = 1:150; p = .3; x = 12
like = dbinom(x, m, p)
plot(m, like, type="l", lwd=2)
 abline(h=0, col="green2")
mle = mean(m[like==max(like)]);  mle
[1] 39.5
 abline(v=mle, col="red")

enter image description here

  • $\begingroup$ in OP notation $p$ is $n$ (number of trials). $\endgroup$ Mar 1, 2021 at 20:24

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