By: Rich Zwelling, Apex GMAT Instructor
Date: 8th March, 2021

Independent vs. Dependent Probability

As promised last time, we’ll return to some strict GMAT probability today. Specifically, we’ll discuss the difference between independent and dependent probability. This simply refers to whether or not the events involved are dependent on one another. For example, let’s take a look at the following Official Guide problem:

Xavier, Yvonne, and Zelda each try independently to solve a problem. If their individual probabilities for success are 1/4, 1/2 and 5/8, respectively, what is the probability that Xavier and Yvonne, but not Zelda, will solve the problem?

A) 11/8
C) 9/64
D) 5/64
E) 3/64

In this case, we are dealing with independent events, because none of the probabilities affect the others. In other words, what Xavier does doesn’t affect Yvonne’s chances. We can treat each of the given probabilities as they are. 

So mathematically, we would multiply, the probabilities involved. (Incidentally, the word “and” is often a good indication that multiplication is involved. We want Xavier AND Yvonne AND not Zelda to solve the problem.) And if Zelda has a chance of solving the problem, that means she has a chance of not solving it. 

The answer would therefore be ¼ x ½ x ⅜  = 3/64 or answer choice E. 

What if, however, we changed the problem to look like this:

Xavier, Yvonne, and Zelda individual probabilities for success on a certain problem are 1/4, 1/2 and 5/8, respectively. Xavier will attempt the problem first. If he solves it, Yvonne and Zelda will not attempt it. If Xavier cannot solve it, Yvonne will attempt it next. If she solves it, Zelda will not attempt it. If Yvonne cannot solve it, Zelda will then attempt it. What is the probability that Zelda does not get to attempt the problem?

A) 3/16
C) 3/8
D) 5/64
E) 3/64

As you can see, the problem got much more complicated much more quickly, because now, the question stem is dependent upon a very specific series of events. Now, the events affect one another. Xavier will attempt the problem, but what happens at this stage affects what happens next. If he solves it, everything stops. But if he doesn’t, the problem moves to Yvonne. So in effect, there’s a ¼ chance that he’s the only person to attempt the problem, and there’s a ¾ chance the problem moves to Yvonne.

This is most likely how the GMAT will force you to think about probability: not in terms of formulas or complicated mathematical concepts, but rather in terms of narrative within a new problem with straightforward numbers. 

That brings us to consideration of the question stem itself. What would have to happen for Zelda not to attempt the problem? Well, there are a couple of possibilities:

 1. Xavier solves the problem

If Xavier solves the problem, the sequence ends, and Zelda does not see the problem. This is one case we’re interested in, and there’s a ¼ chance of that happening. 

 2. Xavier does not solve, but then Yvonne solves

There’s a ½ chance of Yvonne solving, but her seeing the problem is dependent upon the ¾ chance that Xavier does not solve. So in reality, we must multiply the two numbers together to acknowledge that the situation we want is “Xavier does not solve AND Yvonne does solve.” This results in ¾ x ½ = ⅜ 

The two above cases constitute two independent situations that we now must add together. For Zelda not to see the problem, either Xavier must solve it OR Yvonne must solve it. (The word “or” is often a good indication that addition will be used).

This leads us to our final probability of ¼ + ⅜ = that Zelda does not get to attempt the problem.

There is an alternative way to solve this problem, which we’ll talk about next time. It will segue nicely into the next topic, which we’ve already hinted at in our posts on GMAT combinatorics. Until then…

Permutations and Combinations Intro
A Continuation of Permutation Math
An Intro To Combination Math
Permutations With Repeat Elements
Permutations With Restrictions
Combinations with Restrictions
Independent vs Dependent Probability
GMAT Probability Math – The Undesired Approach
GMAT Probability Meets Combinatorics: One Problem, Two Approaches