likelihood function

Let X=(X1,…,Xn) be a random vector and


a statistical model parametrized by 𝜽=(θ1,…,θk), the parameter vector in the parameter space Θ. The likelihood functionMathworldPlanetmath is a map L:Θ→ℝ given by


In other words, the likelikhood functionMathworldPlanetmath is functionally the same in form as a probability density functionMathworldPlanetmath. However, the emphasis is changed from the 𝒙 to the 𝜽. The pdf is a function of the x’s while holding the parameters θ’s constant, L is a function of the parameters θ’s, while holding the x’s constant.

When there is no confusion, L(𝜽∣𝒙) is abbreviated to be L⁢(𝜽).

The parameter vector 𝜽^ such that L⁢(𝜽^)≥L⁢(𝜽) for all 𝜽∈Θ is called a maximum likelihood estimate, or MLE, of 𝜽.

Many of the density functions are exponentialMathworldPlanetmathPlanetmath in nature, it is therefore easier to compute the MLE of a likelihood function L by finding the maximum of the natural log of L, known as the log-likelihood function:


due to the monotonicity of the log function.


  1. 1.

    A coin is tossed n times and m heads are observed. Assume that the probability of a head after one toss is π. What is the MLE of π?

    Solution: Define the outcome of a toss be 0 if a tail is observed and 1 if a head is observed. Next, let Xi be the outcome of the ith toss. For any single toss, the density function is πx⁢(1-π)1-x where x∈{0,1}. Assume that the tosses are independent events, then the joint probability density is


    which is also the likelihood function L⁢(π). Therefore, the log-likelihood function has the form


    Using standard calculus, we get that the MLE of π is

  2. 2.

    Suppose a sample of n data points Xi are collected. Assume that the Xi∼N⁢(μ,σ2) and the Xi’s are independent of each other. What is the MLE of the parameter vector 𝜽=(μ,σ2)?

    Solution: The joint pdf of the Xi, and hence the likelihood function, is


    The log-likelihood function is


    Taking the first derivativeMathworldPlanetmath (gradient), we get



    ∂⁡ℓ∂⁡𝜽=𝟎⁢ See score function

    and solve for 𝜽=(μ,σ2) we have


    where x¯=Σ⁢xi/n is the sample meanMathworldPlanetmath and s2=Σ⁢(xi-x¯)2/(n-1) is the sample variance. Finally, we verify that 𝜽^ is indeed the MLE of 𝜽 by checking the negativity of the 2nd derivatives (for each parameter).

Title likelihood function
Canonical name LikelihoodFunction
Date of creation 2013-03-22 14:27:58
Last modified on 2013-03-22 14:27:58
Owner CWoo (3771)
Last modified by CWoo (3771)
Numerical id 13
Author CWoo (3771)
Entry type Definition
Classification msc 62A01
Synonym likelihood statistic
Synonym likelihood
Defines maximum likelihood estimate
Defines MLE
Defines log-likelihood function