Maximum a posteriori

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In statistics, the method of maximum a posteriori (MAP, or posterior mode) estimation can be used to obtain a point estimate of an unobserved quantity on the basis of empirical data. It is closely related to Fisher's method of maximum likelihood (ML), but employs an augmented optimization objective which incorporates a prior distribution over the quantity one wants to estimate. MAP estimation can therefore be seen as a regularization of ML estimation.


Assume that we want to estimate an unobserved population parameter on the basis of observations . Let be the sampling distribution of , so that is the probability of when the underlying population parameter is . Then the function

is known as the likelihood function and the estimate

as the maximum likelihood estimate of .

Now assume that a prior distribution over exists. This allows us to treat as a random variable as in Bayesian statistics. Then the posterior distribution of is as follows:

where is density function of , is the domain of . This is a straightforward application of Bayes' theorem.

The method of maximum a posteriori estimation then estimates as the mode of the posterior distribution of this random variable:

The denominator of the posterior distribution does not depend on and therefore plays no role in the optimization. Observe that the MAP estimate of coincides with the ML estimate when the prior is uniform (that is, a constant function).

MAP estimates can be computed in several ways:

  1. Analytically, when the mode(s) of the posterior distribution can be given in closed form. This is the case when conjugate priors are used.
  2. Via numerical optimization such as the conjugate gradient method or Newton's method. This usually requires first or second derivatives, which have to be evaluated analytically or numerically.
  3. Via a modification of an expectation-maximization algorithm. This does not require derivatives of the posterior density.

While MAP estimation shares the use of a prior distribution with Bayesian statistics, it is not generally seen as a Bayesian method. This is because MAP estimates are point estimates, whereas Bayesian methods are characterized by the use of distributions to summarize data and draw inferences. Bayesian methods tend to report the posterior mean or median together with posterior intervals, rather than the posterior mode. This is especially so when the posterior distribution does not have a simple analytic form: in this case, the posterior distribution can be simulated using Markov chain Monte Carlo techniques, while optimization to find its mode(s) may be difficult or impossible.


Suppose that we are given a sequence of IID random variables and an a priori distribution of is given by . We wish to find the MAP estimate of .

The function to be maximized is then given by

which is equivalent to minimizing in the following

Thus, we see that the MAP estimator for μ is given by

The case of is called a non-informative prior and leads to an ill-defined a priori probability distribution; in this case

See also


  • M. DeGroot, Optimal Statistical Decisions, McGraw-Hill, (1970).
  • Harold W. Sorenson, (1980) "Parameter Estimation: Principles and Problems", Marcel Dekker.

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