Sorting and selection with imprecise comparisons

Miklós Ajtai, Vitaly Feldman, Avinatan Hassidim, Jelani Nelson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


We consider a simple model of imprecise comparisons: there exists some δ > 0 such that when a subject is given two elements to compare, if the values of those elements (as perceived by the subject) differ by at least δ, then the comparison will be made correctly; when the two elements have values that are within δ, the outcome of the comparison is unpredictable. This model is inspired by both imprecision in human judgment of values and also by bounded but potentially adversarial errors in the outcomes of sporting tournaments. Our model is closely related to a number of models commonly considered in the psychophysics literature where δ corresponds to the Just Noticeable Difference (JND) unit or difference threshold. In experimental psychology, the method of paired comparisons was proposed as a means for ranking preferences among n elements of a human subject. The method requires performing all 2 comparisons, then sorting elements according to the number of wins. The large number of comparisons is performed to counter the potentially faulty decision-making of the human subject, who acts as an imprecise comparator. We show that in our model the method of paired comparisons has optimal accuracy, minimizing the errors introduced by the imprecise comparisons. However, it is also wasteful because it requires all(N2). We show that the same optimal guarantees can be achieved using 4n3/2 comparisons, and we prove the optimality of our method. We then explore the general tradeoff between the guarantees on the error that can be made and number of comparisons for the problems of sorting, max-finding, and selection. Our results provide strong lower bounds and close-to-optimal solutions for each of these problems.

Original languageEnglish
Article number19
JournalACM Transactions on Algorithms
Issue number2
StatePublished - Nov 2015

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 ACM 1549-6325/2015/11-ART19 $15.00.


  • Faulty comparisons
  • Just Noticeable Difference
  • Maximum
  • Paired comparisons
  • Selection
  • Sorting
  • Tournament king
  • Weber's law


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