 Register  # 8.10. Common Misunderstandings¶

## 8.10.1. Common Misunderstandings¶

Asymptotic analysis is one of the most intellectually difficult topics that undergraduate computer science majors are confronted with. Most people find growth rates and asymptotic analysis confusing and so develop misconceptions about either the concepts or the terminology. It helps to know what the standard points of confusion are, in hopes of avoiding them.

One problem with differentiating the concepts of upper and lower bounds is that, for most algorithms that you will encounter, it is easy to recognize the true growth rate for that algorithm. Given complete knowledge about a cost function, the upper and lower bound for that cost function are always the same. Thus, the distinction between an upper and a lower bound is only worthwhile when you have incomplete knowledge about the thing being measured. If this distinction is still not clear, then you should read about analyzing problems. We use $\Theta$-notation to indicate that there is no meaningful difference between what we know about the growth rates of the upper and lower bound (which is usually the case for simple algorithms).

It is a common mistake to confuse the concepts of upper bound or lower bound on the one hand, and worst case or best case on the other. The best, worst, or average cases each define a cost for a specific input instance (or specific set of instances for the average case). In contrast, upper and lower bounds describe our understanding of the growth rate for that cost measure. So to define the growth rate for an algorithm or problem, we need to determine what we are measuring (the best, worst, or average case) and also our description for what we know about the growth rate of that cost measure (big-Oh, $\Omega$, or $\Theta$).

The upper bound for an algorithm is not the same as the worst case for that algorithm for a given input of size $n$. What is being bounded is not the actual cost (which you can determine for a given value of $n$), but rather the growth rate for the cost. There cannot be a growth rate for a single point, such as a particular value of $n$. The growth rate applies to the change in cost as a change in input size occurs. Likewise, the lower bound is not the same as the best case for a given size $n$.

Another common misconception is thinking that the best case for an algorithm occurs when the input size is as small as possible, or that the worst case occurs when the input size is as large as possible. What is correct is that best- and worse-case instances exist for each possible size of input. That is, for all inputs of a given size, say $i$, one (or more) of the inputs of size $i$ is the best and one (or more) of the inputs of size $i$ is the worst. Often (but not always!), we can characterize the best input case for an arbitrary size, and we can characterize the worst input case for an arbitrary size. Ideally, we can determine the growth rate for the characterized best, worst, and average cases as the input size grows.

Example 8.10.1

What is the growth rate of the best case for sequential search? For any array of size $n$, the best case occurs when the value we are looking for appears in the first position of the array. This is true regardless of the size of the array. Thus, the best case (for arbitrary size $n$) occurs when the desired value is in the first of $n$ positions, and its cost is 1. It is not correct to say that the best case occurs when $n=1$.

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