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  • the invention of the tone variator (pictured) in 1897 marked the advance beyond classical psychophysics, as it allowed the study of the perception of continuous changes in stimuli?

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Psychophysics is a discipline within psychology that investigates the relationship between physical stimuli and their subjective correlates, or percepts. Psychophysics has been described as "the scientific study of the relation between stimulus and sensation"[1] or, more completely, as "the analysis of perceptual processes by studying the effect on a subject's experience or behaviour of systematically varying the properties of a stimulus along one or more physical dimensions".[2]

Psychophysics also refers to a general class of methods that can be applied to study a perceptual system. Modern applications tend to rely heavily on Ideal Observer Analysis and Signal Detection Theory[3].



Many of the classical techniques and theory of psychophysics were formulated in 1860 when Gustav Theodor Fechner published Elemente der Psychophysik.[4]. He coined the term "psychophysics", described research relating physical stimuli with how they are perceived, and set out the philosophical foundations of the field. Fechner wanted to develop a theory that could relate matter to the mind, by describing the relationship between the world and the way it is perceived. He was influenced by the work of German physiologist Ernst Heinrich Weber [5][6] Fechner's work formed the basis of psychology as a science. Wilhelm Wundt, the founder of the first laboratory for psychological research, built upon Fechner's work.

More modern approaches are divided into three large camps: Likert scaling, signal detection theory and power law theory. Power law theory is named after psychophysicist Stanley Smith Stevens (1906–1973). Although the idea of a power law had been suggested by 19th century researchers, Stevens is credited with reviving the law, creating new methods of magnitude estimation, magnitude production, and cross modality matching to create its scales and publishing a body of psychophysical data to support it.

Some authors[7] have argued that the medieval scientist Alhazen should be considered the founder of psychophysics. Although al-Haytham made many subjective reports regarding vision, there is no evidence that he used quantitative psychophysical techniques and such claims have been rebuffed.[8]


Psychophysicists usually employ experimental stimuli that can be objectively measured, such as pure tones varying in intensity, or lights varying in luminance. All the senses have been studied: vision, hearing, touch (including skin and enteric perception), taste, smell, and the sense of time. Regardless of the sensory domain, there are three main areas of investigation: absolute thresholds, discrimination thresholds, and scaling.

A threshold (or limen), is the point of intensity at which the participant can just detect the presence of, or difference in, a stimulus. Stimuli with intensities below the threshold are considered not detectable (hence: sub-liminal). Stimuli at values close enough to a threshold will often be detectable some proportion of the time; therefore, a threshold is considered to be the point at which a stimulus, or change in a stimulus, is detected some proportion p of the time. There are two kinds of thresholds: absolute[9] and difference.[6]



An absolute threshold is the level of intensity of a stimulus at which the subject is able to detect the presence of the stimulus some proportion of the time (a p level of 50% is often used). An example of an absolute threshold is the number of hairs on the back of one's hand that must be touched before it can be felt - a participant may be unable to feel a single hair being touched, but may be able to feel two or three as this exceeds the threshold. Absolute threshold is also often referred to as detection threshold.


A difference threshold is the magnitude of the difference between two stimuli of differing intensities that the participant is able to detect some proportion of the time (again, 50% is often used). To test this threshold, several different methods are used. The subject may be asked to adjust one stimulus until it is perceived as the same as the other, may be asked to describe the magnitude of the difference between two stimuli, or may be asked to detect a stimulus against a background.

In discrimination experiments, the experimenter seeks to determine at what point the difference between two stimuli, such as two weights or two sounds, is detectable. The subject is presented with one stimulus, for example a weight, and is asked to say whether another weight is heavier or lighter (in some experiments, the subject may also say the two weights are the same). At the point of subjective equality (PSE), the subject perceives the two weights to be the same. The just noticeable difference (JND), or difference limen (DL), is the magnitude of the difference in stimuli that the subject notices some proportion p of the time (50% is usually used for p).

Absolute and difference thresholds are sometimes considered similar because there is always background noise interfering with our ability to detect stimuli, however study of difference thresholds still occurs, for example in pitch discrimination tasks.[10][5]


In psychophysics, experiments seek to determine whether the subject can detect a stimulus, identify it, differentiate between it and another stimulus, and describe the magnitude or nature of this difference.[5][6]

Classical psychophysical methods

Psychophysical experiments have traditionally used three methods for testing subjects' perception in stimulus detection and difference detection experiments: the method of limits, the method of constant stimuli, and the method of adjustment.[11]

Method of limits

In ascending method of limits, some property of the stimulus starts out at a level so low that the stimulus could not be detected, then this level is gradually increased until the participant reports that they are aware of it. For example, if the experiment is testing the minimum amplitude of sound that can be detected, the sound begins too quietly to be perceived, and is made gradually louder. In the descending method of limits, this is reversed. In each case, the threshold is considered to be the level of the stimulus property at which the stimuli is just detected.[11]

In experiments, the ascending and descending methods are used alternately and the thresholds are averaged. A possible disadvantage of these methods is that the subject may become accustomed to reporting that they perceive a stimulus and may continue reporting the same way even beyond the threshold (the error of habituation). Conversely, the subject may also anticipate that the stimulus is about to become detectable or undetectable and may make a premature judgment (the error of anticipation).

To avoid these potential pitfalls, Georg von Bekesy introduced the staircase procedure in 1960 in his study of auditory perception. In this method, the sound starts out audible and gets quieter after each of the subject's responses, until the subject does not report hearing it. At that point, the sound is made louder at each step, until the subject reports hearing it, at which point it is made quieter in steps again. This way the experimenter is able to "zero in" on the threshold.[11]

Method of constant stimuli

Instead of being presented in ascending or descending order, in the method of constant stimuli the levels of a certain property of the stimulus are not related from one trial to the next, but presented randomly. This prevents the subject from being able to predict the level of the next stimulus, and therefore reduces errors of habituation and expectation. The subject again reports whether he or she is able to detect the stimulus.[11] Friedrich Hagelmaier described the method of constant stimuli in a 1852 paper. This method allows for full sampling of the psychometric function, but can result in a lot trials when several conditions are interleaved.

Method of adjustment

The method of adjustment asks the subject to control the level of the stimulus, instructs them to alter it until it is just barely detectable against the background noise, or is the same as the level of another stimulus. This is repeated many times. This is also called the method of average error.[11] In this method the observer himself controls the magnitude of the variable stimulus beginning with a variable that is distinctly greater or lesser than a standard one and he varies it until he is satisfied by the subjectivity of two.The difference between the variable stimuli and the standard one is recorded after each adjustment and the error is tabulated for a considerable series . At the end mean is calculated giving the average error which can be taken as the measure of sensitivity .

Adaptive psychophysical methods

Often, the classic methods of experimentation are argued to be inefficient. This is because, in advance of testing, the psychometric threshold is usually unknown and a lot of data has to be collected at points on the psychometric function that provide little information about its shape (the tails). Adaptive staircase procedures can be used such that the points sampled are clustered around the psychometric threshold. However, the cost of this efficiency is that you do not get the same amount of information regarding the shape of the psychometric function as you can through classical methods. Despite this, it is still possible to estimate the threshold and slope by fitting psychometric functions to the obtained data, although estimates of psychometric slope are likely to be more variable than those from the method of constant stimuli (for a reasonable sampling of the psychometric function).[11]

Staircase procedures

Staircases usually begin with a high intensity stimulus, which is easy to detect. The intensity is then reduced until the observer makes a mistake, at which point the staircase 'reverses' and intensity is increased until the observer responds correctly, triggering another reversal. The values for these 'reversals' are then averaged. There are many different types of staircase, utilising many different decision and termination rules. Step-size, up/down rules and the spread of the underlying psychometric function dictate where on the psychometric function they converge. Threshold values obtained from staircases can fluctuate wildly, so care must be taken in their design. Many different staircase algorithms have been modeled and some practical recommendations suggested by Garcia-Perez.[12]

Magnitude estimation

In the prototypical case, people are asked to assign numbers in proportion to the magnitude of the stimulus. This psychometric function of the geometric means of their numbers is often a power law with stable, replicable exponent. Although contexts can change the law and exponent, that change too is stable and replicable. Instead of numbers, other sensory or cognitive dimensions can be used to match a stimulus and the method then becomes "magnitude production" or "cross-modality matching". The exponents of those dimensions found in numerical magnitude estimation predict the exponents found in magnitude production. Magnitude estimation generally finds lower exponents for the psychophysical function than Likert scaling, because of the restricted range of the categorical Likert scales.[13].


  1. ^ Gescheider G (1997). Psychophysics: the fundamentals (3rd ed.). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. p. ix. 
  2. ^ Bruce V, Green P R, Georgeson M A (1996). Visual perception (3rd ed.). Psychology Press. 
  3. ^ Gescheider G (1997). "Chapter 5: The Theory of Signal Detection". Psychophysics: the fundamentals (3rd ed.). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 
  4. ^ Gustav Theodor Fechner (1860). Elemente der Psychophysik (Elements of Psychophysics). 
  5. ^ a b c Snodgrass JG. 1975. Psychophysics. In: Experimental Sensory Psychology. B Scharf. (Ed.) pp. 17-67.
  6. ^ a b c Gescheider G (1997). "Chapter 1: Psychophysical Measurement of Thresholds: Differential Sensitivity". Psychophysics: the fundamentals (3rd ed.). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 
  7. ^ Omar Khaleefa (1999). "Who Is the Founder of Psychophysics and Experimental Psychology?". American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences 16 (2). 
  8. ^ Aaen-Stockdale, C.R. (2008). "Ibn al-Haytham and psychophysics". Perception 37 (4): 636–638. doi:10.1068/p5940. 
  9. ^ Gescheider G (1997). "Chapter 2: Psychophysical Measurement of Thresholds: Absolute Sensitivity". Psychophysics: the fundamentals (3rd ed.). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 
  10. ^ Gescheider G (1997). "Chapter 4: Classical Psychophysical Theory". Psychophysics: the fundamentals (3rd ed.). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 
  11. ^ a b c d e f Gescheider G (1997). "Chapter 3: The Classical Psychophysical Methods". Psychophysics: the fundamentals (3rd ed.). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 
  12. ^ Garcia-Perez, MA (1998). "Forced-choice staircases with fixed step sizes: asymptotic and small-sample properties". Vision Res 38: 1861. doi:10.1016/S0042-6989(97)00340-4. 
  13. ^ , S. S. (1957).. On the psychophysical law. Psychological Review 64(3):. pp. 153–181. PMID 13441853. 


  • Steingrimsson, R.; Luce, R. D. (2006), "Empirical evaluation of a model of global psychophysical judgments: III. A form for the psychophysical function and intensity filtering", Journal of Mathematical Psychology 50: 15–29, doi:10.1016/ 
  • Stevens, S. S. (1957). On the psychophysical law. Psychological Review 64(3):153–181. PMID 13441853.

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