Psychophysics quantitatively investigates the relationship between physical stimuli
Stimulus (physiology)
In physiology, a stimulus is a detectable change in the internal or external environment. The ability of an organism or organ to respond to external stimuli is called sensitivity....

 and the sensations and perceptions they effect. Psychophysics has been described as "the scientific study of the relation between stimulus and sensation" 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".

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
Ideal Observer Analysis
Ideal observer analysis is a method for investigating how information is processed in a perceptual system. It is also a basic principle that guides modern research in perception....

 and signal detection theory
Detection theory
Detection theory, or signal detection theory, is a means to quantify the ability to discern between information-bearing energy patterns and random energy patterns that distract from the information Detection theory, or signal detection theory, is a means to quantify the ability to discern between...


Psychophysics has important practical applications. For example, in the study of digital signal processing
Digital signal processing
Digital signal processing is concerned with the representation of discrete time signals by a sequence of numbers or symbols and the processing of these signals. Digital signal processing and analog signal processing are subfields of signal processing...

 psychophysics has informed the development of models and methods of lossy compression. These models explain why humans perceive very little loss of signal quality when audio and video signals are formatted using lossy compression.


Many of the classical techniques and theory of psychophysics were formulated in 1860 when Gustav Theodor Fechner
Gustav Fechner
Gustav Theodor Fechner , was a German experimental psychologist. An early pioneer in experimental psychology and founder of psychophysics, he inspired many 20th century scientists and philosophers...

 published Elemente der Psychophysik. He coined the term "psychophysics", describing research that he thought related physical stimuli to the contents of consciousness such as sensations. As a philosopher, Fechner wanted to develop a method that could relate matter to the mind, connecting the publicly observable world and a person's privately experienced impression of it. His ideas were inspired by experimental results on the sense of touch obtained in the early 1830s by the German physiologist Ernst Heinrich Weber
Ernst Heinrich Weber
Ernst Heinrich Weber was a German physician who is considered one of the founders of experimental psychology.Weber studied medicine at Wittenberg University...

 , most notably a minimum physical fraction that was discriminated between stimuli of moderate strength, i.e. a log-linear psychophysical function. Weber's work formed one of the bases of psychology as a science
Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe...

, with Wilhelm Wundt
Wilhelm Wundt
Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt was a German physician, psychologist, physiologist, philosopher, and professor, known today as one of the founding figures of modern psychology. He is widely regarded as the "father of experimental psychology"...

 founding the first laboratory for psychological research. Fechner's work systematised the Introspectionist approach (psychology as the science of consciousness), that had to contend with the Behaviorist approach in which even verbal responses are as physical as the stimuli. During the 1930s, both approaches began to be replaced by use of stimulus-response relationships as evidence for conscious or unconscious processing in the mind.

Fechner's work was studied and extended by Charles S. Peirce, who was aided by his student Joseph Jastrow
Joseph Jastrow
Joseph Jastrow was an American psychologist, noted for inventions in experimental psychology, design of experiments, and psycho-physics. Jastrow was one of the first scientists to study the evolution of language, publishing an article on the topic in 1886...

, who soon became a distinguished experimental psychologist in his own right. Peirce and Jastrow largely confirmed Fechner's empirical findings, but not all. In particular, a classic experiment of Peirce and Jastrow rejected Fechner's estimation of a threshold of perception of weights, as being far too high. In their experiment, Peirce and Jastrow in fact invented randomized experiments: They randomly assigned volunteers to a blinded, repeated-measures design
Repeated measures design
The repeated measures design uses the same subjects with every condition of the research, including the control. For instance, repeated measures are collected in a longitudinal study in which change over time is assessed. Other studies compare the same measure under two or more different conditions...

 to evaluate their ability to discriminate weights.
Peirce's experiment inspired other researchers in psychology and education, which developed a research tradition of randomized experiments in laboratories and specialized textbooks in the eighteen-hundreds.
The Peirce–Jastrow experiments were conducted as part of Peirce's application of his pragmatism
Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition centered on the linking of practice and theory. It describes a process where theory is extracted from practice, and applied back to practice to form what is called intelligent practice...

 program to human perception; other studies considered the perception of light, etc.. Jastrow wrote the following summary: "Mr. Peirce’s courses in logic gave me my first real experience of intellectual muscle. Though I promptly took to the laboratory of psychology when that was established by Stanley Hall
G. Stanley Hall
Granville Stanley Hall was a pioneering American psychologist and educator. His interests focused on childhood development and evolutionary theory...

, it was Peirce who gave me my first training in the handling of a psychological problem, and at the same time stimulated my self-esteem by entrusting me, then fairly innocent of any laboratory habits, with a real bit of research. He borrowed the apparatus for me, which I took to my room, installed at my window, and with which, when conditions of illumination were right, I took the observations. The results were published over our joint names in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. The demonstration that traces of sensory effect too slight to make any registry in consciousness could none the less influence judgment, may itself have been a persistent motive that induced me years later to undertake a book on The Subconscious." This work clearly distinguishes observable cognitive performance from the expression of consciousness.

Modern approaches to physical (sensory) perception, such as research on vision or hearing, measure what the perceiver's judgment extracts from the stimulus, putting aside the question what sensations are being experienced. The leading method is based on signal detection theory
Detection theory
Detection theory, or signal detection theory, is a means to quantify the ability to discern between information-bearing energy patterns and random energy patterns that distract from the information Detection theory, or signal detection theory, is a means to quantify the ability to discern between...

, developed for cases of very weak stimuli. However the subjectivist approach persists among those in the tradition of Stanley Smith Stevens
Stanley Smith Stevens
Stanley Smith Stevens was an American psychologist who founded Harvard's Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory and is credited with the introduction of Stevens' power law. Stevens authored a milestone textbook, the 1400+ page "Handbook of Experimental Psychology" . He was also one of the founding organizers...

 (1906–1973). Stevens revived the idea of a power law
Power law
A power law is a special kind of mathematical relationship between two quantities. When the frequency of an event varies as a power of some attribute of that event , the frequency is said to follow a power law. For instance, the number of cities having a certain population size is found to vary...

 suggested by 19th century researchers (in contrast with the Weber-Fechner log-linear function). He also advocated the assignment of numbers in ratio to the strengths of stimuli, called magnitude estimation. Stevens added techniques such as magnitude production and cross modality matching. He opposed the assignment of stimulus strengths to points on a line that are labelled in
order of strength. Nevertheless that sort of response has remained popular in applied psychophysics. Such multiple category layouts are often misnamed Likert scaling
Likert scale
A Likert scale is a psychometric scale commonly involved in research that employs questionnaires. It is the most widely used approach to scaling responses in survey research, such that the term is often used interchangeably with rating scale, or more accurately the Likert-type scale, even though...

 after the question items used by Likert to create multi-item psychometric scales, e.g. seven phrases from "strongly agree" through "strongly disagree".

Omar Khaleefa has 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.


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
Visual perception
Visual perception is the ability to interpret information and surroundings from the effects of visible light reaching the eye. The resulting perception is also known as eyesight, sight, or vision...

, hearing
Hearing (sense)
Hearing is the ability to perceive sound by detecting vibrations through an organ such as the ear. It is one of the traditional five senses...

, touch
Somatosensory system
The somatosensory system is a diverse sensory system composed of the receptors and processing centres to produce the sensory modalities such as touch, temperature, proprioception , and nociception . The sensory receptors cover the skin and epithelia, skeletal muscles, bones and joints, internal...

 (including skin
-Dermis:The dermis is the layer of skin beneath the epidermis that consists of connective tissue and cushions the body from stress and strain. The dermis is tightly connected to the epidermis by a basement membrane. It also harbors many Mechanoreceptors that provide the sense of touch and heat...

 and enteric perception
A barostat is a device used to maintain constant pressure in a closed chamber. Their main principle is providing constant pressures in a balloon by means of a pneumatic pump...

), taste
Taste is one of the traditional five senses. It refers to the ability to detect the flavor of substances such as food, certain minerals, and poisons, etc....

, smell
Olfaction is the sense of smell. This sense is mediated by specialized sensory cells of the nasal cavity of vertebrates, and, by analogy, sensory cells of the antennae of invertebrates...

 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 and difference.


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 (or just-noticeable difference) is the magnitude of the smallest 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.


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.

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.

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 are just detected.

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
Habituation can be defined as a process or as a procedure. As a process it is defined as a decrease in an elicited behavior resulting from the repeated presentation of an eliciting stimulus...

). 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 Békésy
Georg von Békésy
Georg von Békésy was a Hungarian biophysicist born in Budapest, Hungary.In 1961, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on the function of the cochlea in the mammalian hearing organ.-Research:Békésy developed a method for dissecting the inner ear of human...

 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.

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. For 'absolute thresholds' again the subject reports whether he or she is able to detect the stimulus. For 'difference thresholds' there has to be a constant comparison stimulus with each of the varied levels.
Friedrich Hegelmaier described the method of constant stimuli in a 1852 paper. This method allows for full sampling of the psychometric function
Psychometric function
A psychometric function describes the relationship between a parameter of a physical stimulus and the responses of a person who has to decide about a certain aspect of that stimulus. Usually these sensory decisions take the form of a two-alternative forced choice . The psychometric function usually...

, but can result in a lot of 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.
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
Psychometric function
A psychometric function describes the relationship between a parameter of a physical stimulus and the responses of a person who has to decide about a certain aspect of that stimulus. Usually these sensory decisions take the form of a two-alternative forced choice . The psychometric function usually...

 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).

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.

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
Stevens' power law
Stevens' power law is a proposed relationship between the magnitude of a physical stimulus and its perceived intensity or strength. It is often considered to supersede the Weber–Fechner law on the basis that it describes a wider range of sensations, although critics argue that the validity of the...

 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 multiple-category responses, because of the restricted range of the categorical anchors, such as those used by Likert
Likert may refer to:* Rensis Likert, an American educator and organizational psychologist best known for his research on management styles* the Likert scale developed by Rensis Likert, a measuring device used in quantitative social science...

as items in attitude scales.
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