The psychometric function: I. Fitting, sampling, and goodness of fit

Percept Psychophys. 2001 Nov;63(8):1293-313. doi: 10.3758/bf03194544.


The psychometric function relates an observer's performance to an independent variable, usually some physical quantity of a stimulus in a psychophysical task. This paper, together with its companion paper (Wichmann & Hill, 2001), describes an integrated approach to (1) fitting psychometric functions, (2) assessing the goodness of fit, and (3) providing confidence intervals for the function's parameters and other estimates derived from them, for the purposes of hypothesis testing. The present paper deals with the first two topics, describing a constrained maximum-likelihood method of parameter estimation and developing several goodness-of-fit tests. Using Monte Carlo simulations, we deal with two specific difficulties that arise when fitting functions to psychophysical data. First, we note that human observers are prone to stimulus-independent errors (or lapses). We show that failure to account for this can lead to serious biases in estimates of the psychometric function's parameters and illustrate how the problem may be overcome. Second, we note that psychophysical data sets are usually rather small by the standards required by most of the commonly applied statistical tests. We demonstrate the potential errors of applying traditional chi2 methods to psychophysical data and advocate use of Monte Carlo resampling techniques that do not rely on asymptotic theory. We have made available the software to implement our methods.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bias
  • Confidence Intervals
  • Humans
  • Likelihood Functions
  • Monte Carlo Method
  • Psychometrics / methods*
  • Psychophysics / statistics & numerical data*
  • Sensory Thresholds