The psychometric function: II. Bootstrap-based confidence intervals and sampling

Percept Psychophys. 2001 Nov;63(8):1314-29. doi: 10.3758/bf03194545.


The psychometric function relates an observer's performance to an independent variable, usually a physical quantity of an experimental stimulus. Even if a model is successfully fit to the data and its goodness of fit is acceptable, experimenters require an estimate of the variability of the parameters to assess whether differences across conditions are significant. Accurate estimates of variability are difficult to obtain, however, given the typically small size of psychophysical data sets: Traditional statistical techniques are only asymptotically correct and can be shown to be unreliable in some common situations. Here and in our companion paper (Wichmann & Hill, 2001), we suggest alternative statistical techniques based on Monte Carlo resampling methods. The present paper's principal topic is the estimation of the variability of fitted parameters and derived quantities, such as thresholds and slopes. First, we outline the basic bootstrap procedure and argue in favor of the parametric, as opposed to the nonparametric, bootstrap. Second, we describe how the bootstrap bridging assumption, on which the validity of the procedure depends, can be tested. Third, we show how one's choice of sampling scheme (the placement of sample points on the stimulus axis) strongly affects the reliability of bootstrap confidence intervals, and we make recommendations on how to sample the psychometric function efficiently. Fourth, we show that, under certain circumstances, the (arbitrary) choice of the distribution function can exert an unwanted influence on the size of the bootstrap confidence intervals obtained, and we make recommendations on how to avoid this influence. Finally, we introduce improved confidence intervals (bias corrected and accelerated) that improve on the parametric and percentile-based bootstrap confidence intervals previously used. Software implementing our methods is available.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Confidence Intervals*
  • Humans
  • Models, Statistical
  • Monte Carlo Method
  • Psychometrics / methods*
  • Psychophysics / statistics & numerical data*
  • Sensory Thresholds