Distinguishing bias from sensitivity effects in multialternative detection tasks

J Vis. 2014 Aug 21;14(9):16. doi: 10.1167/14.9.16.


Studies investigating the neural bases of cognitive phenomena increasingly employ multialternative detection tasks that seek to measure the ability to detect a target stimulus or changes in some target feature (e.g., orientation or direction of motion) that could occur at one of many locations. In such tasks, it is essential to distinguish the behavioral and neural correlates of enhanced perceptual sensitivity from those of increased bias for a particular location or choice (choice bias). However, making such a distinction is not possible with established approaches. We present a new signal detection model that decouples the behavioral effects of choice bias from those of perceptual sensitivity in multialternative (change) detection tasks. By formulating the perceptual decision in a multidimensional decision space, our model quantifies the respective contributions of bias and sensitivity to multialternative behavioral choices. With a combination of analytical and numerical approaches, we demonstrate an optimal, one-to-one mapping between model parameters and choice probabilities even for tasks involving arbitrarily large numbers of alternatives. We validated the model with published data from two ternary choice experiments: a target-detection experiment and a length-discrimination experiment. The results of this validation provided novel insights into perceptual processes (sensory noise and competitive interactions) that can accurately and parsimoniously account for observers' behavior in each task. The model will find important application in identifying and interpreting the effects of behavioral manipulations (e.g., cueing attention) or neural perturbations (e.g., stimulation or inactivation) in a variety of multialternative tasks of perception, attention, and decision-making.

Keywords: attention; multidimensional models; nonforced choice; optimal decision theory; perceptual decision-making; signal detection theory; unforced choice.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Attention / physiology
  • Bias*
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Models, Theoretical*
  • Sensitivity and Specificity*
  • Signal Detection, Psychological
  • Visual Perception / physiology*