Using psychophysics to ask if the brain samples or maximizes

J Vis. 2015 Mar 12;15(3):7. doi: 10.1167/15.3.7.


The two-alternative forced-choice (2AFC) task is the workhorse of psychophysics and is used to measure the just-noticeable difference, generally assumed to accurately quantify sensory precision. However, this assumption is not true for all mechanisms of decision making. Here we derive the behavioral predictions for two popular mechanisms, sampling and maximum a posteriori, and examine how they affect the outcome of the 2AFC task. These predictions are used in a combined visual 2AFC and estimation experiment. Our results strongly suggest that subjects use a maximum a posteriori mechanism. Further, our derivations and experimental paradigm establish the already standard 2AFC task as a behavioral tool for measuring how humans make decisions under uncertainty.

Keywords: Bayesian; decision-making; just-noticeable difference (JND); maximum a posteriori; psychophysics; sampling; two-alternative forced choice (2AFC).

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Choice Behavior*
  • Decision Making*
  • Humans
  • Mathematics
  • Models, Theoretical*
  • Psychophysics / methods*