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Measurement of sensory intensity

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 February 2010

Richard M. Warren
Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee, Wisc. 53201


The measurement of sensory intensity has had a long history, attracting the attention of investigators from many disciplines including physiology, psychology, physics, mathematics, philosophy, and even chemistry. While there has been a continuing doubt by some that sensation has the properties necessary for measurement, experiments designed to obtain estimates of sensory intensity have found that a general rule applies: Equal stimulus ratios produce equal sensory ratios. Theories concerning the basis for this simple psychophysical rule are discussed, with emphasis given to the physical correlate theory, which considers judgments of subjective magnitudes to be based upon estimates of physical dimensions that vary regularly with changes in degree of stimulation. For the most thoroughly investigated sensory scales, brightness and loudness, the physical correlate is considered to be distance. Our “tacit knowledge” of the sensory effects of changing distance plays an essential role in matching motor activities to environmental conditions and in ensuring accurate perceptual evaluations through brightness and loudness constancies. In psychophysical experiments, subjects apparently use this same tacit knowledge when required to estimate relative subjective magnitudes. The evidence related to the physical correlate theory is summarized, and it is concluded that, while under appropriate conditions we demonstrate considerable skill in evaluating environmental relationships, we are quite unable to estimate the neurophysiological nature or quantity of sensory response. A psychophysics devoted to studying conditions required for accuracy and conditions producing errors in the perception of environmental relationships would seem to be more valuable than one devoted to subjective magnitudes.

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