Published online by Cambridge University Press: 19 May 2011
Psychophysical scaling models of the form R = f(I), with R the response and I some intensity of an attribute, all assume that people judge the amounts of an attribute. With simple biases excepted, most also assume that judgments are independent of space, time, and features of the situation other than the one being judged. Many data support these ideas: Magnitude estimations of brightness (R) increase with luminance (I). Nevertheless, I argue that the general model is wrong. The stabilized retinal image literature shows that nothing is seen if light does not change over time. The classification literature shows that dimensions often combine to produce emergent properties that cannot be described by the elements in the stimulus. These and other effects cannot be adjusted for by simply adding variables to the general model because some factors do not combine linearly. The proposed alternative is that people initially judge the entire stimulus – the object in terms of its environment. This agrees with the constancy literature that shows that objects and their attributes are identified through their relations to other aspects of the scene. That the environment determines judgments is masked in scaling studies where the standard procedure is to hold context constant. In a typical brightness study (where different lights are presented on the same background on different trials) the essential stimulus might be the intensity of the light or a difference between the light and the background. The two are perfectly confounded. This issue is examined in the case of audition. Judgments of the loudness of a tone depend on how much that tone differs from the previous tone in both pitch and loudness. To judge loudness (and other attributes) people first seem to process the stimulus object in terms of differences between it and other aspects in the situation; only then do they assess the feature of interest. Psychophysical judgments will therefore be better interpreted by theories of attention that are based in biology or psychology than those (following Fechner) that are based in classical physics.