Stevens's power law



Stevens' power law is an empirical relationship in
psychophysics Psychophysics quantitatively investigates the relationship between physical stimuli and the sensations and perceptions they produce. Psychophysics has been described as "the scientific study of the relation between stimulus and sensation" or, ...
between an increased intensity or strength in a physical stimulus and the perceived
magnitude Magnitude may refer to: Mathematics * Euclidean vector, a quantity defined by both its magnitude and its direction *Magnitude (mathematics), the relative size of an object *Norm (mathematics), a term for the size or length of a vector *Order o ...
increase in the sensation created by the stimulus. It is often considered to supersede the Weber–Fechner law, which is based on a logarithmic relationship between stimulus and sensation, because the power law describes a wider range of sensory comparisons, down to zero intensity. The theory is named after psychophysicist
Stanley Smith Stevens Stanley Smith Stevens (November 4, 1906 – January 18, 1973) was an American psychologist who founded Harvard's Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory, studying psychoacoustics, and he is credited with the introduction of Stevens's power law. Stevens autho ...
(1906–1973). Although the idea of a
power law In statistics, a power law is a functional relationship between two quantities, where a relative change in one quantity results in a proportional relative change in the other quantity, independent of the initial size of those quantities: one q ...
had been suggested by 19th-century researchers, Stevens is credited with reviving the law and publishing a body of psychophysical data to support it in 1957. The general form of the law is :\psi(I) = k I ^a, where ''I'' is the intensity or strength of the stimulus in physical units (energy, weight, pressure, mixture proportions, etc.), ψ(''I'') is the magnitude of the sensation evoked by the stimulus, ''a'' is an exponent that depends on the type of stimulation or sensory modality, and ''k'' is a proportionality constant that depends on the units used. A distinction has been made between local
psychophysics Psychophysics quantitatively investigates the relationship between physical stimuli and the sensations and perceptions they produce. Psychophysics has been described as "the scientific study of the relation between stimulus and sensation" or, ...
, where stimuli can only be discriminated with a probability around 50%, and global psychophysics, where the stimuli can be discriminated correctly with near certainty (
Luce Luce may refer to: People * Luce (name), as a given name and a surname * Luce (singer) Places * Luče, a town in Slovenia * Luce, Minnesota, an unincorporated community * Luce Bay, a large Bay in Wigtownshire in southern Scotland * Luce ...
& Krumhansl, 1988). The Weber–Fechner law and methods described by
L. L. Thurstone Louis Leon Thurstone (29 May 1887 – 29 September 1955) was an American pioneer in the fields of psychometrics and psychophysics. He conceived the approach to measurement known as the law of comparative judgment, and is well known for his cont ...
are generally applied in local psychophysics, whereas Stevens' methods are usually applied in global psychophysics. The table to the right lists the exponents reported by Stevens.


The principal methods used by Stevens to measure the perceived intensity of a stimulus were ''magnitude estimation'' and ''magnitude production''. In magnitude estimation with a standard, the experimenter presents a stimulus called a ''standard'' and assigns it a number called the ''modulus''. For subsequent stimuli, subjects report numerically their perceived intensity relative to the standard so as to preserve the ratio between the sensations and the numerical estimates (e.g., a sound perceived twice as loud as the standard should be given a number twice the modulus). In magnitude estimation without a standard (usually just ''magnitude estimation''), subjects are free to choose their own standard, assigning any number to the first stimulus and all subsequent ones with the only requirement being that the ratio between sensations and numbers is preserved. In magnitude production a number and a reference stimulus is given and subjects produce a stimulus that is perceived as that number times the reference. Also used is ''cross-modality matching'', which generally involves subjects altering the magnitude of one physical quantity, such as the brightness of a light, so that its perceived intensity is equal to the perceived intensity of another type of quantity, such as warmth or pressure.


Stevens generally collected magnitude estimation data from multiple observers, averaged the data across subjects, and then fitted a power function to the data. Because the fit was generally reasonable, he concluded the power law was correct. A principal criticism has been that Stevens' approach provides neither a direct test of the power law itself nor the underlying assumptions of the magnitude estimation/production method: it simply fits curves to data points. In addition, the power law can be deduced mathematically from the Weber-Fechner logarithmic function ( Mackay, 1963), and the relation makes predictions consistent with data
1978Staddon, J. E. R.)]. Theory of behavioral power functions. Psychological Review, 85, 305–320. ). As with all psychometric studies, Stevens' approach ignores individual differences in the stimulus-sensation relationship, and there are generally large individual differences in this relationship that averaging the data will obscure . Stevens' main assertion was that using magnitude estimations/productions respondents were able to make judgements on a Scale (ratio), ratio scale (i.e., if ''x'' and ''y'' are values on a given ratio scale, then there exists a constant ''k'' such that ''x'' = ''ky''). In the context of
axiomatic An axiom, postulate, or assumption is a statement that is taken to be true, to serve as a premise or starting point for further reasoning and arguments. The word comes from the Ancient Greek word (), meaning 'that which is thought worthy or ...
psychophysics, formulated a testable property capturing the implicit underlying assumption this assertion entailed. Specifically, for two proportions ''p'' and ''q'', and three stimuli, ''x'', ''y'', ''z'', if ''y'' is judged ''p'' times ''x'', ''z'' is judged ''q'' times ''y'', then ''t'' = ''pq'' times ''x'' should be equal to ''z''. This amounts to assuming that respondents interpret numbers in a veridical way. This property was unambiguously rejected (, ). Without assuming veridical interpretation of numbers, formulated another property that, if sustained, meant that respondents could make ratio scaled judgments, namely, if ''y'' is judged ''p'' times ''x'', ''z'' is judged ''q'' times ''y'', and if ''y'' is judged ''q'' times ''x'', ''z'' is judged ''p'' times ''y'', then ''z'' should equal ''z''. This property has been sustained in a variety of situations (, ). Critics of the power law also point out that the validity of the law is contingent on the measurement of perceived stimulus intensity that is employed in the relevant experiments. , under the condition that respondents' numerical distortion function and the psychophysical functions could be separated, formulated a behavioral condition equivalent to the psychophysical function being a power function. This condition was confirmed for just over half the respondents, and the power form was found to be a reasonable approximation for the rest . It has also been questioned, particularly in terms of
signal detection theory Detection theory or signal detection theory is a means to measure the ability to differentiate between information-bearing patterns (called stimulus in living organisms, signal in machines) and random patterns that distract from the information ( ...
, whether any given stimulus is actually associated with a particular and ''absolute'' perceived intensity; i.e. one that is independent of contextual factors and conditions. Consistent with this, Luce (1990, p. 73) observed that "by introducing contexts such as background noise in loudness judgements, the shape of the magnitude estimation functions certainly deviates sharply from a power function". Indeed, nearly all sensory judgments can be changed by the context in which a stimulus is perceived.

See also

Perception Perception () is the organization, identification, and interpretation of sensory information in order to represent and understand the presented information or environment. All perception involves signals that go through the nervous syste ...
* Sone


* * * * * * Luce, R. D. & Krumhansl, C. (1988) Measurement, scaling, and psychophysics. In R. C. Atkinson, R. J. Herrnstein, G. Lindzey, & R. D. Luce (Eds.) ''Stevens' Handbook of Experimental Psychology''. New York: Wiley. Pp. 1–74. * Smelser, N.J., & Baltes, P.B. (2001). ''International encyclopedia of the social & behavioral sciences''
pp. 15105–15106
Amsterdam; New York: Elsevier. . * * * Stevens, S.S. (1975), Geraldine Stevens, editor.
Psychophysics: introduction to its perceptual, neural, and social prospects
', Transaction Publishers, . * {{cite journal , last1 = Zimmer , first1 = K. , year = 2005 , title = Examining the validity of numerical ratios in loudness fractionation , journal = Perception & Psychophysics , volume = 67 , issue = 4, pages = 569–579 , doi=10.3758/bf03193515, pmid = 16134452 , doi-access = free Perception Behavioral concepts Power laws Psychophysics Mathematical psychology Psychoacoustics it:Soglia percettiva