Paradigm versus praxis: why psychology ‘absolute identification’ experiments do not reveal sensory processes

Kybernetes 42:1447-1456 (2013)
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Purpose – A key cybernetics concept, information transmitted in a system, was quantified by Shannon. It quickly gained prominence, inspiring a version by Harvard psychologists Garner and Hake for “absolute identification” experiments. There, human subjects “categorize” sensory stimuli, affording “information transmitted” in perception. The Garner-Hake formulation has been in continuous use for 62 years, exerting enormous influence. But some experienced theorists and reviewers have criticized it as uninformative. They could not explain why, and were ignored. Here, the “why” is answered. The paper aims to discuss these issues. Design/methodology/approach – A key Shannon data-organizing tool is the confusion matrix. Its columns and rows are, respectively, labeled by “symbol sent” (event) and “symbol received” (outcome), such that matrix entries represent how often outcomes actually corresponded to events. Garner and Hake made their own version of the matrix, which deserves scrutiny, and is minutely examined here. Findings – The Garner-Hake confusion-matrix columns represent “stimulus categories”, ranges of some physical stimulus attribute (usually intensity), and its rows represent “response categories” of the subject’s identification of the attribute. The matrix entries thus show how often an identification empirically corresponds to an intensity, such that “outcomes” and “events” differ in kind (unlike Shannon’s). Obtaining a true “information transmitted” therefore requires stimulus categorizations to be converted to hypothetical evoking stimuli, achievable (in principle) by relating categorization to sensation to intensity. But those relations are actually unknown, perhaps unknowable. Originality/value – The author achieves an important understanding: why “absolute identification” experiments do not illuminate sensory processes.
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