Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

How Do People Order Stimuli?

Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

How Do People Order Stimuli?

Article excerpt

Published online: 8 May 2014

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Abstract People may find it easier to construct an order after first representing stimuli on a scale or categorizing them, particularly when the number of stimuli to be ordered is large or when some of them must be remembered. Five experiments tested this hypothesis. In two of these experiments (1 and 3), we asked participants to rank line lengths or to rank photographs by artistic value. The participants provided evidence of how they performed these tasks, and this evidence indicated that they oftenmade use of some preliminary representation-either ametric or a categorization. Two further experiments (2 and 4) indicated that people rarely produced rankings when given a choice of assessment measures for either the length of lines or the artistic value of photographs. In Experiment 5, when the number of lines was larger or lines were only visible one at a time, participants were faster at estimating line lengths as a percentage of the card covered than at rank ordering the lengths. Overall, the results indicate that ordering stimuli is not an easy or natural process when the number of stimuli is large or when the stimuli are not all perceptible at once. An implication is that the psychological measures available to individuals are not likely to be purely ordinal when many of the elements being measured must be recalled.

Keywords Measurement theory * Memory * Ordering * Ranking * Category rating

Ordering is a common human activity. Examples abound of "Top 10" lists of the best books or movies of the year; cities are ranked annually according to quality of life for their residents; and popular websites feature regular "power rankings" of the best professional clubs in a variety of sports. Common to such lists is the rank ordering of items in terms of their value on a particular dimension. Here, we focus on how such orders may be obtained, particularly in situations in which the number of items to be ordered is relatively large or the items are not simultaneously present or visible. We argue that ranking is often a difficult activity because ordinal representations are inefficient in such cases, and that people are likely to construct a preliminary metric or categorization when asked to produce a rank order.

Despite the ubiquity of ordering in human culture, relatively little previous research has investigated how people construct orders. In Rokeach (1973) scaling, there has been some question over whether values should be ranked or rated, and Alwin and Krosnick (1985) found that value ranking was more difficult for participants to do and took longer to accomplish. Within the field of computer science, researchers have devised a variety of methods to order stimuli (or in their terminology, sort elements). This work has identified a large number of different sorting algorithms but no general theory of which is most efficient in every kind of circumstance (Knuth, 1998). Chignell and Patty (1987) used computer sorting theory to suggest more efficient ordering methods in psychological research. However, none of these studies have shown that humans are naturally likely to construct orders of stimuli or ordinal scales, or investigated how people actually go about ordering stimuli when allowed to choose their own method. The relative lack of research on ordering is in curious contrast to the large number of studies investigating how people perform magnitude estimation or category scaling (e.g., Ashby, 1992; Bolanowski & Gescheider, 2013; Krueger, 1989; Laming, 1997).

The notion that ranking or ordering stimuli is a fundamental and natural process may be implicit in the way that psychological measurement theory has evolved. Stevens's (1946, 1955) delineation of four scales of measurement-nominal, ordinal, interval, and ratio-is well-known in psychology, and his demonstration that the averaging of data makes little sense for nominal and ordinal scales has had far-reaching, if controversial, consequences for methodology (e. …

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