Stevens' power law

Stevens' power law

Stevens' power law is a proposed relationship between the magnitude of a physical stimulus and its perceived intensity or strength. It is often considered to supersede the Weber-Fechner law on the basis that it describes a wider range of sensations, although critics argue that the validity of the law is contingent on the virtue of approaches to the measurement of perceived intensity that are employed in relevant experiments. In addition, a distinction has been made between (i) local psychophysics, where stimuli are discriminated only with a certain probability, and (ii) global psychophysics, where the stimuli would be discriminated correctly with near certainty (Luce & Krumhansl, 1988). The Weber-Fechner law and methods described by L. L. Thurstone are generally applied in local psychophysics, whereas Stevens' methods are usually applied in global psychophysics. Other researchers would now regard the power law as refuted and only of historical interest (see criticisms below).

The theory is named after psychophysicist Stanley Smith Stevens (1906–1973). Although the idea of a power law 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 magnitude of the physical stimulus, psi(I) is the psychophysical function relating to the subjective magnitude of the sensation evoked by the stimulus, a is an exponent that depends on the type of stimulation and k is a proportionality constant that depends on the type of stimulation and the units used.

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 tothe 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 the data to a power function. Because the fit was generally reasonable, he concluded the power law. This approach ignores any individual differences that may obtain and indeed it has been reported that the power relationship does not always hold as well when data are considered separately for individual respondents Harv|Green|Luce|1974.

Another issue is that the approach provides neither a direct test of the power law itself nor the underlying assumptions of the magnitude estimation/production method.

Steven's main assertion was that using magnitude estimations/productions respondents were able to make judgements on a 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 psychophysics, harv|Narens|1996 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 harv|Ellermeier|Faulhammer|2000harv|Zimmer|2005. Without assuming veridical interpretation of numbers, Harv|Narens|1996 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 Harv|Ellermeier|Faulhammer|2000harv|Zimmer|2005.

Because Stevens fit data to power functions, his method did not provide a direct test of the power law itself. harv|Luce|2002, under the condition that respondents' numerical distortion function and the psychophysical functions could be separated, formulated a behavioral conditions 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 Harv|Steingrimsson|Luce|2006.

It has also been questioned, particularly in terms of signal detection theory, 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".

Many researchers in psychology and psychophysics would now reject Stevens' power law completely, suggesting that the results were due to inherent biases. Interested readers should consult Poulton's (1989) "Bias in Quantifying Judgments", Laming's (1997) "The Measurement of Sensation", and perhaps the papers in Kaernbach et al. (2004) "Psychophysics beyond Sensation".

See also

* Perception
* Sone



* Kaernbach C., Schröger E. & Müller H. (eds) (2004) "Psychophysics beyond Cognition: Laws and Invariants of Human Cognition". Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum


* Laming D. (1997) "The Measurement of Sensation". Oxford: Oxford University Press




* 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. ISBN 0-08-043076-7.

* Poulton E.C. (1989) "Bias in Quantifying Judgments". Hove and London: Erlbaum


* Stevens, S. S. (1957). On the psychophysical law. "Psychological Review" 64(3):153–181. PMID 13441853.

* Zimmer, K. (2005). Examining the validity of numerical ratios in loudness fractionation. "Perception & Psychophysics, 67," 569–579.

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Stevens' power law — noun (psychophysics) the concept that the magnitude of a subjective sensation increases proportional to a power of the stimulus intensity • Syn: ↑Stevens law, ↑power law • Topics: ↑psychophysics • Hypernyms: ↑law, ↑ …   Useful english dictionary

  • Power law — A power law is any polynomial relationship that exhibits the property of scale invariance. The most common power laws relate two variables and have the form:f(x) = ax^k! +o(x^k),where a and k are constants, and o(x^k) is of x. Here, k is… …   Wikipedia

  • power law — noun (psychophysics) the concept that the magnitude of a subjective sensation increases proportional to a power of the stimulus intensity • Syn: ↑Stevens law, ↑Stevens power law • Topics: ↑psychophysics • Hypernyms: ↑law, ↑ …   Useful english dictionary

  • Stevens — may refer to:Automotive* Stevens (constructor), a former racing car constructor * Stevens Duryea, early U.S. carGeographical locationsIn the United States* Stevens County, Kansas * Stevens County, Minnesota * Stevens County, Washington * Stevens… …   Wikipedia

  • law of nature — noun a generalization that describes recurring facts or events in nature (Freq. 3) the laws of thermodynamics • Syn: ↑law • Hypernyms: ↑concept, ↑conception, ↑construct • …   Useful english dictionary

  • Stevens' law — noun (psychophysics) the concept that the magnitude of a subjective sensation increases proportional to a power of the stimulus intensity • Syn: ↑power law, ↑Stevens power law • Topics: ↑psychophysics • Hypernyms: ↑law, ↑ …   Useful english dictionary

  • Stevens — noun 1. United States filmmaker (1905 1975) • Syn: ↑George Stevens • Instance Hypernyms: ↑film maker, ↑filmmaker, ↑film producer, ↑movie maker 2. United States psychologist and psychophysicist who proposed Stevens power law to replace Fechner s… …   Useful english dictionary

  • Law of comparative judgment — The law of comparative judgment was conceived by L. L. Thurstone. In modern day terminology, it is more aptly described as a model that is used to obtain measurements from any process of pairwise comparison. Examples of such processes are the… …   Wikipedia

  • Law of Japan — Contents 1 Historical Developments 2 Sources of law 3 Precedent 4 Civil law 4.1 Contracts …   Wikipedia

  • Law & Order: Criminal Intent (season 8) — The cast of the eighth season of Law Order: Criminal Intent: from left, Jeff Goldblum, Julianne Nicholson, Eric Bogosian, Kathryn Erbe, and Vi …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.