A Thurstonian model is a latent variable model for describing the mapping of some continuous scale onto discrete, possibly ordered categories of response. In the model, each of these categories of response corresponds to a latent variable whose value is drawn from a normal distribution, independently of the other response variables and with constant variance. Thurstonian models have been used as an alternative to generalized linear models in analysis of sensory discrimination tasks. They have also been used to model long-term memory in ranking tasks of ordered alternatives, such as the order of the amendments to the US Constitution. Their main advantage over other models ranking tasks is that they account for non-independence of alternatives.
Consider a set of m options to be ranked by n independent judges. Such a ranking can be represented by the ordering vector rn = (rn1, rn2,...,rnm).
Rankings are assumed to be derived from real-valued latent variables zij, representing the evaluation of option j by judge i. Rankings ri are derived deterministically from zi such that zi(ri1) < zi(ri2) < ... < zi(rim).
The zij are assumed to be derived from an underlying ground truth value μ for each option. In the most general case, they are multivariate-normally distributed:
where εj is multivariate-normally distributed around 0 with covariance matrix Σ. In a simpler case, there is a single standard deviation parameter σi for each judge:
- Step 1: Given β, Σ, and r_i, sample z_i.
The zij must be sampled from a truncated multivariate normal distribution to preserve their rank ordering. Hajivassiliou's Truncated Multivariate Normal Gibbs sampler can be used to sample efficiently.
- Step 2: Given Σ, z_i, sample β.
β is sampled from a normal distribution:
where β* and Σ* are the current estimates for the means and covariance matrices.
- Step 3: Given β, z_i, sample Σ.
Thurstonian models were introduced by Louis Leon Thurstone to describe the law of comparative judgment. Prior to 1999, Thurstonian models were rarely used for modeling tasks involving more than 4 options because of the high-dimensional integration required to estimate parameters of the model. In 1999, Yao and Bockenholt introduced their Gibbs-sampler based approach to estimating model parameters.
Applications to sensory discrimination
Thurstonian models have been applied to a range of sensory discrimination tasks, including auditory, taste, and olfactory discrimination, to estimate sensory distance between stimuli that range along some sensory continuum.
The Thurstonian approach motivated Frijter (1979)'s explanation of Gridgeman's Paradox, also known as the paradox of discriminatory nondiscriminators: People perform better in a three-alternative forced choice task when told in advance which dimension of the stimulus to attend to. (For example, people are better at identifying which of one three drinks is different from the other two when told in advance that the difference will be in degree of sweetness.) This result is accounted for by differing cognitive strategies: when the relevant dimension is known in advance, people can estimate values along that particular dimension. When the relevant dimension is not known in advance, they must rely on a more general, multi-dimensional measure of sensory distance.
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