Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

, Volume 9, Issue 4, pp 845–857 | Cite as

Is signal detection theory fundamentally flawed? A response to Balakrishnan (1998a, 1998b, 1999)

Notes and Comment


For nearly 50 years, signal detection theory (SDT; Green & Swets, 1966; Macmillan & Creelman, 1991) has been of central importance in the development of psychophysics and other areas of psychology. The theory has recently been challenged by Balakrishnan (1998b), who argues that, within SDT, an alternative index is “better justified” than d’ and who claims to show (1998a, 1999) that SDT is fundamentally flawed and should be rejected. His evidence is based on new nonparametric measures that he has introduced and applied to experimental data. He believes his results show that basic assumptions of SDT are not supported—in particular, that payoff and probability manipulations do not affect the position of the decision criterion. In view of the importance of SDT in psychology, these claims deserve careful examination. They are critically reviewed here. It appears that it is Balakrishnan’s arguments that fail, and not SDT.


Decision Criterion Criterion Spacing Noise Stimulus Decision Axis Noise Trial 


  1. Balakrishnan, J. D. (1998a). Measures and interpretations of vigilance performance: Evidence against the detection criterion.Human Factors,40, 601–623.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Balakrishnan, J. D. (1998b). Some more sensitive measures of sensitivity and response bias.Psychological Methods,3, 68–90.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Balakrishnan, J. D. (1999). Decision processes in discrimination: Fundamental misrepresentations of signal detection theory.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance,25, 1189–1206.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Balakrishnan, J. D., &Ratcliff, R. (1996). Testing models of decision making using confidence ratings in classification.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance,22, 615–633.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Egan, J. P., Greenberg, G. Z., &Schulman, A. I. (1961). Interval of time uncertainty in auditory detection.Journal of the Acoustical Society of America,33, 771–778.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Egan, J. P., Schulman, A. I., &Greenberg, G. Z. (1959). Operating characteristics determined by binary decisions and by ratings.Journal of the Acoustical Society of America,31, 768–773.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Green, D. M. (1960). Psychoacoustics and detection theory.Journal of the Acoustical Society of America,32, 1189–1203.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Green, D. M., &Swets, J. A. (1966).Signal detection theory and psychophysics. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  9. Macmillan, N. A., &Creelman, C. D. (1991).Detection theory: A user’s guide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  10. McNicol, D. (1972).A primer of signal detection theory. London: George Allen and Unwin.Google Scholar
  11. Stretch, V., &Wixted, J. T. (1998). Decision rules for recognition memory confidence judgments.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition,24, 1397–1410.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Swets, J. A. (Ed.) (1964).Signal detection and recognition by human observers. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  13. Tanner, W. P., &Swets, J. A. (1954). A decision-making theory of visual detection.Psychological Review,61, 401–409.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Treisman, M. (1999). There are two types of psychometric function: A theory of cue combination in the processing of complex stimuli with implications for categorical perception.Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,128, 517–546.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Treisman, M., &Faulkner, A. (1984a). The effect of signal probability on the slope of the receiver operating characteristic given by the rating procedure.British Journal of Mathematical & Statistical Psychology,37, 199–215.Google Scholar
  16. Treisman, M., &Faulkner, A. (1984b). The setting and maintenance of criteria representing levels of confidence.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance,10, 119–139.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Treisman, M., &Faulkner, A. (1985). Can decision criteria interchange locations? Some positive evidence.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance,11, 187–208.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Treisman, M., &Watts, T. R. (1966). Relation between signal detectability theory and the traditional procedures for measuring sensory thresholds: Estimating d9 from results given by the method of constant stimuli.Psychological Bulletin,66, 438–454.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Treisman, M., &Williams, T. C. (1984). A theory of criterion setting with an application to sequential dependencies.Psychological Review,91, 68–111.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Experimental PsychologyUniversity of OxfordOxfordEngland

Personalised recommendations