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Misspecifications of Stimulus Presentation Durations in Experimental Psychology: A Systematic Review of the Psychophysics Literature
Background: In visual psychophysics, precise display timing, particularly for brief stimulus presentations, is often required. The aim of this study was to systematically review the commonly applied methods for the computation of stimulus durations in psychophysical experiments and to contrast them with the true luminance signals of stimuli on computer displays.
Methodology/Principal Findings: In a first step, we systematically scanned the citation index Web of Science for studies with experiments with stimulus presentations for brief durations. Articles which appeared between 2003 and 2009 in three different journals were taken into account if they contained experiments with stimuli presented for less than 50 milliseconds. The 79 articles that matched these criteria were reviewed for their method of calculating stimulus durations. For those 75 studies where the method was either given or could be inferred, stimulus durations were calculated by the sum of frames (SOF) method. In a second step, we describe the luminance signal properties of the two monitor technologies which were used in the reviewed studies, namely cathode ray tube (CRT) and liquid crystal display (LCD) monitors. We show that SOF is inappropriate for brief stimulus presentations on both of these technologies. In extreme cases, SOF specifications and true stimulus durations are even unrelated. Furthermore, the luminance signals of the two monitor technologies are so fundamentally different that the duration of briefly presented stimuli cannot be calculated by a single method for both technologies. Statistics over stimulus durations given in the reviewed studies are discussed with respect to different duration calculation methods.
Conclusions/Significance: The SOF method for duration specification which was clearly dominating in the reviewed studies leads to serious misspecifications particularly for brief stimulus presentations. We strongly discourage its use for brief stimulus presentations on CRT and LCD monitors.