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Measurement invariance explains the universal law of generalization for psychological perception


The universal law of generalization describes how animals discriminate between alternative sensory stimuli. On an appropriate perceptual scale, the probability that an organism perceives two stimuli as similar typically declines exponentially with the difference on the perceptual scale. Exceptions often follow a Gaussian probability pattern rather than an exponential pattern. Previous explanations have been based on underlying theoretical frameworks such as information theory, Kolmogorov complexity, or empirical multidimensional scaling. This article shows that the few inevitable invariances that must apply to any reasonable perceptual scale provide a sufficient explanation for the universal exponential law of generalization. In particular, reasonable measurement scales of perception must be invariant to shift by a constant value, which by itself leads to the exponential form. Similarly, reasonable measurement scales of perception must be invariant to multiplication, or stretch, by a constant value, which leads to the conservation of the slope of discrimination with perceptual difference. In some cases, an additional assumption about exchangeability or rotation of underlying perceptual dimensions leads to a Gaussian pattern of discrimination, which can be understood as a special case of the more general exponential form. The three measurement invariances of shift, stretch, and rotation provide a sufficient explanation for the universally observed patterns of perceptual generalization. All of the additional assumptions and language associated with information, complexity, and empirical scaling are superfluous with regard to the broad patterns of perception.

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