Constructing and model-fitting receiver operator characteristics using continuous data

Josephine Ann Urquhart, Akira Robert O'Connor

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Receiver operating characteristics (ROCs) are plots which provide a visual summary of a classifier’s decision response accuracy at varying discrimination thresholds. Typical practice, particularly within psychological studies, involves plotting an ROC from a limited number of discrete thresholds before fitting signal detection parameters to the plot. We propose that additional insight into decision-making could be gained through increasing ROC resolution, using trial-by-trial measurements derived from a continuous variable, in place of discrete discrimination thresholds. Such continuous ROCs are not yet routinely used in behavioural research, which we attribute to issues of practicality (i.e. the difficulty of applying standard ROC model-fitting methodologies to continuous data). Consequently, the purpose of the current article is to provide a documented method of fitting signal detection parameters to continuous ROCs. This method reliably produces model fits equivalent to the unequal variance least squares method of model-fitting (Yonelinas et al., 1998), irrespective of the number of data points used in ROC construction. We present the suggested method in three main stages: I) building continuous ROCs, II) model-fitting to continuous ROCs and III) extracting model parameters from continuous ROCs. Throughout the article, procedures are demonstrated in Microsoft Excel, using an example continuous variable: reaction time, taken from a single-item recognition memory. Supplementary MATLAB code used for automating our procedures is also presented in Appendix B, with a validation of the procedure using simulated data shown in Appendix C.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 20 Apr 2018


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