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SOS! An algorithm and software for the stochastic optimization of stimuli.
The characteristics of the stimuli used in an experiment critically determine the theoretical questions the experiment can address. Yet there is relatively little methodological support for selecting optimal sets of items, and most researchers still carry out this process by hand. In this research, we present SOS, an algorithm and software package for the stochastic optimization of stimuli. SOS takes its inspiration from a simple manual stimulus selection heuristic that has been formalized and refined as a stochastic relaxation search. The algorithm rapidly and reliably selects a subset of possible stimuli that optimally satisfy the constraints imposed by an experimenter. This allows the experimenter to focus on selecting an optimization problem that suits his or her theoretical question and to avoid the tedious task of manually selecting stimuli. We detail how this optimization algorithm, combined with a vocabulary of constraints that define optimal sets, allows for the quick and rigorous assessment and maximization of the internal and external validity of experimental items. In doing so, the algorithm facilitates research using factorial, multiple/mixed-effects regression, and other experimental designs. We demonstrate the use of SOS with a case study and discuss other research situations that could benefit from this tool. Support for the generality of the algorithm is demonstrated through Monte Carlo simulations on a range of optimization problems faced by psychologists. The software implementation of SOS and a user manual are provided free of charge for academic purposes as precompiled binaries and MATLAB source files at http://sos.cnbc.cmu.edu.