The free-linking task: A graph-inspired method for generating non-disjoint similarity data with food products


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“Free sorting”, in which subjects are asked to sort a set of items into groups of “most similar” items, is increasingly popular as a technique for profiling sets of foods. However, free sorting implies an unrealistic model of sample similarity: that similarity is purely binary (is/is not similar) and that similarity is fully transitive (similarities {A, B} and {B, C} imply {A, C}). This paper proposes a new method of rapid similarity testing—the “free-linking” task—that solves both problems: in free linking, subjects draw a similarity graph in which they connect pairs of samples with a line if they are similar, according to the subject's individual criteria. This simple task provides a more realistic model of similarity which allows degrees of similarity through the graph distance metric and does not require transitive similarity. In two pilot studies with spice blends (10 samples, 58 subjects) and chocolate bars (10 samples, 63 subjects), free linking and free sorting are evaluated and compared using DISTATIS, RVb, and the graph parameters degree, transitivity, and connectivity; subjects also indicated their preferences and ease-of-use for the tasks. In both studies, the first two dimensions of the DISTATIS consensus were highly comparable across tasks; however, free linking provided more discrimination in dimensions three and four. RVb stability was equivalent for the two methods. Graph statistics indicated that free linking had greater discrimination power: on average subjects made similarity groupings with lower degree, lower transitivity, and higher connectivity for free linking in both studies. However, subjects did overall find free sorting easier and liked it more, indicating a higher cognitive difficulty of free linking. The free-linking task, therefore, provides more robust, realistic similarity maps at the cost of higher panelist effort, and should prove a valuable alternative for rapid sensory assessment of product sets.



Life Sciences & Biomedicine, Food Science & Technology, Sensometrics, Free sorting, Free linking, DISTATIS, Graph theory, Network theory, Food Science, 0908 Food Sciences, 1505 Marketing