The Attenuation Theory in the Grocery Store

Say you are talking with a friend during a cocktail party.  The party is likely loud with many different conversations going on at once.  Although you are having a conversation of your own, you somehow hear someone from across the room say your name.  This is something that has been called the cocktail party phenomenon. So the next question is, how does this work?

The cocktail party phenomenon can be explained by the attenuation theory. The attenuation theory is one that has been studied for many years.  Treisman developed this intermediate selection theory in 1964 (Goldstein, 2011).  The theory states that all received information is processed to some extent although the unattended information is then diminished (Goldstein, 2011, p. 86).  Basically, the information that is coming in is analyzed in three ways.  The first is by its physical characteristics such as pitch and speed.  The second is its language, meaning whether the message is grouped into syllables or words. The third way the message is analyzed is its meaning and whether it can be a meaningful word or phrase to the person hearing it.

A personal example of this is when I go grocery shopping with my husband.  We usually go about once a week and tend to separate when we are there.  He goes towards the cereal and I end up in produce. However the issue then, is that only one of us has the shopping cart! My husband decided he needed to come up with something to help find me in this crowded, loud grocery store.  One day he started whistling, not too loud and usually just one quick whistle when he saw me from across the store in order to get my attention.  After doing this many times for a lot of different trips to the store, I started to hear it every time he whistled, although other shoppers tend not to notice.  Even though I am never expecting it, once I hear the whistle, I stop and look around to see where he is.  This is a great example of the cocktail party phenomenon.  Not only is this a high pitched sound, which explains the first way that incoming information is analyzed, but it also explains the third way the information is processed since it has specific meaning to me.

In general, we all experience this at some point in our lives.  Whether it is while at an actual cocktail party or a grocery store, if someone were to yell fire or mention your name, you would likely be able to pick this out of many other conversations that you might be hearing at the same time.  The attenuation theory does a great job as explaining why this phenomenon takes place.



Goldstein, E. B. (2011). Cognitive psychology: Connecting mind, research, and everyday experience (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

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