The attenuation theory of attention

The cocktail party effect occurs when you are listening to and attending to one message but also hear parts of an important message that is not being attended to, such as your name or other important words like “fire!”. Because of the occurrence of the cocktail party effect Anne Treisman developed a modification on Broadbent’s early selection model of attention which she called the attenuation theory of attention. According to the attenuation theory selection occurs in two stages, the first stage replaces the filter in Broadbent’s theory with an attenuator, and the second stage involves a dictionary unit (Goldstein, 2011, p. 85-6).

The attenuator analyzes incoming messages by not only physical characteristis but also by the language and meaning of the message, and the messages are then let through into the final output, the dictionary unit. The dictionary unit has stored words, each of which has a different threshold for activation, more important words have a lower threshold and can be detected easily. Treisman proposed that not only does the attended message get through but important parts of the unnattended message can get through as well (Goldstein, 2011, p.86).

I have noticed the cocktail party effect multiple times, mostly I have noticed this happening at my job. I am a server and bartender part time, which means a lot of multitasking and talking with a lot of customers throughout my shifts. When I am talking with one customer, whether taking an order or discussing their meal, my attention is focused on them, but I sometimes hear other customers talking amongst themselves. I am able to hear parts of other peoples conversations and pick out important words or phrases, while still listening to the message I am attending to. This allows me to adjust my service accordingly, because of this I am able to multitask and take care of many customers at once.

This relates to the attenuation theory of attention in the following way: the attenuator analyzes the messages, both for physical characteristics, language, and meaning, and then both the attended and unattended messages are pushed through to the dictionary unit. Although I am focused on listening to one message, parts of other messages catch my attention, due to the dictionary unit, words that are related to food service have a lower threshold for me then for someone who does not wait tables. Certain words or phrases include “overcooked” “I need a (refill, sauce, etc.)” “The food is taking long” or other phrases that indicate customers needing something. My dictionary unit has these words or phrases stored, and allows me to detect them even when they are not apart of the message I am focusing on.


Goldstein, E. (2011). Cognitive psychology: Connecting mind, research, and everyday experience (3rd ed.). Australia: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

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