To identify factors limiting performance in multitone intensity discrimination, we presented sequences of five pure tones alternating in level between loud (85 dB SPL) and soft (30, 55, or 80 dB SPL). In the "overall-intensity task", listeners detected a level increment on all of the five tones. In the "masking task", the level increment was imposed only on the soft tones, rendering the soft tones targets and loud tones task-irrelevant maskers. Decision weights quantifying the importance of the five tone levels for the decision were estimated using methods of molecular psychophysics. Compatible with previous studies, listeners placed higher weights on the loud tones than on the soft tones in the overall-intensity condition. In the masking task, the decisions were systematically influenced by the to-be-ignored loud tones (maskers). Using a maximum-likelihood technique, we estimated the internal noise variance and tested whether the internal noise was higher in the alternating-level five-tone sequences than in sequences presenting only the soft or only the loud tones. For the overall-intensity task, we found no evidence for increased internal noise, but listeners applied suboptimal decision weights. These results are compatible with the hypothesis that the presence of the loud tones does not impair the precision of the representation of the intensity of the soft tones available at the decision stage, but that this information is not used in an optimal fashion due to a difficulty in attending to the soft tones. For the masking task, in some cases our data indicated an increase in internal noise. Additionally, listeners applied suboptimal decision weights. The maximum-likelihood analyses we developed should also be useful for other tasks or other sensory modalities.
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