Psychological Research

, Volume 83, Issue 5, pp 1057–1069 | Cite as

Increasing participant motivation reduces rates of intentional and unintentional mind wandering

  • Paul SeliEmail author
  • Daniel L. Schacter
  • Evan F. Risko
  • Daniel Smilek
Original Article


We explored the possibility that increasing participants’ motivation to perform well on a focal task can reduce mind wandering. Participants completed a sustained-attention task either with standard instructions (normal motivation), or with instructions informing them that they could be excused from the experiment early if they achieved a certain level of performance (higher motivation). Throughout the task, we assessed rates of mind wandering (both intentional and unintentional types) via thought probes. Results showed that the motivation manipulation led to significant reductions in both intentional and unintentional mind wandering as well as improvements in task performance. Most critically, we found that our simple motivation manipulation led to a dramatic reduction in probe-caught mind-wandering rates (49%) compared to a control condition (67%), which suggests the utility of motivation-based methods to reduce people’s propensity to mind-wander.


Author contributions

This work was supported by Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Grant to D. Smilek, and by an NSERC Post-Doctoral Fellowship to P. Seli. We would like to extend our thanks to Brandon Ralph for his help with data collection.

Compliance with ethical standards


This work was supported by Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Grant (Grant number 06459) to Daniel Smilek.

Conflict of interest

Paul Seli declares that he has no conflict of interest. Daniel L. Schacter declares that he has no conflict of interest. Evan F. Risko declares that he has no conflict of interest. Daniel Smilek declares that he has no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All procedures performed were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Supplementary material

426_2017_914_MOESM1_ESM.docx (16 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 16 kb)


  1. Antrobus, J. S., Singer, J. L., & Greenberg, S. (1966). Studies in the stream of consciousness: experimental enhancement and suppression of spontaneous cognitive processes. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 23, 399–417.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Barron, E., Riby, L. M., Greer, J., & Smallwood, J. (2011). Absorbed in thought the effect of mind wandering on the processing of relevant and irrelevant events. Psychological Science, 22, 596–601.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Brown, K. W. (2007). Mindfulness: theoretical foundations and evidence for its salutary effects. Psychological Inquiry, 18, 211–237.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Davidson, R. J., & Kaszniak, A. W. (2015). Conceptual and methodological issues in research on mindfulness and meditation. American Psychologist, 70, 581–592.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Eberth, J., & Sedlmeier, P. (2012). The effects of mindfulness meditation: a meta-analysis. Mindfulness, 3, 174–189.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Giambra, L. M. (1995). A laboratory method for investigating influences on switching attention to task-unrelated imagery and thought. Consciousness and Cognition, 4, 1–21.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Grodsky, A., & Giambra, L. M. (1990–1991). The consistency across vigilance and reading tasks of individual differences in the occurrence of task-unrelated and task-related images and thoughts. Imagination, Cognition & Personality, 10, 39–52.Google Scholar
  8. Hancock, P. A. (2013). In search of vigilance: the problem of iatrogenically created psychological phenomena. American Psychologist, 68, 97–109.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Hayes, A. F. (2012), “PROCESS: A Versatile Computational Tool for Observed Variable Mediation, Moderation, and Conditional Process Modeling”, white paper, The Ohio State University. Accessed 1 Mar 2017.
  10. Hayes, A. F., & Scharkow, M. (2013). The relative trustworthiness of inferential tests of the indirect effect in statistical mediation analysis does method really matter? Psychological Science, 24, 1918–1927.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. Kane, M. J., Brown, L. E., McVay, J. C., Silvia, P. J., Myin-Germeys, I., & Kwapil, T. R. (2007). For whom the mind wanders, and when: an experience-sampling study of working memory and executive control in daily life. Psychological Science, 18, 614–621.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Kline, R. B. (1998). Principles and practice of structural equation modeling. New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  13. Klinger, E. (1971). Structure and functions of fantasy. New York: Wiley-Interscience.Google Scholar
  14. Klinger, E. (1999). Thought flow: Properties and mechanisms underlying shifts in content. In J. A. Singer & P. Salovey (Eds.), At play in the fields of consciousness: Essays in honor of Jerome L. Singer (pp. 29–50). Mahwah: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  15. Klinger, E. (2009). Daydreaming and fantasizing: Thought flow and motivation. In K. D. Markman, W. M. P. Klein, & J. A. Suhr (Eds.), Handbook of imagination and mental simulation (pp. 225–239). New York: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
  16. Klinger, E., Barta, S. G., & Maxeiner, M. E. (1980). Motivational correlates of thought content frequency and commitment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 1222–1237.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. McVay, J. C., & Kane, M. J. (2010). Does mind-wandering reflect executive function or executive failure? Comment on Smallwood and Schooler (2006) and Watkins (2008). Psychological Bulletin, 136, 188–197.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  18. McVay, J. C., Kane, M. J., & Kwapil, T. R. (2009). Tracking the train of thought from the laboratory into everyday life: an experience-sampling study of mind-wandering across controlled and ecological contexts. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 16, 857–863.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Mooneyham, B. W., & Schooler, J. W. (2013). The costs and benefits of mind-wandering: a review. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology/Revue Canadienne de Psychologie Expérimentale, 67, 11–18.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Mowlem, F. D., Skirrow, C., Reid, P., Maltezos, S., Nijjar, S. K., Merwood, A., & Asherson, P. (2016). Validation of the mind excessively wandering scale and the relationship of mind-wandering to impairment in adult ADHD. Journal of Attention Disorders. doi: 10.1177/1087054716651927.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  21. Mrazek, M. D., Franklin, M. S., Phillips, D. T., Baird, B., & Schooler, J. W. (2013). Mindfulness training improves working memory capacity and GRE performance while reducing mind-wandering. Psychological Science, 24, 776–781.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Mrazek, M. D., Smallwood, J., Franklin, M. S., Chin, J. M., Baird, B., & Schooler, J. W. (2012a). The role of mind-wandering in measurements of general aptitude. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141, 788–798.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Mrazek, M. D., Smallwood, J., & Schooler, J. W. (2012b). Mindfulness and mind-wandering: finding convergence through opposing constructs. Emotion, 12, 442–448.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Phillips, N. E., Mills, C., D’Mello, S., & Risko, E. F. (2016). On the influence of re-reading on mind wandering. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. doi: 10.1080/17470218.2015.1107109.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Robison, M. K., & Unsworth, N. (2015). Working memory capacity offers resistance to mind-wandering and external distraction in a context-specific manner. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 29, 680–690.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Seli, P., Carriere, J. S., Levene, M., & Smilek, D. (2013a). How few and far between? Examining the effects of probe rate on self-reported mind wandering. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 430.PubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  27. Seli, P., Carriere, J. S., Thomson, D. R., Cheyne, J. A., Martens, K. A. E., & Smilek, D. (2014). Restless mind, restless body. Journal of Experimental Psychology, Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40, 660.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Seli, P., Cheyne, J. A., & Smilek, D. (2013b). Wandering minds and wavering rhythms: Linking mind-wandering and behavioral variability. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 39, 1–5.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Seli, P., Cheyne, J. A., Xu, M., Purdon, C., & Smilek, D. (2015a). Motivation, intentionality, and mind-wandering: Implications for assessments of task-unrelated thought. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. doi: 10.1037/xlm0000116.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  30. Seli, P., Jonker, T. R., Cheyne, J. A., Cortes, K., & Smilek, D. (2015b). Can research participants comment authoritatively on the validity of their self-reports of mind-wandering and task engagement? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 41, 703–709.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  31. Seli, P., Risko, E. F., Smilek, D., & Schacter, D. L. (2016). Mind-wandering with and without intention. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20, 605–617.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  32. Seli, P., Smallwood, J., Cheyne, J. A., & Smilek, D. (2015c). On the relation of mind-wandering and ADHD symptomatology. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review. doi: 10.3758/s13423-014-0793-0.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  33. Seli, P., Wammes, J. D., Risko, E. F., & Smilek, D. (2015d). On the relation between motivation and retention in educational contexts: The role of intentional and unintentional mind-wandering. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review. doi: 10.3758/s13423-015-0979-0.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  34. Simmons, J. P., Nelson, L. D., & Simonsohn, U. (2012). A 21-word solution. Dialogue: The Official Newsletter of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, 26, 4–7.Google Scholar
  35. Smallwood, J. M., Baracaia, S. F., Lowe, M., & Obonsawin, M. (2003). Task unrelated thought whilst encoding information. Consciousness and Cognition, 12, 452–484.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  36. Smallwood, J., McSpadden, M., & Schooler, J. W. (2007). The lights are on but no one’s home: meta-awareness and the decoupling of attention when the mind wanders. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 14, 527–533.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  37. Szpunar, K. K., Khan, N. Y., & Schacter, D. L. (2013). Interpolated memory tests reduce mind wandering and improve learning of online lectures. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(16), 6313–6317CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Tang, Y. Y., Hölzel, B. K., & Posner, M. I. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 16, 213–225.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  39. Unsworth, N., & McMillan, B. D. (2013). Mind-wandering and reading comprehension: examining the roles of working memory capacity, interest, motivation, and topic experience. Journal of Experimental Psychology, Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 39, 832–842.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  40. Vinski, M. T., & Watter, S. (2012). Priming honesty reduces subjective bias in self-report measures of mind-wandering. Consciousness and Cognition, 21, 451–455.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  41. Wammes, J. D., Seli, P., Cheyne, J. A., Boucher, P. O., & Smilek, D. (2016). Mind-wandering during lectures II: Relation to academic performance. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 2, 33–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Yanko, M. R., & Spalek, T. M. (2013). Driving with the wandering mind: the effect that mind-wandering has on driving performance. Human Factors, 56, 260–269.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Paul Seli
    • 1
    Email author
  • Daniel L. Schacter
    • 1
  • Evan F. Risko
    • 2
  • Daniel Smilek
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyHarvard UniversityCambridgeUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyUniversity of WaterlooWaterlooCanada

Personalised recommendations