Controlling the stream of thought: Working memory capacity predicts adjustment of mind-wandering to situational demands

Abstract

Although engaging in task-unrelated thoughts can be enjoyable and functional under certain circumstances, allowing one’s mind to wander off-task will come at a cost to performance in many situations. Given that task-unrelated thoughts need to be blocked out when the current task requires full attention, it has been argued that cognitive control is necessary to prevent mind-wandering from becoming maladaptive. Extending this idea, we exposed participants to tasks of different demands and assessed mind-wandering via thought probes. Employing a latent-change model, we found mind-wandering to be adjusted to current task demands. As hypothesized, the degree of adjustment was predicted by working memory capacity, indicating that participants with higher working memory capacity were more flexible in their coordination of on- and off-task thoughts. Notably, the better the adjustment, the smaller performance decrements due to increased task demands were. On the basis of these findings, we argue that cognitive control does not simply allow blocking out task-unrelated thoughts but, rather, allows one to flexibly adjust mind-wandering to situational demands.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    One participant used the response category (b) during the first n-back block to indicate that he was thinking about his performance in the later n-back block. Therefore, (b) responses in the first n-back block were coded as TUTs. Excluding this participant does not alter the present results.

  2. 2.

    The personality questionnaire served as a break between WMC and TUT assessments and is not further considered here.

  3. 3.

    Because the CFQ was correlated neither with WMC, r(108) = .01, p = .919, nor with task performance, |rs| < .16, ps > .100, it was not considered as a predictor in the following analyses.

  4. 4.

    Because n-back task order was randomly determined for each participant, changing the order of variables in the analysis only reverses the direction of effects. Task order did not affect (or interact with) TUT rates, Fs < 1, or n-back performance, Fs < 1, and was thus not considered in the model. Others have reported order effects in within-designs, but with more extensive numbers of trials (McVay & Kane, 2009).

  5. 5.

    To avoid perfect hit and false alarm rates, we added a constant of .5 to individual hit and false alarm frequencies and increased the denominator by 1 (Snodgrass & Corwin, 1988).

  6. 6.

    The standardized regression weight of “d′ 3-back” on “Change Perf” of 1.09 is a result of the partitioning of the variance of “d′ 3-back” and does not represent a Heywood case, because none of the variance estimates is negative, and, unlike correlations, standardized regression weights can well be larger than 1 (although very rarely).

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Acknowledgments

We thank Michael J. Kane and Thorsten Meiser for helpful comments on a draft of this article and Jennifer Lehmeyer and Nele Zorn for help with data collection.

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Correspondence to Jan Rummel.

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Rummel, J., Boywitt, C.D. Controlling the stream of thought: Working memory capacity predicts adjustment of mind-wandering to situational demands. Psychon Bull Rev 21, 1309–1315 (2014). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-013-0580-3

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Keywords

  • Mind-wandering
  • Executive control
  • Working memory
  • Adaptive cognition