Why does the mind wander? An investigation into predictors of mind wandering

Grant Winners

  • Jonathan Banks, Ph.D. – College of Psychology
  • Paul Brancaleone, B.S. – College of Psychology


  • Karen Grosby, Ed.D. – College of Psychology


Mind wandering is a common event in everyday life, consuming as much as 50% of our waking hours and occurring during almost every type of behavior (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010). Despite the growing body of research on mind wandering and the ubiquitous nature of the phenomenon in everyday life, our understanding on the phenomenon remains unclear. Additionally, although mind wandering occurs frequently in everyday life, the occurrence of mind wandering results in impaired performance for ongoing tasks (Randall, Oswald, & Beier, 2014). One dominate model of mind wandering suggests that mind wandering occurs as a result of the priming of personal concerns and the failure of executive control to prevent these concerns from hijacking attentional resources (McVay & Kane, 2010). This personal concerns x executive control failures is the dominate model in explaining why mind wandering occurs. However, individuals with higher working memory capacity (executive control) occasionally mind wander at greater rates than individuals with lower working memory capacity (Levinson, Smallwood, & Davidson, 2012). As such, other factors may also play a role in determining the likelihood to mind wandering. Recent evidence has suggested that mind wandering is not a unitary construct but rather mind wandering differs on several dimensions that may alter the impact of mind wandering on current task performance, including emotional valence (Banks, Welhaf, Hood, Boals, & Tartar, 2016) and intentionality (Seli, Risko, Smilek, & Schacter, 2016). A major limitation in the current literature is the focus on laboratory-based measures of mind wandering as opposed to real world based assessments. The current study will examine a variety of possible predictors of mind wandering in the lab and in the real world, including working memory capacity, state and trait anxiety, neuroticism, grit or perseverance on tasks, daily stress, and mindfulness. During the laboratory session, half of the participants will be assigned to complete a writing task designed in increase mind wandering. This manipulation will allow for an examination of factors that may protect against mind wandering following a stressful event. Similar to prior studies of this nature (Kane et al, 2007), the real world data collection will occur using an Experience Sampling Methodology in which participants will respond to prompts on an electronic device that allows for an assessment of their current thoughts. The current study will allow for a better understanding of factors that determine susceptibility of mind wandering. This is a critical step for identifying possible interventions to reduce mind wandering or alter the impact of mind wandering on current task performance.