How Mind Wandering Affects Performance on Aptitude Tests

Our minds wander quite frequently and we are quite aware of it, and concentration is important to our performance on mental tests. So a reasonable question is whether our mind wandering affects our performance on these aptitude tests. Several experiments1 have addressed this question. In the first experiment 115 undergraduates completed automated versions of memory span tasks, the operation span task, the reading span task, and the symmetry span task. At unpredicted intervals during each span task participants were asked to indicate to what extent their attention was on-task or on task unrelated concerns using the following scale (1=completely on task, 2=mostly on task, 3=both on the task and task unrelated concerns, 4=mostly on unrelated concerns, and 5=completely on unrelated concerns). This provided a measure of task unrelated thoughts (TUTs). Statistically significant negative correlations were found between performance on the memory tasks and the TUTs, indicating that more mind wandering was correlated with lower performance on the memory span tests.

The second experiment examined how mind wandering was related to the performance on specific memory span trials. This time ratings were obtained for each trial of the operation span task. Sixty-seven undergraduates participated in this task. Accurate memory span trials were associated with less mind wandering, fewer TUTs..

It should be well known that correlations do not prove causation. So the question is whether mind wandering causes poorer memory span performance. Prior research2 has shown that financial incentives improve complex task performance. In the third experiment half of the research participants were informed that they could earn as much as $5 for their performance on the operation span task. The other half served as the no financial incentive control group. The financial incentives group performed better on the operation span task and indicated more TUTs, providing evidence that the task performance was mediated by the mind wandering.

The fourth experiment embedded thought sampling ratings into tests of both working memory capacity (WMC) using the operation span task and measures of fluid intelligence, gF (using Raven’s progressive matrices). The hypotheses were that mind wandering would be (a) associated with worse task performance, (b) predict performance on the SAT taken by the participants 1-3 years earlier, and (c) be strongly associated with a latent variable capturing the shared variance between these measures of general aptitude. All three hypotheses were confirmed.

So the ability to control one’s attention is important on the performance on these tests. The next blog post will address the question of better controlling one’s attention to improve performance.

1Mrazek, M.D., Smallwood, J., Franklin, M.S., Chin. J.M., Baird, B., & Schooler, J.W. (2012). The Role of Mind Wandering in Measurements of General Aptitude. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141, 788-798.

2Heitz, R.P., Schrock, J.C., Payne, T.W., & Engle, R.W. (2008).


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One Response to “How Mind Wandering Affects Performance on Aptitude Tests”

  1. Ruth Griffith Says:

    Doug, These findings really typify and explain some things about me.  Now I’m waiting for your next blog to tell me how to control these “mind-wanderings”. Penny


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