UBC Faculty Research and Publications

In the lab and in the wild: How distraction and mind wandering affect attention and memory Varao-Sousa, Trish L; Smilek, Daniel; Kingstone, Alan


The present study examined the impact that the environment has on the ability to remain attentive and retain information. Participants listened to an audiobook in either a controlled lab setting or in an uncontrolled natural setting. While listening to the audiobook, participants were randomly prompted to report their current attentional status (focused, mind wandering, or distracted). Participants performed a memory test on audiobook content at the end. Inattention (mind wandering and distraction) did not differ between the two settings. However, there was a setting by attentional state interaction: distraction rates were higher than mind wandering rates outside the lab, while inattention rates did not differ inside the lab. Memory test performance was poorer outside the lab, suggesting that increased distraction may compromise memory more than mind wandering. Collectively, the data suggest that mind wandering and distraction are distinct types of attentional failures and that past controlled lab investigations may have overestimated the role of mind wandering and underestimated the role of distraction in everyday cognition.

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