Do managers complain about some workers seeming to “zone out” on the job? Of course, a wandering mind decreases productivity and increases errors. And with certain jobs, this can be downright dangerous—for surgeons or air traffic controllers, daydreaming job can lead to disaster!
A new study addresses why workers zone out and whether the process is intentional or unintentional.
Most researches looking at what is known about “mind wandering” has assumed that it is inherently unintentional. However, study subjects reported zoning out on purpose, and the causes of this “intentional” type of mind wandering differ from unintentional daydreaming. Research findings suggest the cause could be the task at hand, according to a press release.
“In recent years, there has been an enormous increase in the number of studies examining mind wandering,” explains researcher Paul Seli, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University and lead author on the study.
The general assumption has been that people’s mind wandering deflects their attention unintentionally from a task. “Based on our everyday experiences, however, it seems that people frequently intentionally mindwander,” says Seli.
“We suspect that when people are completing an easy task, they may be inclined to deliberately disengage from the task and engage in mind wandering. This might be the case because easy tasks tend to be rather boring, or because people realize that they can get away with mind wandering without sacrificing performance.”
“Conversely, when completing a difficult task, people really need to focus on the task in order to perform well, so if they do mind-wander, their mind wandering should be more likely to occur unintentionally.”
To understanding mind wandering patterns in detail, Seli and his research colleagues measured rates of these two types of mind wandering in over 100 university students as they completed sustained-attention tasks that varied in difficulty.
Participants were instructed to press the space bar on a computer keyboard each time they saw specific target numbers appear on screen. Half of the students completed an easy version of this task, where the numbers always appeared in sequential order; the other participants completed a challenging version of the task, where the numbers always appeared in a random order.
Throughout the experiment, participants were prompted to mark their current mental state as being on task, intentionally mind wandering, or unintentionally mind wandering (e.g., thinking about what to eat for dinner).
The overall rate of mind wandering was the same for both groups, but critically, there were significant differences in rates of intentional and unintentional mind wandering depending on how challenging the task was.
When participants completed the easy task, which was designed to be incredibly boring, they reported more intentional mind wandering. In contrast, participants completing the challenging task reported more unintentional mind wandering.
“These results challenge the common view that all mind wandering is unintentional,” Seli says. “Importantly, this result indicates that intentional and unintentional mind wandering are unique cognitive experiences that sometimes behave differently.”
Seli and his colleagues are interested in continuing their research because a better understanding of why people’s attention meanders has many practical applications.
The workplace implications of the study are obvious, most especially with jobs where attentiveness is necessary for safety reasons, repetitive jobs such as in manufacturing or data entry, or downright boring jobs.
Measures such as rotating tasks among work team members or instituting short exercise breaks can disrupt long stretches of tedium or monotony that cause workers to zone out.
Image credit: preventdisease.com