Self-reported mind wandering reflects executive control and selective attention
Mind wandering is ubiquitous in everyday life and has a pervasive and profound impact on task-related performance. A range of psychological processes have been proposed to underlie these performance-related decrements, including failures of executive control, volatile information processing, and shortcomings in selective attention to critical task-relevant stimuli. Despite progress in the development of such theories, existing descriptive analyses have limited capacity to discriminate between the theories. We propose a cognitive-model based analysis that simultaneously explains self-reported mind wandering and task performance. We quantitatively compare six explanations of poor performance in the presence of mind wandering. The competing theories are distinguished by whether there is an impact on executive control and, if so, how executive control acts on information processing, and whether there is an impact on volatility of information processing. Across two experiments using the sustained attention to response task, we fnd quantitative evidence that mind wandering is associated with two latent factors. Our strongest conclusion is that executive control is impaired: increased mind wandering is associated with reduced ability to inhibit habitual response tendencies. Our nuanced conclusion is that executive control defcits manifest in reduced ability to selectively attend to the information value of rare but task-critical events.