Attentional Disengagement in the Laboratory and in Everyday Life
Daniel Smilek
University of Waterloo

When individuals have to sustain their attention on a task for an extended period of time, they sometimes disengage from the task and shift their attention to task-unrelated internal thoughts (i.e., mind wandering) or to task-unrelated media (i.e., media multitasking).  Over the past few years, we have been exploring these forms of attentional disengagement in both laboratory and everyday situations with an eye towards understanding to what extent individuals might be disengaging from primary tasks intentionally and strategically.  With regard to mind wandering, our studies show that both in laboratory tasks and in real life situations (e.g., live undergraduate lectures), task-unrelated thoughts are often engaged intentionally. In some cases, the amount of intentional mind wandering is modulated based on task demands.  Similarly, our studies of media multitasking suggest that media multitasking tendencies can reflect strategic choices about attentional deployment, that individuals are aware of the extent to which their media multitasking influences their performance, and that individuals actively modulate media distractions based on primary task demands.