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12-12-2019 | Original Article | Uitgave 2/2021 Open Access

Psychological Research 2/2021

Mind-wandering content differentially translates from lab to daily life and relates to subjective stress experience

Psychological Research > Uitgave 2/2021
Roman Linz, Reena Pauly, Jonathan Smallwood, Veronika Engert
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Experience and thoughts that are unrelated to the external surroundings are pervasive features of human cognition. Research under the rubric of mind-wandering suggests that such internal experience is context-dependent, and that the content of ongoing thought differentially influences a range of associated outcomes. However, evidence on how the extent of mind-wandering and its content translate from the laboratory to daily life settings is scarce. Furthermore, the relationship between such patterns of thought with markers of stress in daily life remains underexplored. In the current study, we examined multiple aspects of mind-wandering of ninety-three healthy participants (47 women, 25.4 ± 3.9 years) in both the laboratory and daily life and explored two questions: (a) how are mind-wandering extent and content correlated across both settings, and (b) what are their relationships with subjective stress and salivary cortisol levels in daily life? Our results suggest that the extent of off-task thinking is not correlated across contexts, while features of content—i.e., social, future-directed and negative thought content—robustly translate. We also found that daily life subjective stress was linked to more on-task, negative, and future-directed thinking, suggesting stress was linked with the need to act on personally relevant goals. Based on these results we speculate that differences in the links between stress and ongoing thought in daily life may be one reason why patterns of thinking vary from lab to everyday life. More generally, these findings underline the need to consider both context and content in investigating mind-wandering and associated features of subjective experience, and call for caution in generalizing laboratory findings to participants’ daily lives.

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