Cognitive Aging and the Distinction Between Intentional and Unintentional Mind Wandering

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A growing number of studies have reported age-related reductions in the frequency of mind wandering. Here, at both the trait (Study 1) and state (Study 2) levels, we reexamined this association while distinguishing between intentional (deliberate) and unintentional (spontaneous) mind wandering. Based on research demonstrating age-accompanied deficits in executive functioning, we expected to observe increases in unintentional mind wandering with increasing age. Moreover, because aging is associated with increased task motivation, we reasoned that older adults might be more engaged in their tasks, and hence, show a more pronounced decline in intentional mind wandering relative to young adults. In both studies, we found that older adults did indeed report lower rates of intentional mind wandering compared with young adults. However, contrary to our expectations, we also found that older adults reported lower rates of unintentional mind wandering (Studies 1 and 2). We discuss the implications of these findings for theories of age-related declines in mind wandering.

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