New research from the UNC-Greensboro Psychology Department is shedding light on daydreaming as researchers set out to study mind-wandering in the real world.
A team of psychologists studied about 300 young adults who had been tested for cognitive ability and personality characteristics. The participants were given devices that randomly asked them to record if they were mind-wandering in daily life. Participants also answered if they were trying to concentrate at the time.
The study, published in Psychological Science, was significant because it studied adults' daydreaming outside of a lab.
Psychology professor Michael Kane was the lead researcher. He said that people's cognitive abilities – and the context – determined whether they mind-wandered. Kane said in lab tasks, mind-wandering is usually associated with neurotic personality traits, like anxiety. But in the real world, anxious personality had little effect on mind wandering. Instead it's a personality characteristic called "openness to experience" that predicts mind-wandering.
"People who are high in openness tend to be a bit more unconventional, they like new things, they take joy in learning new stuff. And people high in openness out in daily life tend to mind-wander more than people who are lower in openness," Kane said.
Kane says people who daydream often during free time were more on task when they needed to be. And people with higher cognitive ability were especially likely to be mind wandering.
"When people reported trying hard to concentrate, those with higher cognitive ability were more successful. They were more on task," Kane said.
However, when people reported not trying to concentrate in that moment, things flipped. People with higher cognitive ability were actually more likely to be mind wandering. Those results varied from tests inside a lab, where daydreaming is associated with poor performance on memory tasks.
Kane says that means daydreaming may be a good thing, though it's not clear how much dreamers benefit.