How Task-Unrelated and Freely Moving Thought Relate to Affect: Evidence for Dissociable Patterns in Everyday Life

Caitlin Mills, Andrew R. Porter, Jessica R. Andrews-Hanna, Kalina Christoff, Alexander Colby

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Much of our knowledge about the correlates of mind-wandering comes from assessing task-unrelated thought. Less is known about the correlates of freely moving thought, a dimension that assesses the degree to which thoughts arise and unfold with low levels of guidance or constraints. Task-unrelated thought is consistently associated with more negative affective valence compared with being on task; however, it is unclear whether freely moving thought shares the same relationship with affect. We conducted two ecological momentary assessment studies in the context of everyday life and found that the two dimensions have different affective correlates. In Study 1, task-unrelated thought was associated with less positive concurrent valence than being on-task. However, freely moving thought was associated with more positive concurrent valence and was predictive of more positive valence at a subsequent timepoint. Freely moving thought, but not task-unrelated thought, also positively predicted concurrent arousal. Computational sentiment analyses of participants’ thought descriptions offered convergent relationships between the two thought dimensions and affect. Study 2 used different measurement scales to assess whether (a) the pattern of findings replicated and (b) if the effects were robust to changes in measurement. The main findings were replicated: task-unrelated thought was negatively associated with concurrent valence, whereas freely moving thought was positively associated with concurrent valence. However, freely moving thought did not predict subsequent valence and was not related to concurrent arousal. The most robust findings related to concurrent valence. Although mindwandering has acquired a relatively negative reputation to date, our findings suggest that there might be positive aspects that remain unexplored.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1029-1040
Number of pages12
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2021
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 American Psychological Association 2021, Vol


  • affect
  • freely moving thought
  • mind-wandering
  • task-unrelated thought
  • valence


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