Home > Attention, Cognitive Bias > Absentmindedness: Why am I so bor…. oh wait I love this song!

Absentmindedness: Why am I so bor…. oh wait I love this song!

Do you ever find yourself bored for no reason? Wishing you were somewhere else doing something else? Or how about doing more than one thing at once? For example, you are driving…searching for your favorite song knowing full well that scrolling through your playlist while driving is dangerous. (click here to learn more about the perils of distracted driving).

Taken from imgflip.com

This humorous clip points to how multitasking while driving results in errors. In this situation, you are attending to two different tasks at once. We find ourselves in these situations more frequently than we like to admit. This has a lot to do with how and where we direct our attention. Interests and desires impact attentional control. The more we are interested in a task, the more attention we give to it. Attentional control is affected by how much attention we have to give each task.  We, only have a finite amount of attentional resources, and each task requires different levels of attention. This can lead to the cognitive bias, absentmindedness, which is the failure to attend to a task resulting in mistakes and forgetful behavior particularly when two tasks are being attempted simultaneously. A point of distinction is that multitasking which leads to absentmindedness is not a positive attribute and one we should avoid.


Attention is selective and essential to performance. It is essential because we only have so much attention to allocate to different tasks. Once we hit this capacity, we begin to make errors or become less involved. For example, when you are driving while scrolling through your phone, you are unable to attend to both tasks adequately. In a study done by Sanbonmatsu et al. (2015), driving errors are increased when trying to drive and do something else simultaneously. This impacted participants awareness while driving and increased errors because they were unable to provide the necessary level of attention to each task. Due to the increase in probable driving errors caused by our inability to provide appropriate resources to each task, one should focus on driving only. Due to this inability to allocate the appropriate resources, absentmindedness occurs.

A byproduct of attentional allocation is a cognitive error known as absent-mindedness. The cognitive failures are a failure to recognize, acknowledge or remember something often due to lack of attention.This lack of attention and unsuccessful inhibition is illustrated in something called the cocktail party effect.  This lack of attention and unsuccessful inhibition is displayed in something called the cocktail party effect (Cherry 1953).  The cocktail party effect illustrates how failure to inhibit information stems from attentional control and resources.  When you are at a social event having a conversation with someone, and you hear your name from across the room, you immediately respond. You respond because you fail to inhibit the incoming stimulus. The failure is considered a cognitive error and displays poor attentional control. Inhibition is a process of suppressing an automatic process in the brain or an incoming stimulus, such as someone saying your name. Inability to do so causes this error. Automatic processes are actions we do without thinking about them. For example, reading a book requires no conscious effort as an adult because it is well practiced. If the attention is not given to the task of inhibition, inhibition fails resulting in cognitive failure or mistakes in the task.

Boredom and failed attentional control is from greatschools.org

Everyone experiences failures in inhibition during moments of boredom or when attempting to multitask. Moments of absentmindedness vary depending on the person and situation. Absentmindedness can also occur often when we are bored, or for individuals who have trouble allocating attentional resources.   In a study conducted by Eastwood et al. (2012), boredom is defined as a state in which attention is not successfully engaged. Eastwood suggests the cause is disinterest in the stimuli. For example, have you ever experienced boredom in class, watching the clock, while the topic and professor fully engage the person sitting next to you? This is because two individuals are having different levels of interest in the subject.  Due to your lack of interest, it is not a satisfying activity.  Your classmate, however, may be very satisfied.  The failure to attend to the teacher resulted in a lower performance compared to those students who provided the attentional resources to the topic. Even when you assume you are paying attention if there is not efficiency in attending to the information, this will lead to errors reflecting on the concept of absentmindedness.

The above illustration characterizes how the brain functions when interested and attending to information or when the brain switches off. Taken from https://me.me/t/uninterested

Errors occur when our attention is compromised or redirected for one reason or another diminishing our efficiencies. (Cheyne, J. A., Carriere, J. S.A., & Smilek, D., 2006). This can occur in any individual at varying degrees of error. Error variation can range from response time to task efficiency. We see this type of cognitive failure caused by stress impairing cognitive function. A study done by Fisher and Hood (1987) studied college students and the presence of absentmindedness resulting from stress.  It facilitated the feeling of being homesick suggesting that absentminded behavior is a response to unconscious attention reallocation. This unconscious attention reallocation is the process of changing one’s attention to a task involuntarily and without noticing.  New levels of stress in new environments, with new people, while attending classes overwhelm many students. They begin to direct their attention to things that cause the stress because of an increase in cortisol. Cortisol is called the “stress hormone.”  Cortisol releases in response to events and circumstance such as exercise and stress.  It regulates energy needed for the body throughout the day.  When someone is extremely stressed, a significant amount of cortisol is released leading to adverse effects on the body. More cognitive errors are present in task due to factors fighting for the attention resources caused by stress and a new environment.

Absentminded bias can negatively impact our lives more than we may think. So often we find ourselves doing more than one thing at a time.  Although we believe ourselves to be talented multitaskers, the human brain is not wired to direct full attention to more than one task at a time. As a result, errors occur whether they are conscious or not. Other times, our desire to attend to a task is minimal resulting in low attentional resource allocation and higher rates of cognitive failure. When you are bored and don’t know why or miss a stop sign while driving because you were picking the next Avicci song, remember that the attention you are giving to each task is not equivalent.  When you multitask one task suffers, and mistakes occur. Moral of the story… stay focused on one task at a time!



Cheyne, J. A., Carriere, J. S.A., & Smilek, D. (2006). Absent-mindedness: Lapses of conscious awareness and everyday cognitive failures. Consciousness and Cognition: An International Journal, 15(3), 578-592. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2005.11.009

Eastwood, J. D., Frischen, A., Fenske, M. J., & Smilek, D. (2012). The Unengaged Mind. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(5), 482-495. doi:10.1177/1745691612456044

Fisher, S., & Hood, B. M. (1987). The stress of the transition to university: A longitudinal study of psychological disturbance, absent-mindedness, and vulnerability to homesickness. British Journal of Psychology, 78(4), 425-441. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-8295.1987.tb02260.x





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