The Effects of Mind-Wandering, Cognitive Load, and Task Engagement on Working Memory Performance in Remote Online Experiments

Kelly Cotton, Joshua Sandry, Timothy J. Ricker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Recent changes in environments from in-person to remote present several issues for work, education, and research, particularly related to cognitive performance. Increased distraction in remote environments may lead to increases in mind-wandering and disengagement with tasks at hand, whether virtualmeetings, online lectures, or psychological experiments. The present study investigatedmind-wandering and multitasking effects during working memory tasks in remote and in-person environments. In two experiments, participants completed a working memory task with varied cognitive load during a secondary task. After each working memory trial, participants reported their mind-wandering during that trial. Some participants completed the procedures in-person, while others completed the procedures remotely. Overall, remote participants reported significantly more mind-wandering and poorer secondary task performance than in-person participants, but this pattern was not reflected in working memory accuracy. Both groups exhibited similar multitasking effects on performance. Additional analyses found that for remote participants, task engagement better predicted working memory performance than either cognitive load or mind-wandering rates but did not indicate a tradeoff in resources between tasks. Together, these results demonstrate the importance of considering multiple metrics when assessing performance and illustrate that making assumptions about the equivalence of remote and in-person work is a risky proposition.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)271-284
Number of pages14
JournalExperimental Psychology
Issue number5
StatePublished - 1 Sep 2023


  • complex span
  • mind-wandering
  • multitasking
  • short-Term memory
  • working memory


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