Anatomy of an error: a bidirectional state model of task engagement/disengagement and attention-related errors

Cognition. 2009 Apr;111(1):98-113. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2008.12.009. Epub 2009 Feb 11.


We present arguments and evidence for a three-state attentional model of task engagement/disengagement. The model postulates three states of mind-wandering: occurrent task inattention, generic task inattention, and response disengagement. We hypothesize that all three states are both causes and consequences of task performance outcomes and apply across a variety of experimental and real-world tasks. We apply this model to the analysis of a widely used GO/NOGO task, the Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART). We identify three performance characteristics of the SART that map onto the three states of the model: RT variability, anticipations, and omissions. Predictions based on the model are tested, and largely corroborated, via regression and lag-sequential analyses of both successful and unsuccessful withholding on NOGO trials as well as self-reported mind-wandering and everyday cognitive errors. The results revealed theoretically consistent temporal associations among the state indicators and between these and SART errors as well as with self-report measures. Lag analysis was consistent with the hypotheses that temporal transitions among states are often extremely abrupt and that the association between mind-wandering and performance is bidirectional. The bidirectional effects suggest that errors constitute important occasions for reactive mind-wandering. The model also enables concrete phenomenological, behavioral, and physiological predictions for future research.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory / physiology
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Reaction Time / physiology