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Spontaneous Future Cognition: Cognitive Mechanisms and Goal-Directed Functions

Clayton McClure, Jack Helgi (2022) Spontaneous Future Cognition: Cognitive Mechanisms and Goal-Directed Functions. Doctoral thesis, York St John University.

Text (Doctoral thesis)
Available under License Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives.

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Spontaneous future cognition denotes the human capacity to “pre-experience” possible events in one’s future without intention. Theoretical accounts have built upon episodic future thinking (EFT), mind-wandering, and involuntary memory research. However, the specific cognitive mechanisms
involved (e.g., sensitivity to environmental triggers; representational nature) require further clarification. Furthermore, the idea that everyday spontaneous future thoughts (SFTs) play a role in goal-directed behaviour remains speculative. This thesis investigated cognitive mechanisms and goaldirected functions of SFT, unifying previous findings and furthering conceptual understanding.
Studies 1 and 2 examined the influence of cue content on SFTs in a low-demand attentional vigilance task. More SFTs were reported by participants viewing life-goal cues (e.g., “High-flying career”) than standard cues under laboratory conditions (Study 1), but not online (Study 2). Effects were not specific to cue-triggered thoughts, suggesting environmental triggers might operate differently for SFTs than for memories. Study 3 tested, in a novel experimental paradigm, the hypothesis that some future thoughts are spontaneously reactivated, pre-encoded representations. Voluntary EFTs (e.g., imagining oneself in a marketplace in one year) reoccurred spontaneously more often than non-future constructions, again irrespective of specific environmental cues. Study 4 gathered naturalistic data on
self-regulatory thought (SRT) modes, finding differences according to subjective controllability and providing a paradigm for eliciting idiographic goal descriptions. Addressing the thesis’ second aim, Studies 5 and 6 established predictive effects of anticipatory thought on student performance. Study 5 linked spontaneous, goal-directed thought with subsequent test scores; Study 6 examined whether longer-term anticipatory thought would impact performance dependent upon SRT mode. Students who mentally contrasted an ideal outcome with obstacles to success achieved better academic grades with increasing exam-related thought frequency; non-mental-contrasters showed the opposite tendency. Findings are synthesised in a conceptual model encompassing cognitive and functional
aspects and aiming to stimulate ongoing SFT research.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Status: Published
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology > BF309-499 Consciousness. Cognition. Memory
School/Department: School of Education, Language and Psychology
URI: https://ray.yorksj.ac.uk/id/eprint/6532

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