Attentional control and working memory capacity are important cognitive abilities that substantially vary between individuals. Although much is known about how attentional control and working memory capacity relate to each other and to constructs like fluid intelligence, little is known about how trial-by-trial fluctuations in attentional engagement impact trial-by-trial working memory performance. Here, we employ a novel whole-report memory task that allowed us to distinguish between varying levels of attentional engagement in humans performing a working memory task. By characterizing low-performance trials, we can distinguish between models in which working memory performance failures are caused by either (1) complete lapses of attention or (2) variations in attentional control. We found that performance failures increase with set-size and strongly predict working memory capacity. Performance variability was best modeled by an attentional control model of attention, not a lapse model. We examined neural signatures of performance failures by measuring EEG activity while participants performed the whole-report task. The number of items correctly recalled in the memory task was predicted by frontal theta power, with decreased frontal theta power associated with poor performance on the task. In addition, we found that poor performance was not explained by failures of sensory encoding; the P1/N1 response and ocular artifact rates were equivalent for high- and low-performance trials. In all, we propose that attentional lapses alone cannot explain individual differences in working memory performance. Instead, we find that graded fluctuations in attentional control better explain the trial-by-trial differences in working memory that we observe.

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