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The Automaticity of Positive and Negative Thinking: A Scoping Review of Mental Habits



Our thoughts impact our mental health and there is a distinction between thought content (what we think) and thought process (how we think). Habitual thinking has been proposed as one such process. Habits, which are cue-dependent automatic responses, have primarily been studied as behavioural responses.


The current scoping review investigated the extent to which the thinking patterns important for mental health have been conceptualized as habits. Using systematic search criteria and nine explicit inclusion criteria, this review identified 20 articles and 24 empirical studies examining various mental habits, such as negative self-thinking, self-criticism, and worry.


All of the included empirical studies examined maladaptive (negative) mental habits and no study investigated adaptive (positive) mental habits. We categorized the characteristics of each study along several dimensions including how mental habits were defined, measured, and which constructs were studied as habitual.


Although mental habits appear to be relevant predictors of mental health, habitual thinking has not been well-integrated with psychological constructs related to mental health, such as automatic thoughts. We discuss the implications of mental habits for future research and clinical practice.

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The authors would like to thank Curtis Gough for independently coding a sample of abstracts and full-text articles. The authors would also like to thank the Canadian Insititutes of Health Research Michael Smith Foreign Study Supplement for providing the travel award that led to this international collaboration.


This project was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Michael Smith Foreign Study Supplement.

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Correspondence to Eamon Colvin.

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Eamon Colvin, Benjamin Gardner, Patrick Labelle and Darcy Santor declares that they have no conflict of interest.

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No human subjects were involved directly with this review and therefore no ethical board approval was required.

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Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

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No animal studies were carried out by the authors for this article.

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Colvin, E., Gardner, B., Labelle, P.R. et al. The Automaticity of Positive and Negative Thinking: A Scoping Review of Mental Habits. Cogn Ther Res 45, 1037–1063 (2021).

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