Magical Thinking Benefits and Concerns

While sometimes helpful, it can also be a sign of mental illness

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Magical thinking is the belief that one's ideas, thoughts, wishes, or actions can influence the course of events in the physical world. It is something people all over the globe engage in, and many religious and folk rituals center around it. While magical thinking can be a very normal human response, and there are aspects of it that can have psychological benefits, it can also be counterproductive at times and even be a sign of a mental health concern.

The Start of Magical Thinking

The concept may seem like something people actively choose to engage in, but it has its roots in childhood, particularly the toddler years. Children in this stage are becoming more aware of what's around them and looking to make connections that answer their favorite question: Why? They are also in an egocentric stage of development, so it's easy for them to believe that something they do—say, wearing a blue shirt—can have an effect on something totally unrelated, such as having good weather.

As they age, higher-level cognition comes into play and kids begin to realize that an example such as this is not actually possible. Still, older children and even adults may continue some aspects of magical thinking for various reasons they may not even be aware of.

Benefits of Magical Thinking

Activating good luck superstitions is a common way people positively engage in magical thinking. Think of an athlete who always eats a specific meal right before a game because he or she believes it will help them play better or be more likely to win, for example.

While such a routine may seem baseless to some people, one study indicates that practices like this may produce real results. Activating superstitions may increase perceived self-effectiveness and have a corresponding improvement on performance.

When It May Be a Sign of a Health Concern

Magical thinking can become a concern when it gets in the way of normal daily functioning, as sometimes is exhibited by those with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

People with OCD may develop rituals, such as washing their hands multiple times in a row in the belief that doing this will give them an irrational amount of control over their environment. They may spend countless hours a day engaging in these behaviors and feel a high degree of anxiety and distress when they are not able to perform them.

A 2014 study published in the journal Cognitive Behaviour Therapy suggests that magical thinking may prop up harmful compulsive behaviors in people with OCD by mediating a cognitive bias that results from a distrust of the senses and a primary reliance on imagination.

Magical thinking is also an aspect of the schizophrenia spectrum of disorders and may be problematic in this context.

A Word From Verywell

When it hinders daily living or is a symptom of a psychiatric disorder, magical thinking becomes a cause for concern. If you or a loved one find that magical thinking is accompanied by any homicidal or suicidal thoughts or any safety concerns, seek an evaluation by a mental health professional who can make further recommendations.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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