Magical thinking is when a person believes that specific words, thoughts, emotions, or rituals can influence the external world. Magical thinking examples include worrying that something bad will happen to a person if they do not wish them well.

Many people engage in magical thinking. For example, superstitions encourage people to believe their actions can lead to good luck or misfortune.

Some mental health conditions, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), can also feature magical thinking.

Read on to learn more about magical thinking.

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Magical thinking means that a person believes their thoughts, feelings, or rituals can influence events in the material world, either intentionally or unintentionally.

The person may literally believe in magic or supernatural forces, or they may simply worry that their inner life could influence the world in unexpected ways.

Jean Piaget, an early pioneer in psychology and child development, believed that magical thinking was a hallmark of the preoperational stage of cognitive development. This is the stage between 2 and 7 years old when children develop language and abstract thought. It is also when they begin symbolic play, or “playing pretend.”

However, magical thinking can also play a role in some mental health conditions, such as OCD and delusional disorders.

Some examples of magical thinking include:

  • Superstitions: Superstitions are a form of magical thinking in which a person believes that specific behaviors, such as wearing the same shirt during every baseball game, can influence unrelated human events.
  • Rituals: Many people perform rituals to gain a sense of control over life. For many, it is not harmful or a sign of a mental health condition. But extreme, rigid, or anxiety-driven rituals, such as excessive handwashing, can be a sign of a mental health condition.
  • Unusual religious beliefs: Although some religious beliefs may have similarities with magical thinking, the two are different. For example, some Christians believe that praying can affect the physical world, but because this is a typical part of a religion with a widely accepted belief system, psychologists may not consider it to be harmful. However, they may consider extreme or atypical religious beliefs to be the result of magical thinking.
  • Childhood thoughts: Young children are still learning about how the world works, so they may assume that their internal and external worlds are more closely connected than they are. For example, a child might believe that something bad happened to a family member because the child was angry at them.
  • Delusions: Some delusions involve magical thinking, such as the belief that a person can control others with their thoughts, or that they have godlike powers.

Whether magical thinking helps or harms a person very much depends on the type of thoughts they have and the emotions or behaviors that come with them.

Magical thinking may benefit a person by giving them a sense of control in a situation in which they have little control. For example, superstitions might help a person feel less anxiety while awaiting test results.

Sharing magical beliefs with others may also give a person a sense of community, such as when sports team superstitions are part of team bonding.

However, some types of magical thinking may cause harmful effects, such as:

  • Stress and anxiety: Some magical thinking is fear-based and may cause anxiety. For example, people may worry they could accidentally harm themselves or others with their thoughts or emotions. This can cause stress, which harms mental and physical health.
  • Distortion of reality: Magical thinking may disrupt a person’s understanding of reality. This can occur in schizophrenia and other delusional disorders but may also occur in people without these diagnoses.
  • Over-reliance: People who believe magical thinking works may rely on it at their own expense. For example, a person may rely on prayer to treat a medical condition instead of seeking help from a doctor, which could be dangerous. Similarly, when magical thoughts or behaviors do not work, a person may feel upset, angry, or powerless.
  • Extremism: Some magical thinking promotes extreme beliefs and behaviors.

Magical thinking does not necessarily lead to these outcomes. It is also important to note that looking down on some types of magical thinking and not others can reinforce inequity.

For example, early European anthropologists thought magical beliefs were a hallmark of more “primitive” cultures and that European cultures were, therefore, more advanced and superior. This idea is part of what fueled colonialism.

Magical thinking can be a feature of several mental health conditions. These include:

  • OCD: People with OCD have intrusive thoughts, which are scary thoughts that seem to come from nowhere. Sometimes, these are magical thoughts. Even if a person with OCD is not typically superstitious, they may become fixated on a superstition due to these thoughts.
  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): People with GAD can also have magical thoughts. For example, they may feel anxious that if they stop worrying about something, what they are worried about will come true.
  • Delusional disorders: Delusional disorders such as schizophrenia can cause people to have magical thoughts or perceptions.

If a person’s magical thinking is a symptom of an underlying condition, the treatment options include psychotherapy and medication.

Psychotherapy helps a person challenge and change magical thinking over time. Sometimes, people may also need medication to reduce their symptoms. This may include those with delusional disorders.

However, the mere existence of magical thinking is not always a sign of a mental health condition, and this type of thinking does not always cause harm.

If a person has magical thoughts that cause anxiety, they can seek help from a doctor or therapist. They can also try at-home strategies to reduce the impact, such as:

  • Delaying: When a person notices worrying magical thoughts, they can try waiting before they act on them. During this time, they do not need to try and push the thought away or stop thinking about it. Simply waiting and doing something else can mean the thought vanishes, along with the anxiety.
  • Thought experiments: When magical thoughts come to mind, a person can try noticing the outcome of not engaging with them. For example, they could observe the effect of not engaging on their emotions or whether anything bad happens. People can record the results of these experiments in a journal, so they have a record.
  • Starting small: If it is difficult not to act on magical thoughts, a person may want to start by challenging a minor superstition they have before working up toward deeper magical beliefs. This approach is similar to exposure therapy, one of the treatments for OCD.

Learn more about exposure therapy.

A person may wish to contact a doctor or therapist about magical thinking if:

  • they feel anxious or upset about their magical thoughts
  • the thoughts cause extreme or harmful behavior, such as excessive handwashing
  • loved ones express concern about their thought patterns
  • they see or believe things that other people seem not to

If magical thinking is causing someone to harm themselves or others, a person should call 911.

Magical thinking is when a person believes that specific thoughts, words, emotions, or ritual behaviors have a special influence on the world around them. It is common among children.

This type of thinking does not always cause harm. In fact, it can have benefits. However, the effect of magical thinking depends on the type of magical thoughts a person has. While some beliefs may help a person feel in control or connected to others, some may create fear or cause extreme behavior.

When magical thinking is part of a mental health condition, it is treatable. People can seek help from a mental health professional to better understand and reduce magical thinking.