Magical thinking refers to the idea that you can influence the outcome of specific events by doing something that has no bearing on the circumstances.
It’s pretty common in children. Remember holding your breath going through a tunnel? Or not stepping on sidewalk cracks for the sake of your mom’s back?
Magical thinking can persist into adulthood, too.
You’ve probably come to terms with the fact that monsters don’t live under the bed, but you might still check (or do a running jump into bed), just in case.
Or maybe you have a lucky outfit you wear when you’re hoping things go your way.
Generally speaking, there’s nothing wrong with following rituals or superstitions. Sometimes, though, magical thinking can be a sign of a mental health condition.
Magical thinking pops up everywhere. Some examples are pretty universal, while others might be unique to a certain culture.
Rituals and traditions
- knocking on wood to prevent misfortune
- wearing a lucky item of clothing
- making a wish on a dandelion, wishbone, or birthday candles
- skipping the 13th floor or room number in building design
These are all examples of magical thinking. You do these things to cause a specific outcome.
Superstitions and old wives’ tales
Magical thinking doesn’t always focus on making things go well.
These common superstitions are also examples of magical thinking:
- Walking under a ladder brings misfortune.
- Breaking a mirror will cause 7 years of bad luck.
- Bad things come in threes.
- A black cat crossing your path brings bad luck (plenty of cat owners worldwide would beg to differ).
Another type of magical thinking involves linking specific outcomes to something that can’t directly cause them.
- You shouted at your sister, so she fell down and hit her head.
- Restarting your phone will make that text you’ve been waiting for show up.
- Your old car will finally, finally start, if you just beg it hard enough.
Some people consider religion a form of magical thinking. However, it’s important to consider the context of someone’s background when it comes to this debate.
Sure, some people have beliefs that seem like magical thinking to those who don’t belong to the same culture or religion. To an atheist, for example, prayer might seem like a form of magical thinking.
But magical thinking generally involves doing things you know — deep down — won’t affect the final outcome of something. Most religious people arrive at their beliefs through emotional experiences, so religion isn’t necessarily an example of magical thinking.
So, why do people practice rituals and put stock in superstitions, especially if they know there’s no logical basis for them?
These practices and beliefs can offer a sense of comfort in a largely unpredictable world. Magical thinking might help you feel more in control of things you really have no way of managing.
When you have nothing else to cling to, superstitious beliefs can reduce distress or frustration, even if they don’t actually have power.
If the situation does turn out the way you hoped, this usually reinforces your belief in the superstition. You aced that exam you were worried about? Of course you did. You were using your lucky pencil.
The power of positive thinking can also be considered magical thinking, in a way. There’s no scientific support for the idea that thinking good thoughts can cure physical health conditions like depression or cancer.
Increased optimism can also make it easier to notice good things around you, which can help relieve emotional distress. Even if your health may not improve physically, an improved outlook can sometimes help you feel a bit better, all the same.
It can also help you reach a mindset where you feel better equipped to take concrete steps to address issues you’re experiencing.
Keeping your fingers crossed, holding a lucky charm, or wishing someone luck by saying “Break a leg!” can help boost confidence, which can lead to better performance.
All those benefits aside, magical thinking can have some drawbacks.
If you put all your faith into superstitions and rituals without considering other possibilities or making effort of your own, you may have a hard time achieving success.
Avoiding science-backed treatments in favor of magical thinking can also have serious consequences if you’re dealing with a severe or life threatening health issue.
Magical thinking can get especially tricky when it involves an object. Think back to that lucky pencil. Even though you studied for several hours, you didn’t feel capable of acing the test without your pencil.
But what if you misplace the pencil? During a test, you might worry you lost it forever. This fear, in turn, could make it hard to concentrate on the actual test.
When you fail the test, you blame it on not having your lucky pencil — not considering the other, more likely cause: Your stress sabotaged your performance.
Sometimes, magical thinking can serve as a symptom of an underlying mental health condition. This type of magical thinking usually feels uncontrollable and creates a lot of distress.
Here’s a look at how magical thinking can pop up in different conditions.
Magical thinking (also called magical ideation) commonly occurs as part of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). People with OCD typically engage in specific rituals, or compulsions, to quiet the obsessive thoughts they experience.
Someone might believe, for example, they’ll get into a car accident unless they tap the hood of their car three times.
While some people with OCD perform these rituals without really believing they have power, others have a strong conviction that failing to perform the ritual would have negative consequences.
For example, you might:
- spend a lot of time worrying about outcomes that are less likely or realistic
- believe planning for every possible negative outcome can protect you against those outcomes
- find it hard to take concrete action because of your worries
Magical thinking has also been linked to schizophrenia spectrum disorders.
People with schizophrenia might:
- believe they have special powers
- believe they must take specific actions to protect against evil
- attach deep or significant meaning to everyday happenings
If you’re wondering what separates ordinary magical thinking from magical thinking that might pose cause for concern, it might help to think of it in terms of severity.
Here’s one example: Many people believe in aliens, or extraterrestrial life forms. Someone experiencing problematic magical thinking might take this a little further, believing:
- Aliens do exist.
- They reside in human bodies and plan to eventually inhabit all of humanity.
- Wearing a specific color or type of metal offers some protection against the aliens.
As a result, they may only wear that specific color and always keep some of that metal in their pocket. This causes problems when they have to walk through a metal detector or wear a uniform for work.
They might also experience a lot of anxiety if they lose that piece of metal while out for a walk and don’t have an immediate replacement.
Know the signs
In general, it’s a good idea to talk to a therapist about magical thinking when:
- It causes distress.
- It affects daily life.
- You can’t control your thoughts.
- Your thoughts trigger urges to hurt yourself or others.
- Your feelings seem unusual and persistent.
Talking to a therapist can also help if you experience other mental health symptoms along with magical thinking, especially if they seem to have some connection.
These symptoms might include:
- a persistent low mood
- compulsive behaviors
- excessive fears or worries
- mood changes
- seeing or hearing things no one else can see or hear
- a need to use substances to deal with these symptoms
Occasional magical thinking is pretty normal. It pops up in most people’s lives occasionally. More often than not, it’s fairly harmless and may even have a few benefits.
So, hold on to your lucky charms, but consider talking to a therapist if you’re worried about the intensity or severity of your rituals or beliefs.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.