- Rituals, tokens, and superstitions can comfort you, boost confidence, and help you feel in control.
- Fixed beliefs that objects have power or you control events may be worth exploring with a therapist.
- Mental health conditions linked to magical thinking include schizophrenia, OCD, anxiety, and PTSD.
Magical thinking isn’t as fantastical as it might seem — in fact, you’ve probably done it without even realizing it.
Take that action figure in your car console that keeps you safe from accidents and speeding tickets. Or maybe you always eat cinnamon oatmeal for breakfast when you have an exam or presentation later that day.
These are just a few examples of magical thinking, where you create connections in your mind between certain thoughts, actions, or behaviors to help you reach a desired outcome, even though the two things have nothing to do with each other.
These superstitions and rituals generally don’t pose any harm. But if they start to disrupt your everyday life and overall well-being, they could suggest an underlying mental health condition, including:
Read on for more examples of magical thinking and how to recognize when it goes beyond a simple superstition or habit.
Examples of magical thinking
In a nutshell, magical thinking means you believe your thoughts and actions can cause certain things to happen — or not happen, according to Dr. Jason Rose, an associate professor of psychology at The University of Toledo.
In other words, you give your actions, beliefs, or specific objects more power over situations than they actually have.
According to Naomi Torres-Mackie, head of research at The Mental Health Coalition, examples of magical thinking include:
- Engaging in repeated or ritualistic behaviors: Examples of superstitious rituals include knocking on wood, crossing your fingers, holding your breath when driving past a graveyard, or throwing salt over your shoulder.
- Assigning power to objects: You might, for instance, wear a favorite T-shirt to help your team win, use a special pencil to help you pass a test, or get excited when you find a four-leaf clover or a face-up penny, since you link them to good luck. On the other hand, you may also avoid “unlucky” tokens, like the number 13.
- Believing in associated outcomes: Perhaps you never open an umbrella inside, since you fear it’ll bring you bad luck. You might also make a wish on a shooting star, or as you blow out your birthday candles, and refuse to tell anyone what you wished for — since, after all, you believe that means your wish won’t come true.
Pros and cons of magical thinking
Children commonly engage in magical thinking, since this stage happens naturally as part of development. The little bits of magical thinking that stick with you after childhood often become harmless traditions or habits.
Magical thinking may even offer some benefits, such as:
- Helping you feel more in control of situations.
- Giving you the confidence to pursue your goals and succeed.
- Helping you cope with stress and tough situations.
- Making it easier for you to face your fears.
- Giving you comfort that you did everything you could to influence the situation.
But magical thinking can also have some drawbacks:
- You might not work as hard toward a desired outcome if you think a small, specific action will give you the result you want.
- You might doubt your ability to win a competition or pass a test if you don’t have your lucky coin, hat, or other token.
- You may feel guilty or responsible for something bad happening, even though you couldn’t have actually changed anything.
- It can create or reinforce the belief that your thoughts, words, or behaviors will cause or prevent a specific outcome in some irrational way, says Dr. Sam Zand, co-founder and chief medical officer for Better U.
When is magical thinking a mental health symptom?
Magical thinking that becomes rigid or interferes with reality can, in some cases, suggest an underlying mental health condition, Torres-Mackie says.
Mental health conditions that may involve magical thinking as a symptom include:
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
The main signs of OCD include obsessions, intrusive thoughts, and compulsions.
OCD may lead you to perform specific rituals, or compulsions, in order to ease intrusive or obsessive thoughts that cause distress.
Examples of magical thinking that may happen with OCD include:
- Believing you need to lock, unlock, and re-lock your door a specific number of times or else you’ll be burgled.
- Feeling as if your homework answers will only be correct if you’ve perfectly organized your desk with everything in its place before getting started.
- Washing your hands three times in a row every two hours to prevent something bad from happening to your partner.
Schizophrenia is a mental health condition that involves auditory or visual delusions, hallucinations, and other symptoms of psychosis.
Both delusions and hallucinations can create a distorted reality in which you might believe your actions have a direct impact on everything and everyone around you. In short, your symptoms can resemble magical thinking.
For instance, maybe you experience a delusion that you have god-like powers. You may then believe saying the word “cold” will cause someone to freeze to death.
You might also experience hallucinations that validate your beliefs, such as a voice urging you to use your power and say the word “cold.”
Anxiety often involves ongoing feelings of intense worry and fear — and magical thinking can cause or worsen these symptoms.
For example, you might believe you’ll be completely unprepared if you don’t plan for every worst-case scenario before leaving the house each morning — unless you think through every possible thing that could go wrong to prevent those bad things from actually happening.
These fears and worries can suggest an anxiety disorder if they begin to interfere with your daily life. Excessive worry and stress may also contribute to other symptoms, like trouble sleeping, restlessness, or an increased heart rate.
Living with PTSD may reinforce patterns of magical thinking.
In some cases, magical thinking may help you come to terms with trauma if you use it as a defense mechanism in order to avoid any further trauma, Zand says. In short, it could help you feel more confident during times of stress and make sense of a terrible situation.
For instance, if you link being the passenger in a car with a horrible car crash, you might believe you’ll never get into an accident if you always drive.
But this defense mechanism usually only helps in the short term, and it may lead to feelings of anxiety, sadness, or guilt down the road as you come to realize your choices don’t have as much of an impact as you thought.
In reality, the situations you connect often have nothing to do with each other. But after a traumatic experience, you might find it tough to accept there’s nothing you could have done. As a result, your brain may combine two unrelated actions in order to help you survive.
Essentially, you convince yourself that if you had done something differently, the traumatic event would never have happened.
How to address mental health symptoms
OCD, anxiety, and schizophrenia can serve as a disconnect between you and those who don’t understand how mental health symptoms affect the way you interpret events. Living in a different reality from others, such as one heavily influenced by magical thinking, can be an extremely isolating experience, Torres-Mackie says.
A mental health professional can offer more support with addressing magical thinking that affects your daily life.
Reaching out to a therapist might be a good next step if patterns of magical thinking affect:
- Your everyday responsibilities, like showing up for work or completing tasks and assignments on time
- Your usual eating, exercise, and other self-care habits
- Your relationships with others
- Your interest and pleasure in the hobbies and activities you usually enjoy
- Your mood, thoughts, or behaviors in a negative or unwanted way
Magical thinking isn’t inherently harmful — it can actually prove helpful, in some circumstances. Making sure you wear your lucky socks on a big day may help you feel less nervous, while driving with a cherished toy on your dashboard can help you feel more confident behind the wheel.
So feel free to keep knocking on wood and wishing on stars if it helps you feel more at peace. Just keep in mind that talking to a therapist might be a good next step if magical thinking begins to interfere with your daily life or creates problems at school, work, or in your relationships.
A therapist can help you pinpoint possible causes of magical thinking rituals and identify more helpful ways to address those triggers directly.