Magical thinking — like avoiding sidewalk cracks and believing you’ve saved a loved one from a terrible fate — isn’t always bad, but for some it can cause significant distress.

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Lots of people have superstitions, like not opening an umbrella inside or letting a black cat cross their path. Others also follow meaningful religious and cultural practices that connect them to their community — even if those practices would seem to defy logic. Are these examples of magical thinking?

Engaging in the practices of one’s culture or religion can help give life meaning but isn’t clinically considered magical thinking.

Superstitious beliefs could be lumped into magical thinking when the person believes them strongly, but not typically otherwise. These might be called magical thinking, but they don’t necessarily cause distress or harm.

But if magical thinking causes you to perform actions to neutralize these intrusive thoughts, it may be a symptom of a mental health condition.

Two conditions often connected to magical thinking: Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and schizophrenia, are treatable and manageable.

Magical thinking describes a set of beliefs that two unrelated events or phenomena in the world are connected and affect each other even though they may have no actual connection at all. Someone may believe that performing an action can stop a certain event.

What makes the thinking “magical” is that the two elements — the action and the event — have no logical connection.

What’s an example of magical thinking?

In adults:

  • “If I don’t tap the doorknob three times before leaving, my house will catch on fire.”

In children:

  • “If I blow all these dandelion seeds and wish for a new bike, one will appear in the driveway.”
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It’s not known how magical thinking first develops in adults, but it is a natural part of early childhood development.

For example, kids ages 2 to 5 are naturally egocentric and that belief that things happen because of their actions typically fades, briefly resurfaces at the beginning of adolescence, then fades again into adulthood.

A high self-serving bias, which is common in conditions such as schizophrenia, may reinforce magical thinking.

In some mental health conditions, such as OCD, magical thinking leads to the performance of certain rituals.

The magical thoughts cause significant tension and distress, which is only relieved by doing a certain action. In this type of OCD, the thought is the obsession while the action is the compulsion.

A 2020 study found that magical thinking may be one way people with OCD regain a sense of control over intrusive thoughts. So magical thinking may be a coping mechanism for obsessive beliefs.

Cultural and religious influences

People with and without mental health conditions may participate in rituals as part of a religious or cultural belief or heritage. This need not be cause for concern.

Cultural or religious influences are explicitly considered as a qualifier for not being magical thinking in the mental health profession.

There’s scientific evidence that participation in religious rituals contributes to social well-being and feeling of community.

Many people also associate adages, or pearls of wisdom that defy logic, with older generations.

This can also bring value and a sense of connection to one’s elders or ancestors. Research shows that magical thinking of this type is actually less common among older people and more popular among younger folks.

Sometimes, however, religious rituals can be enacted as part of a mental health condition that causes distress. Scrupulosity is one form of OCD where obsessions and compulsions are centered around religion.

Magical thinking as a symptom of mental health conditions

Magical thinking is most often associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and disorders under the umbrella of schizophrenia.

In OCD, magical thinking can lead someone to perform a specific action or ritual. They may articulate they understand the thinking is not logical but still feel compelled to complete an action in order to prevent harm to someone or to stop bad things from happening.

Older research from 2014 found that, in those with schizophrenia, magical thinking was most closely related to auditory hallucinations. For folks with schizophrenia, there’s often no comprehension that the behavior and event’s relationship isn’t logical.

It can be challenging to know how to relate to someone with magical thinking.

If your loved one has schizophrenia, it can help to focus on the emotion they feel and offer support.

If your loved one has OCD, you may want to encourage them to talk about their feelings.

It usually doesn’t help anyone managing a mental health condition to hear that their experiences are not real.

Try to relate to them in a nonjudgmental way by actively listening. You may be able to find other ways to deal with the compulsion and distress caused by the magical thought, such as by offering emotional support.

Friends and family members of people with OCD or schizophrenia can also seek advice from a therapist or mental health professional who works with families.

If you think you may see yourself in some descriptions of magical thinking, there are steps you can take to ensure your well-being:

You can distinguish common magical thinking behaviors from problematic ones

Simply having a belief and a ritual does not necessarily cause problems, even if others may see your thoughts and actions as “magical thinking.”

But if magical thinking becomes an obsession that leads to compulsion, you may want to seek advice and guidance from a mental health professional.

You can manage your symptoms with professional help

Treatment options for harmful magical thinking include types of talk therapy, among others.

For OCD, exposure response prevention therapy (ERP) can help manage magical thinking so you become accustomed to not performing a ritual even if you encounter an obsessive thought.

For schizophrenia, a combination of talk therapy and medication can help with symptoms, including magical thinking.

If magical thinking stems from cultural, religious, or just lighthearted traditions and isn’t obsessive, it could be harmless, connect you with your community, and even be self-soothing.

Alternatively, magical thinking that’s a symptom of a mental health condition can cause distress for the individual and their loved ones. Seeking help from a mental health professional for treatment, including medication and talk therapy, can help manage the behavior.