What Are Ideas of Reference and Delusions of Reference?

Learn the Difference Between These Two Experiences

Ideas Of Reference
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You have ideas of reference when you believe that everything — events, comments and behavior involving other people — is about you, when in fact it isn't. An extension of those irrational beliefs, you have delusions of reference when you start to change your own behavior significantly because of this mistaken belief that it's all about you.

These two concepts — ideas of reference and delusions of reference — can affect people in very different ways.

For example, a man might believe that secret messages about him are broadcast in a weekly television show, to the point where he records the programs and watch them again and again. Meanwhile, a woman might be convinced that all the notices posted on boards outside churches are aimed directly at her, which frightens her so much that she refuses to leave the house.

Some clinicians and researchers use the terms ideas of reference and delusions of reference interchangeably. Other sources differentiate between the two, saying that ideas of reference have less impact on the person's life as a whole.

Ideas of Reference vs. Delusions of Reference

Ideas of reference may act as a precursor to delusions of reference. Because ideas of reference are real events that are internalized personally, they can lead to delusions of reference, some of which are not based in reality.

Many people will experience passing thoughts of ideas of reference — for example, if you go to a party and just for a minute honestly believe everyone is whispering about you.

This is normal human behavior unless it happens to you constantly.

It's when these thoughts cross the line outside of actual facts or events (when you believe people you don't even know are whispering about you, and you proceed to hide out at home because of this) that the thoughts turn into delusions.

The Three Criteria for Delusion

Karl Jaspers, a German-Swiss psychiatrist who died in 1969, described the main criteria for a true delusion. They include:

  • Certainty (the person is convinced the delusion is real)
  • Incorrigibility (the person cannot be convinced otherwise or have the belief shaken in any way)
  • Impossibility (the delusion is not real at all)

Some people have only occasional, random delusions of reference, while others have them all the time.

If these thoughts occur for more than one month and they involve events that actually could happen (such as being followed, infected with a disease, or loved at a distance), delusional disorder is the diagnosis. The key difference between delusions of reference and delusional disorder is delusions of reference are most definitely not real, while the thoughts in delusional disorder could possibly be real (although they're quite unlikely).

Other Delusion Examples

  • Bizarre delusions have no possibility or basis to happen in reality.
  • Delusions of control means that your thoughts, feelings, and actions are not your own, but instead originate from some external force or person.
  • Depressive delusions are marked by a predominant depressive mood. These might include delusions involving a serious illness, poverty or spousal infidelity. 

Treatment of Ideas and Delusions of Reference

Anti-psychotic medications can help with delusions of reference, as can counseling and psychotherapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy is used to help people reframe their thoughts and explore logical explanations for their line of thinking.


Medical Definition of Ideas of Reference
Delusions of Reference Versus Ideas of Reference
Idea of Reference

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