Magical Thinking in Mental Disorders and Phobias

When Correlations Between Events Go Beyond Reality

Woman with her head in the clouds
Getty Images/Blend Images - Colin Anderson

Magical thinking is a clinical term used to describe a wide variety of nonscientific and sometimes irrational beliefs. These beliefs are generally centered on correlations between events. For example, a belief in the power of spells or rituals could be considered magical thinking. Secondarily, if someone believes their best friend is controlling their thoughts, a therapist may believe they are experiencing magical thinking.

Some people form rituals around magical thinking, such as professional athletes who use a lucky charm or eat the same things before games supposedly to improve their performance or chance of winning. Extreme emotional or physical stress as well as major life milestones may create magical thinking. Many people who fall on hard times may create magical thinking to cope with the devastation of a loss due to the death of a loved one for example.

Socially Accepted Magical Thinking

It is important to note that magical thinking must be considered in context. For example, a belief in the paranormal could be seen as magical thinking. However, there are instances where magical thinking is socially acceptable such as is the case in many religious and cultural traditions such as those that believe in the existence of spirits, demons, and other entities. A person from such a background should not be diagnosed with magical thinking based solely on a belief in such entities.

Some superstitions are steeped in magical thinking, but they have become socially accepted and passed down through generations and have become more believable simply because they are widely known. When magical thinking is socially accepted, there is no cause for concern, but rather reinforcement that is supported by others' beliefs and customs associated with such understandings.

Normal vs. Abject Beliefs

Furthermore, it is important to distinguish between scientific hypothesis, which is normal, and abject belief in a situation, which may demonstrate magical thinking. Many people enjoy pondering improbable possibilities and situations. It is not magical thinking to put forth a theory, provided that the person expresses understanding that the theory is not necessarily “rational” by today’s scientific logic. Never forget that at various points in our history, “science” has told us that the Earth is flat, man cannot fly and people cannot govern themselves. Once considered radical and even magical thinking, these ideas now form some of the basic concepts for our world.

When to Seek Help

Magical thinking is sometimes symptomatic of a mental disorder. Obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, schizotypal personality disorder, and psychosis are just a few diagnoses that include magical thinking as a possible symptom. If the magical thinking suggests homicidal or suicidal associations, you should seek help.

Also, if it is hindering your or your loved one's normal daily functions, such as preventing them from taking care of themselves or others they are charged with caring for, a mental health professional should be called to evaluate them. If the irrational thoughts being put forth call into question someone's own existence or that of a loved one, this should also be cause for concern.

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