Magical Thinking and Mental Disorders

Shared Superstitions Are One Thing—Irrational Beliefs Are Another

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 that are generally based on a supposed cause-and-effect relationship between two events. For instance, faith in the power of a ritual to bring on a certain type of weather might be considered magical thinking.

This is the sort magical thinking that's often shared by specific groups of people that tend to be socially acceptable among the members of that group.

A culture that shares a belief in the paranormal (that there's such a thing as ghosts, for instance) could be seen as magical thinking to most people in general. But for religious and cultural traditions that believe in the existence of spirits, demons, and other entities, such magical thinking is perfectly fine.

Another common type of magical thinking involves personal superstitions. Think about athletes who always eat a specific meal before a game because they believe it will help them play better or be more likely to win—simply because that meal preceded a big victory in the past.

And finally, there's the type of magical thinking that involves pondering improbable possibilities and situations. It is not magical thinking to put forth a theory, provided the person clearly understands that the theory isn't necessarily rational according to scientific logic. In fact, it's this kind of magical thinking that has lead to hypotheses ultimately proven true: that the Earth is not flat, for example, or that human beings cannot fly.

When Magical Thinking Is a Problem

Although it's highly unlikely that chowing down on a plate of homemade lasagna will directly cause a baseball player to pitch a perfect game, no one would scoff at that pitcher for hanging on to his pre-game ritual. The same goes for a researcher who follows a hunch that leads him to hypothesize and ultimately test what on the surface may seem an improbable scientific reality.

It's when magical thinking clearly does not fit in with acceptable social norms that it can be a cause for concern. Magical thinking is sometimes symptomatic of a mental disorder. Someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder, for example, may develop rituals, such as constant hand-washing in the belief that doing this will give them an irrational amount of control over their environment. The delusions and disordered thinking that characterizes schizophrenia also are indicative of magical thinking that is pathological.

Magical thinking that is worrisome should be evaluated by a mental health professional. If you or a loved one find that magical thinking is leading to homicidal or suicidal thoughts, seek help. The same holds for magical thinking that gets in the way of normal daily function—maintaining personal hygiene, for example. Often magical thinking can be a helpful way to counter anxiety and nervousness, such as the baseball players pre-game lasagna, but when it hinders daily living or becomes life-threatening, it's a serious cause for concern.

Sources:

Einstein, D. A., & Menzies, R. G. "Magical Thinking in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Panic Disorder, and the General Community." Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 2006 34(3), 351-357.

Markle, D. T. "The Magic That Binds Us: Magical Thinking and Inclusive Fitness." Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 2010, 4(1), 18-33.

Mayo Clinic. "Schizophrenia."

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