Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

Magical Thinking OCD: Overview, Symptoms & Best Treatment Options

Dec 10, 20206 minute read

magical thinking OCD


One of the interesting and invariably frustrating parts of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is its ability to take things that are commonplace in our daily lives — like hand washing, locking doors and list making, to name a few — and twist them into maddening rituals that just never seem to satisfy OCD’s impossible demands, no matter how hard a person tries. 

Have you ever knocked on wood? Made a wish then blown out birthday candles? Most, if not all, of us have engaged in some superstitious thoughts or actions such as these at some point in our lives. If you were to imagine superstitions on steroids, you would end up with Magical Thinking OCD. 

Sounding familiar? Technically, magical thinking happens when you believe your thoughts, ideas, wishes or actions directly influence events in the physical world. Importantly, this belief occurs in the absence of concrete evidence demonstrating a link between you and any such events — in other words, there’s no actual evidence that anything you’ve thought actually has an impact in the real world. That’s the “magic” part of magical thinking. Ta-da!

Magical thinking can be a type of cognitive distortion, or thought error, that you give into here and there without much consequence. However, when this mental error is the foundation of all or most of your OCD, we can refer to your experience as Magical Thinking OCD. 

Interestingly, the events you might be attempting to influence could be seen as two sides of the same superstitious coin: preventing “bad” outcomes and/or generating “good” outcomes. Either way, you are driven to do everything you think is in your power to control those outcomes.

The good news is that Magical Thinking OCD is just as treatable as any other form of OCD. (More on that later.)


What do you think separates plain old superstitions from Magical Thinking OCD? If you guessed the degree of flexibility that you feel you do or do not have when it comes to participating in the superstitious ritual, you’d be correct!

For someone without OCD, if they feel the urge to knock on wood yet are nowhere near wood, they will settle for knocking on plastic or metal, or they may just say the phrase without knocking on anything at all. The superstitious ritual is something they can adjust or live without, something they trust probably isn’t going to change the outcome of things one way or another. 

For someone with OCD, there is no flexibility. Knocking on wood means you find wood and knock on it. If you don’t do the ritual correctly, your OCD tells you, you risk the bad thing happening or the good thing not happening. Your words, your actions and your thoughts all must be done exactly in accordance with the rules of your Magical Thinking OCD. 

There are actually three main types of magical thinking, as identified by Adrian Wells in his book Metacognitive Therapy For Anxiety & Depression

  • Thought-Action Fusion: the belief that a thought can cause a particular event to occur or means an event has already occurred
    • Example: If you think about a plane crash, a plane will crash.
  • Thought-Event Fusion: the belief that thoughts, feelings and impulses have the power to cause one to commit unwanted and undesirable actions
    • Example: If you think a violent harm thought, you will lose control and act it out.
  • Thought-Object Fusion: the belief that thoughts and/or feelings can be transferred into objects, making them “contaminated.” For some, this could also “contaminate” others.
    • Example: If you have an intrusive sexual thought while holding a pen, the pen becomes “dirty” & anyone who touches the pen will also be “dirty.”  

Other common obsessions and compulsions related to magical thinking, found in this article on magical thinking, could include: 

Common Obsessions of Magical Thinking OCD

  • Fear that failing to think or say certain words, phrases, sounds or numbers a specific number of times will cause harm to oneself or others
  • Fear that failing to do certain things in a specific way will cause something bad to happen to oneself or others
  • Belief that one must cancel out or neutralize “bad thoughts” or “bad memories” by thinking of or saying “good thoughts” or “good memories” to prevent negative consequences

 Common Compulsions of Magical Thinking:

  • Repeating certain words, phrases, sounds, numbers or names
  • Following specific routines or rituals. It is not uncommon for an individual to feel it necessary to repeat these rituals or routines multiple times until their OCD is satisfied (i.e., anxiety dissipates). Similarly, it is not uncommon for individuals to perform these rituals or routines at specific times of the day or days of the week.
  • Engaging in superstitious behaviors, such as avoiding cracks on the sidewalk when walking or knocking on wood
  • Picking up and putting down items a specific way
  • Arranging items in a specific order
  • Avoiding unlucky numbers, colors, words, places and items
  • Tracing one’s steps or performing specific physical actions in reverse
  • Counting in a certain way to a specific number or type of number
  • Moving one’s body or completing a specific gesture in a certain way
  • Touching items a certain way or for a specific number of times


Back to the good news – so the best treatment for Magical Thinking OCD is actually the same for any type of OCD: Exposure and Response Prevention, a type of cognitive behavioral therapy, both of which are considered evidence-based best practices as shown by a wide range of academic research. 

Both parts of ERP are critical for success. Exposure is simply exposing you to your fears, also known as your triggers. Unlike OCD, where you would almost instantly give into compulsions, in the Response Prevention part you delay and resist compulsions, leading to the learning that anxiety dissipates with the passing of time.You also get the bonus learning that not doing your compulsions has no outcome on your feared consequences, because they were never connected in the first place when it comes to magical thinking!

With ERP, we take a graduated approach, which means starting off with triggers and compulsions that are considered lower-risk than others you may also hold. For instance, setting an alarm clock or the volume on the TV at an unlucky number, then working up to something scarier, like not texting your parents goodbye when you board an airplane (assuming those texts have presumably guaranteed all previous safe flights).

Remember, OCD thrives on your choice to seek short-term relief through compulsions at the expense of long-term discomfort & distress. In ERP, we flip the script, exchanging short-term discomfort for long-term relief. Thanks to research, we can assertively say that is a winning strategy, not more magical thinking! In fact, according to research published ERP is 80% effective

If you’re struggling with Magical Thinking OCD, schedule a free call today with the NOCD clinical team to learn more about how a licensed therapist can help. At NOCD, all therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training. ERP is most effective when the therapist conducting the treatment has experience with OCD and training in ERP. You can also join our Magical Thinking OCD community and get 24/7 access to personalized self-management tools built by people who have been through OCD and successfully recovered.

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