Magical Thinking 

By Dr. Alejandra Sequeira


Individuals with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) tend to feel overly responsible for the safety and well-being of themselves and others. This expanded sense of responsibility is associated with Magical Thinking, which is defined as the belief that one’s thoughts, actions, words, or wishes can alter the course of events in the physical world. This type of thinking represents a form of OCD in which individuals believe it is necessary to follow specific rules to ensure “good things” will occur and/or prevent “bad things” from happening.   Individuals who experience Magical Thinking OCD may become preoccupied with lucky or unlucky numbers, colors, words, actions, sayings or superstitions and link them to catastrophe or ‘bad things’ that might happen. For instance, one may have an obsession that tells them to place their water bottle down on the table in a specific way to prevent someone in their family from contracting a deadly disease.


Common Obsessions of Magical Thinking OCD

  • Fear that failing to think or say certain words, phrase, 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 themselves 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 dissipated). 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


Treatment for Magical Thinking OCD

The current gold-standard treatment for the various types of OCD, including Magical Thinking OCD, is a form of Cognitive Behavior Therapy called Exposure and Response Prevention (E/RP). This treatment involves exposing oneself to the items, thoughts, images, and situations that trigger their obsessions and/or make them feel anxious so they can practice tolerating the anxiety without engaging in any compulsions. For instance, an individual with Magical Thinking OCD may benefit from purposely thinking a “bad thought” without neutralizing it with a “good thought.” E/RP helps individuals recognize that their OCD is lying to them and that they do not possess the ability to alter the course of future catastrophic events. Mindfulness can also be a great adjunct to E/RP as it can help individuals learn that thoughts are just thoughts and do not have power over them. Further, individuals with Magical Thinking OCD may consider speaking with a psychiatrist to determine if medications would be beneficial for them. Overall, it is important for individuals who are struggling with Magical Thinking OCD to seek treatment from providers who are knowledgeable about and experienced in treating OCD.

DISCLAIMER: The content found here is intended to serve as educational content and is not intended to replace therapy. For treatment-related questions, please be sure to work with your local provider or contact a local clinician.

Videos: Magical Thinking

Choose a title below to view related OCD videos

Eric A. Storch, PhD, discusses a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) known as magical thinking. Magical thinking is a particular thought process in which OCD sufferers believe their actions could affect certain outcomes.

Eric A. Storch, PhD, discusses the differences between obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) superstition and being superstitious. One of the biggest differences is when the superstitious​ behaviors get in the way of the a person's life.