We are not totally rational beings. That is why Spock from Star Trek was so interesting and unique. Part of our irrationality is the ability to believe in causality that is not directed solely by the laws of science. That is other forces such as fate and karma can influence our lives. The American Psychological Association argue that commonly accepted beliefs that often centre around a higher power or horoscopes are acceptable beliefs. Non-scientific beliefs that are not culturally accepted are described as a result of magical thinking. So beliefs fall roughly into three zones. One, rational; two, non-scientific but widely accepted and three, individual magical thoughts. It is the latter that is a feature of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
An OCD thought that involves magical thinking typically involves an action or a thought that is used to protect themselves or loved ones from harm. For example if I would turn the door handle right and then three times left, then my family will be protected. The magic is in believing that these actions can directly influence the safety of the family. Such thought are usually unique to the individual.
People without OCD indulge in magical thinking. Do you own some lucky charm – a talisman that protects or grants you a little more good fortune than than random luck? A charm that promises good fortune requires that the possesor to indulge in magical thinking. Such simple examples show us that magical thinking is practiced by many in everyday life. It is very common for people to believe that there are forces beyond rational science that can influence our lives. The magical thinking found in OCD is therefore not such a strange thing. It is simply an exaggeration of commonly accepted magical thoughts.
The idea of forces beyond rational science is abundant so what makes OCD thoughts extra magical? OCD thoughts frequently involve a unique belief with very specific requirements. To a regular observer the OCD behaviour may look rational. People who have OCD thoughts about germs may shroud their actions in the science of cleanliness but beneath the surface my lie unsupportable beliefs around the real risk of contamination and the consequences of coming into contact with people and surfaces. An example of magical thinking is where a ‘bad’ deed (sin) can be passed on like a germ from person to person. Contamination of germs and ‘bad karma’ can merge in a magical thought. In a world where superstition has a hidden foothold then magical thinking is not easy to dismiss.
In fact the oddness in OCD magical thinking is more that almost no-one else shares that same magical belief. There are rather a lot of people who would resist removing the protective dangly thing hanging from the rear view mirror. These protective dangly things represent shared magical thinking. As such it is perfectly OK to have these beliefs and be free from a diagnosis of OCD. If I say that my rear view mirror dangly thing has been replaced with an oversized teddy bear that I keep in the rear passenger seat then all of a sudden I appear a little odd. The teddy that I keep in my back seat proves that I am just on the leading edge of superstitious protection. Of course it only works if you have the giant teddy wearing a seatbelt (otherwise you are just asking for trouble).
Magical thinking has one other feature that makes it appear strange. Magical thoughts do not work. This is perhaps a very overlooked feature of magical thoughts. But there failure to work as predicted is no barrier to belief. Insurance companies do not believe that having a lucky charm/teddy in the car will protect you. I do not get a reduction on my insurance if I keep my giant teddy in the back seat. Actions such as counting and saying safety phrases to neutralise bad things has no effect on the world.
We indulge in magical thinking because of the ‘just in case‘ it might work principle. While Richard Dawkins would dismiss the idea that a deity can offer you eternal life after death there is a very compelling argument to convert at least at the end of your life. It might just work and there is no significant downside. That is unless your deity has a special place in hell for agnostic opportunists. Sadly, Mr Dawkins is going straight to the 9th level of Dante’s hell and all it would take would be a simple ‘sorry’ to save him from eternal damnation. What does he have to lose?
So magical thinking is ubiquitous and hard to eliminate. Welsh researchers West and Willner measured the level of magical thinking in people with generalised anxiety (GAD), OCD and people without a OCD diagnosis. What they discovered is that people with OCD had high levels of magical thinking compared to normal individuals. Nothing special there. Interestingly they found that people with GAD had similar level of magical thinking as people with OCD. The researchers suggested that GAD and OCD have some close connection to each other. They propose that the constant worrying found in GAD may involve an element of magical thinking where constantly exploring of the fear provides the perception that they are able to limit the effects of the fear.
Reference: Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 2011, 39, 399–411 First published online 21 February 2011 doi:10.1017/S1352465810000883 Image attribution: By NBC Television - Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30262781
Disclaimer: This content is not intended to provide medical or mental health advice. It is intended to stimulate an increased understanding of OCD. The content may not be accurate or express the views of the journal article authors.