Magical Thinking OCD: Excessive Superstition

Magical Thinking OCD is a form of OCD in which people believe their thoughts, words, or actions can have real-life consequences.

People with Magical Thinking OCD believe that they will be responsible for something awful happening to themselves or a loved one if they do not perform specific compulsive behaviors that their OCD demands.

No matter how unreasonable and irrational, they believe that their thoughts or actions have the ability to alter the course of events in the physical world.

This tends to be driven by an inflated sense of responsibility (i.e., I am to blame for anything bad that happens) and a desire to control outcomes. As a result, these individuals must follow specific rules to ensure “good things” will occur and to prevent “bad things” from happening. 

magical thinking ocd
Individuals with magical thinking OCD may engage in certain rituals or behaviors (like crossing fingers, touching objects a certain number of times, etc.) believing that these acts can prevent bad outcomes or cause good ones, despite there being no logical connection between the action and the desired outcome. While for many, crossing fingers is just a cultural symbol of wishing for luck, for someone with OCD, such actions can become intense, time-consuming rituals performed out of fear and anxiety.

What is Magical Thinking OCD?

While we all experience magical thinking from time to time, like in the form of superstitions, people with OCD may experience these thoughts and obsessions to a severe degree.

Usually, a small dose of superstition (i.e., avoiding the 13th floor of a hotel, knocking on wood, wearing a lucky shirt to watch a sports game) does not have any significant influence on one’s life.

However, for those with OCD, this superstitious thinking can generate extreme anxiety, fear, and an overwhelming sense of responsibility. 

Unlike other OCD subtypes, Magical Thinking OCD is not a clinical diagnosis, but rather a manifestation of OCD. While it does have its own distinct characteristic, it can also occur within many other forms of OCD.

For example, someone with Counting OCD might believe that counting to a certain number or doing things a particular number of times will prevent something bad from happening to themselves or to others, so they count to try and guarantee safety. 

“Everything I do in my life is to the count of four. Four is my lucky number. The clock around my head has only the numbers one to four because they are the only numbers that matter. I could never do something only three times; it has to be four times.

When I put on my mascara it is always to the count of four. If I don’t do it correctly, like if I miscount or it doesn’t feel just right, I have to start over. You can imagine that some days I am wearing a heavy dose of mascara.”


Live Experience (Leah)

"Everything I do in my life is to the count of four. Four is my lucky number. The clock around my head has only the numbers one to four because they are the only numbers that matter. 

I could never do something only three times; it has to be four times. 

When I put on my mascara it is always to the count of four. If I don't do it correctly, like if I miscount or it doesn’t feel just right, I have to start over. You can imagine that some days I am wearing a heavy dose of mascara."

People with Magical Thinking OCD tend to feel responsible for the well-being and safety of others. As a result, they worry that their thoughts or actions could cause harm.

Even if the person rationally understands that they do not have the power to make something happen, the fear of causing oneself or another person harm is so significant that they will engage in their compulsions just to be sure. 

Usually, there is little to no connection between what a person fears with their Magic Thinking OCD and the action they perform to prevent it.

Common Magical Thinking Obsessions

Obsessions are often at the root of the OCD experience. An obsession is an intrusive and unwanted thought or urge that causes anxiety or distress for the person experiencing it.

Having intrusive thoughts does not mean you have OCD, but if you find yourself trying to suppress these unwanted thoughts and fears with compulsions, this can be a sign of OCD.

Most obsessions in OCD involve anxiety and distress over causing (or preventing) harm to themselves or other people.

Some examples of Magical Thinking thoughts include:

  • “If I use a pen instead of a pencil to sign this document, something bad will happen.”
  • “If I do not hold my breath when I pass this graveyard, I will place a curse on myself and everyone around me.”
  • “If I don’t text my parents before I take off from a flight, the plane might crash.”
  • “If I happen to look at the clock when it is 9:11, something tragic will happen.”
  • “If I have a negative thought, I need to balance it out with three positive thoughts in order for nothing bad to happen.”
  • “If I step on a crack in the sidewalk, I will have bad luck for the rest of the day.”
  • “If I do not close my eyes when we drive over this bridge, we will fall into the water.”
  • “If I re-wear this dress I wore to a funeral, something horrible will happen to me.”

Common Magical Thinking Compulsions

Compulsions are behaviors or rituals that people with OCD perform in response to an obsession, or intrusive thought. People perform these compulsions in order to suppress their anxiety and neutralize their fears.

They also carry them out to keep things safe, make sure that the thoughts do not come true, and make sure that something bad does not happen.

Magical Thinking OCD compulsions tend to fall into one of these patterns:

  • Avoiding certain “bad” numbers, colors, words, locations, items, etc.
  • Repeating “good” words, numbers, or phrases
  • Repeating actions (such as turning on/off the faucet) until it feels “right”
  • Counting to a specific number or performing a certain action a specific number of times (such as saying “I love my mom,” three times every time a person hears any negative mention of their mother)
  • Wearing certain clothes or colors
  • Touching things a certain number of times or in a specific way
  • Neutralizing bad thoughts with good thoughts
  • Arranging objects in a specific pattern or way 
  • Picking up and putting down items in a specific way
  • Moving your body or gesturing in a certain way
  • Doing specific things at a certain time or date
  • Performing “rituals” during certain times of the day or under specific circumstances.

OCD Cycle

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition characterized by ongoing, intrusive, and unwanted thoughts (obsessions) followed by repetitive behaviors and actions (compulsions) that are performed in an attempt to reduce the anxiety caused by the obsessions.

OCD is maintained by a cycle of compulsive rituals that provide short-term relief, but only serve to intensify the fear and guilt in the long-term.

ocd cycle
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) involves a cycle of obsessions (intrusive, unwanted thoughts) and compulsions (repetitive behaviors or mental acts that an individual feels driven to perform) aimed at reducing anxiety or preventing a feared event.

Let’s illustrate this cycle using an example of magical thinking, a common symptom of OCD:

  1. Obsession: A person has an intrusive thought that they believe their loved ones will be in an accident if they don’t touch every doorknob in their house three times before leaving.
  2. Anxiety: This thought causes intense anxiety and distress. They worry constantly about their loved ones’ safety.
  3. Compulsion: To reduce anxiety and prevent the feared event (the accident), they touch every doorknob in their house three times before going out.
  4. Temporary relief: The act of touching doorknobs gives temporary relief from the anxiety, but it also reinforces the cycle.
  5. Return of obsession: Later, the obsessive thought returns, and its association with safety is reinforced by the compulsion carried out, and the cycle repeats.

How does Magical Thinking OCD Get in the Way of Life?

Like all OCD subtypes, Magical Thinking can significantly affect people’s quality of life. While Magical Thinking OCD compulsions may start small, they typically will snowball over time.

In severe cases, Magical Thinking OCD can be deeply disruptive and impede someone’s ability to function and succeed in their everyday life. The obsessions and compulsions surrounding OCD can be incredibly time-consuming and draining.

“Magical Thinking had an enormous impact on me as a child. I had to do a particular task x number of times or God would be disappointed in, me and punish me. Or, I had to be cool because my crush could be watching me from behind a window, bush, or something.”

They can make it nearly impossible to perform sufficiently in assigned tasks or be attentive in social interactions.

Some people can become so obsessed with their superstitions that it becomes all-consuming, and they can’t focus on anything else.

Is Magical Thinking OCD Treatable?

Similar to any other form of OCD, Magical Thinking OCD can be effectively treated and managed effectively with Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), a type of CBT that is considered the first-line psychotherapy for OCD.

People can learn to manage how their symptoms affect their daily lives through medication, therapy, and mindfulness.  In fact, ERP therapy has been found effective for 80% of people with OCD (Foa, 2010), making it one of the most effective mental health interventions available. 

In ERP, people work with a therapist to identify both external and internal triggers that cause them to stress and make them want to behave compulsively. ERP is designed to gradually reduce the anxiety that feeds the obsessions and compulsions through a process called habituation.

The goal of habituation is to purposely invoke and sit with the anxiety in attempt to disrupt the neural circuit between the processing and action parts of the brain.

In the case of Magical Thinking, this might involve being exposed to intrusive thoughts while resisting the compulsions that the person would typically do to alleviate their anxiety.

For example, let’s say you feel that you can only chew your food by a number that is divisible by 5 before swallowing, or else you will choke. With an ERP therapist, you will work toward overcoming this compulsion with the goal of chewing freely without counting.

Overtime, you will see that nothing bad will happen (i.e., choking) when you do not perform the compulsion (i.e., counting), and your anxiety will decrease even without the compulsive response.


Bolton, D., Dearsley, P., Madronal‐Luque, R., & Baron‐Cohen, S. (2002). Magical thinking in childhood and adolescence: Development and relation to obsessive compulsion. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 20(4), 479-494.

Einstein, D. A., & Menzies, R. G. (2004). The presence of magical thinking in obsessive compulsive disorder. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 42(5), 539-549.

Foa, E. B., Yadin, E., & Lichner, T. K. (2012). Exposure and response (ritual) prevention for obsessive-compulsive disorder: Therapist guide. Oxford University Press.

West, B., & Willner, P. (2011). Magical thinking in obsessive-compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. Behavioural and cognitive psychotherapy, 39(4), 399-411.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Florence Yeung

BSc (Hons), Psychology, MSc, Clinical Mental Health Sciences

Trainee Clinical Psychologist

Florence Yeung is a certified Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner with three years of clinical experience in NHS primary mental health care. She is presently pursuing a ClinPsyD Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at the Hertfordshire Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust (HPFT). In her capacity as a trainee clinical psychologist, she engages in specialist placements, collaborating with diverse borough clinical groups and therapeutic orientations.

Julia Simkus

Editor at Simply Psychology

BA (Hons) Psychology, Princeton University

Julia Simkus is a graduate of Princeton University with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. She is currently studying for a Master's Degree in Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness in September 2023. Julia's research has been published in peer reviewed journals.