Magical thinking is the belief that one’s own thoughts, wishes, or desires can influence the external world. It is common in very young children. A four-year-old child, for example, might believe that after wishing for a pony, one will appear at his or her house. Magical thinking is also colloquially used to refer more broadly to mystical, magical thoughts, such as the belief in Santa Claus, supernatural entities, and miraculous occurrences.
Magical Thinking and Child Development
Toddlers and preschoolers often engage in pretend play. This allows them to test out new identities, to develop theories about the ways other people think, and to practice social skills. Magical thinking tends to coincide with this pretend play, and young children often have fantastical beliefs about what can and cannot happen. Magical thinking tends to fade as children begin to master concepts of logic and cause and effect. Older children may periodically deviate into magical thinking, but reality-based thinking dominates. In adults, magical thinking can be a sign of a mental health condition. However, some cultures encourage magical thinking about certain things. For example, a tribal religion might encourage members to believe that carrying around a fetish will cause it to rain. This sort of magical thinking is not symptomatic of mental illness because it is part of a cultural norm.
Magical Thinking and Mental Illness
Magical thinking is not in itself a mental illness, but is correlated with some mental health conditions. People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) engage in a type of magical thinking. Obsessive thoughts cause them to engage in compulsions in an attempt to stave off the thoughts. People with OCD may intellectually know that, say, repeatedly tapping a television will not keep them safe, but still feel an overwhelming urge to do so. People diagnosed with schizophrenia and delusional disorders may also experience bouts of magical thinking.
- American Psychological Association. APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009. Print.
- Colman, A. M. (2006). Oxford dictionary of psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Last Updated: 03-24-2016
Allison RJuly 27th, 2016 at 10:31 AM
My daughter is now 14. I am inquiring about her early diagnosis of magical thinking and how to help her now
The GoodTherapy.org TeamJuly 27th, 2016 at 1:37 PM
Thank you for your comment. If you would like to get in touch with a therapist for your daughter, you can search our directory for mental health professionals in your area here: http://www.goodtherapy.org/advanced-search.html. To specifically see therapists who work with adolescents, please select Children and Teens from the drop-down menu on that page. From there, you can get in touch with therapists and find the right fit for working with a teen regarding magical thinking.
Please keep in mind that GoodTherapy.org is an exclusive directory. If you have trouble finding a professional in your area, don’t be discouraged–it may mean you’ll have better luck doing a Google search or asking for a referral from a trusted health professional, such as your doctor.
Wishing you and your daughter the very best in your search!
The GoodTherapy.org Team
Allison RJuly 27th, 2016 at 2:35 PM
Thank you so very much!
The GoodTherapy.org TeamJuly 27th, 2016 at 3:19 PM
Our pleasure, Allison!
Graham CDecember 1st, 2016 at 5:54 PM
Ive always been very anxious my whole life but recently have been expressing the symptoms of magical thinking. I take celexa and that helps but its always present to some degree. Anyways i can fix this?
MonicaMay 3rd, 2017 at 5:34 AM
I have magical thinking andSometimes it drives me crazy because i dont act like myself, i keep thinking that if i think like a certain way or i think about something, it ill happen or prevent from happening. I dont know if this is serious, but it gave me a hard time. My parents dont understand if i explain and im not sure if its serious and what to do.
Dean LMay 26th, 2017 at 12:49 AM
Just wondering, have you ever paid attention to how long you had been thinking certain thoughts (eg. days, weeks etc) and if any thing you wanted and/or feared came about that matched what you were thinking? Can you relate a couple? If nothing has as yet came about matching thoughts you were thinking could you mention one or two of those anyway?
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