Saturday, March 3, 2012

Magical thinking & the obsessive compulsive personality type

The person believes his thoughts, words or actions will in some way cause a specific outcome that defies the normal laws of cause and effect. For example a man believes that if he prays three time at night that will prevent his mother from dying. A woman believes that if she checks the doors three times at night then she will be safe.

Magical thinking may be part of ideas of reference or may reach delusional proportions when the individual maintains a firm conviction about the belief despite clear evidence to the contrary. Magical thinking is found normally in children and with the OC personality type.

Magical thinking is a battle between the grown up Adult ego state (A2) and the Adult ego state in the Child ego state (A1) sometimes known as the Little Professor ego state. The young child is born without an A2 ego state, all it has is its Child ego state.

Magic thinking diagram

Thus all the thinking it does is via the A1 or Little Professor ego state which means it will at times have quite illogical thoughts and come to quite bizarre conclusions and decisions. The Adult (A2) is not really fully formed until adolescence. Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development has shown this. For example it is not until the age of about 8 years that a child finally realizes that death is not reversible. Up to that time it thinks death is a reversible process. This clearly is magical thinking and thus would be seen as a function of the A1 ego state not the A2.

Most grownups eventually form a strong A2 ego state and thus go through life without odd thoughts and beliefs about the facts of the world. However we never loose the A1 ego state, it remains with us until the day we die. So all grownups have the ability to have child like magical thinking.

Superstition is a good example of this. We all know that touching wood will not make good luck befall on us, however we all touch the wood anyway, (just in case). The same for black cats and walking under ladders. Most of us do not believe it has any effect but we avoid walking under ladders, (just in case).

However the magical thinking we all have is sometimes not so banal. People can at times spend significant sums of money based on magical thinking. Some beauty treatments have no scientific basis for them but people will spend significant money on them because they believe them to work. Some skin treatments and mud packs are of this kind. Conspiracy theories may also involve magical thinking that is not logical. Some believe that Lady Diana of the UK was either killed by MI5 or the egyptian mafia rather than her simply dying in a motor vehicle accident. Magical thinking is particularly susceptible to the phenomena of group think.

Lady & pig in mud bath

In group think people start to believe the same illogical thing, because others around them believe the same thing which makes them more secure that their thinking must be true. When conspiracy theorists get together to discuss their theories, they find others have the same magical thinking which makes it more true in their minds. “The end is nigh” groups can also be of this kind, where a group of people have the same magical thinking. Because others around them believe the same that makes it more true in the mind of each individual. The phenomena of group think can particularly happen with magical thinking.

Every “The end is nigh” group has been wrong so far (but beware the next one may be true!). Often they have an elaborate belief system about why the end is nigh that is based on significant evidence which they can produce or explain how it works. The point being that significant thinking has been engaged in before the conclusion that the end is nigh is reached. It is not simply based on a whim or a hunch.

end is nigh

Magical thinking is be no means solely for the neurotic and the disturbed. We all can and do engage in magical thinking because we all have that ego state in our personality. Many normal good members of society can have significant areas in their life that are based on magical thinking.

However the OC personality type in particular uses magical thinking especially with compulsive behaviors and it shows how the A1 and A2 can coexist at the same time in the personality. A client recently reported to me an elaborate ritual on checking if a door was locked. He would check the door could not be opened by trying to turn the knob to open the door. He would then walk to the other side of the room, turn around, look at the knob walk back to it and try it again. He did this three times and then he felt satisfied it was locked.

He knew clearly in his Adult ego state how illogical this was which caused him even more distress. However if he did not do the ritual he knew he would feel considerable disquiet and would have this constant urge to finally complete the ritual. The magical thinking was that if the ritual was performed then he could be sure the door was locked. His A1 was stronger in the personality than the A2 with regards to this specific piece of behavior.

OC personality type - cleanliness, perfectionism, orderliness, control.

Obsessive thoughts may also involve magical thinking. A long term client recently attended an appointment in great distress. The local council that morning sprayed herbicide along the street outside her house to kill weeds on the side of the road. She was convinced that could have been contaminated by the poisonous spray before she had time to close all the windows and that she will become quite ill and possibly die.

The fact that the council has been doing this for the last 20 years and no one before had ever reported getting ill had little effect. The fact that there was no wind and the sprayers are very close to the ground had little effect to reduce her angst. The fact the government health standards make sure there is no way such herbicides sprayed the way they are would ever contaminate anyone also had little effect for her.

Her Adult (A2) acknowledged all these as true but still she felt great distress about being contaminated because there was still a possibility that it could have somehow (magically) occurred. The A1 thinking dominated the A2 in this instance and she thought about it obsessively over the next week. Such A1 based contamination fears are common in the OC personality type.

OC - pro ana

I have to feel in control of life and myself so I will be orderly and perfectionistic
Drivers: Be perfect, Be strong
Injunctions: Don’t enjoy, Don’t get your needs met, Don’t be a child
Life position: I-U+
Strokes given out: Positive conditional



  1. A brilliantly helpful post! Thank you. I have in the past struggled with 'control freaks' who were micro-managers in the workplace, I must admit, but have a couple of OCD traits myself, relating to procrastination and some superstitions (learned from childhood, in fact...)

    With this in mind, you've given me some insight into one of my own clients - Thank you - Fascinating!


  2. p.s. I've noticed you have word verification -

    Please have a look at my post on this - It's doing Blogworld's head in, how much people are ramping up the use of WV.

    It's not easy to read and takes ages to complete and it sometimes means we need to re-boot our pcs thereafter...

    Hope you don't mind me letting you know.

  3. Dear Tony,
    This post is really helful to me, especially the part concerning the OC type. Structural analysis of the OC type underlines the fact that their Adult ego state has been contaminated by their Parent, and that their Child needs often go unmet. So, it was refreshment to me to focus on their A1-A2 struggle. Now, this type seems more vivid, and I can clearly understood their conforming caracteristic ( based on group think process). Thank you. I like the way your ideas help me to see one step ahead.

  4. I am glad u like the post Fhi,

    I usually like OCDs. Can't say I am one myself. Over the years i have learnt to not get so uptight about it all and when ever i need to i just remind myself of the grand picture and theat seems to put everything into perspective.


  5. Hello Ljiljana,
    Yes i have not seen a statement before that looks at the OC from a perspective that includes magical thinking like I have done here. Although it is by no means new as the idea of OCs having magical thinking has been stated before.

    Thanks for the strokes