Dysfunctional Reasoning Styles in OCD

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is one of the most disabling clinical conditions. Can you imagine the possibility of a catastrophic event triggering in you the same emotional reaction as a real event? Something similar happens in OCD. In this article, we explain.
Dysfunctional Reasoning Styles in OCD

Last update: 10 February, 2023

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (hereinafter, OCD) is a clinical condition that’s often disabling. It’s characterized by the presence of obsessions. They cause suffering, and the individual responds to them with compulsions or rituals, both behavioral and mental. In this article, we’re going to analyze the mechanism that explains the formation of obsessions: dysfunctional reasoning styles in OCD.

In OCD, the compulsions or rituals are far from pleasant, although some people experience relief when they perform them. The emotional responses associated with OCD are highly varied, and also intense. In addition, it’s common for sufferers to experience an overwhelming need for perfection. This causes them frustration and discomfort.

Woman thinking
OCD has a prevalence of one to three percent in the general population.


Before talking about dysfunctional reasoning styles, we’re going to reflect on what characterizes OCD. The World Health Organization defines this clinical entity by the presence of persistent obsessions and compulsions:

  • Obsessions take the form of persistent, recurring thoughts, images, or urges, or a feeling that the sufferer has to do something urgently. These thoughts are unwanted, extremely annoying, and often associated with anxiety. The individual tries to ignore or suppress their obsessions by carrying out repetitive behaviors (compulsions).
  • Compulsions are both physical and thought behaviors that the sufferer of OCD performs when they’re faced with the urgency of their obsessions. They carry them out according to rigid rules.

For example, a person with cleaning OCD may think that something won’t be clean until it’s been scrubbed 99 times. Since they feel extremely uncomfortable to think that it’s dirty, they’ll clean it 99 times. They feel that, if they don’t, they may infect the people around them and consequently they may die.

Both obsessions and compulsions consume a great deal of the individual’s time. There have been reports of sufferers spending more than eight hours on their obsessions and compulsions. This produces serious interference and substantial personal, social, educational, and occupational deterioration.

The dysfunctional reasoning styles in OCD

At the base of the formation of these obsessions lies doubt. O’Connor defines it as “an interference about a possible state of things as if they were actually taking place”. In other words, sufferers of OCD see as reality something that’s only happening in their minds. Here is an example of this style of reasoning:

I had a really bad thought. It just occurred to me that I could kill my son. So, I can’t be with my son because I’m dangerous. I need to get away from him because I’m a murderer.

Therefore, OCD is a state in which the sufferer confuses the possibility of something happening with it really occurring. There are several elements of these dysfunctional reasoning styles:

1. Primary inference

Primary inference refers to the base component of doubt. The essence of the doubt must be significant and important with a high emotional charge for the sufferer.

As a matter of fact, doubt is the driving force behind OCD. This trigger takes the form of inference (a presupposition), with a powerful personal as well as emotional meaning.

I just bought a car and I left it in the car park. But did I lock it? I have to go back and check. Ten minutes later, I’m doubtful again about whether I locked it. I have to go back again and make sure.

2. Inferential confusion

The obsessive doubt that constitutes primary inference is the product of faulty reasoning. It’s wrong because the sufferer of OCD confuses what’s real with what’s possible. This may be caused by two factors:

  • Many OCD sufferers end up mistrusting their own perceptions and sense. Consequently, they can’t clearly differentiate between reality and what they imagine to be real.
  • They give greater credibility to possibilities that are remote and often fictitious as opposed to reality, which is accessible through the senses (hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting).

Inferential confusion can be assessed using the Inferential Confusion Questionnaire (ICQ). Its scores explain a significant percentage of the relationship between obsessive-compulsive symptoms and dysfunctional beliefs.

man with glasses doubting
Sufferers of OCD often confuse reality with what they see as possible.

3. Secondary inferences

Faced with the obsessive doubt that shapes primary inference, the OCD sufferer anticipates the negative consequences (or secondary inferences) that could occur in the event that their feared scenario (a fictitious, possible though improbable event) should happen.

Faced with this situation, they experience a really high degree of discomfort (usually anxiety). At this moment, their will is hijacked by the need to implement behaviors that mitigate both the discomfort and the threats that they’re anticipating.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that this reasoning error phenomenon is rather curious. That’s because sufferers only make these kinds of mistakes when they rationalize their obsessions. The rest of the time, they reason in the same way as non-sufferers.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Belloch, A. (2022). Manual de psicopatología, vol II.
  • López, A. P. (2015). Cruzando el puente entre realidad e imaginación: Terapia basada en la inferencia para el TOC. Informació psicològica, (110), 92-107.
  • Borda, T., & Mazás, S. El Trastorno Obsesivo Compulsivo (TOC) es sustancialmente un trastorno emocional.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.