A philosophical perspective on overthinking offers fresh insights into the mental processes involved in anxiety and OCD
‘Am I thinking too much?’ Those of us who have asked ourselves this before know how troublesome it can be to get stuck on some concern or question for a long time. And people who chronically overthink can become trapped in seemingly endless loops of worrying and ruminating, which can disrupt work, relationships and other aspects of their lives. While these observations are common enough, the phenomenon of overthinking is more complicated than it seems. Is there really such a thing as ‘thinking too much’? After all, thinking a lot seems like what one has to do in order to be rational. Indeed, the principles of rational thinking postulated by philosophers don’t find anything inherently problematic with overthinking.
Also, overthinking often doesn’t feel irrational, either. Quite the opposite, it can present as very rational. For instance, Rebecca Schiller describes the hard-to-control curiosity induced by her attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as an ‘inner scientist’ in her book A Thousand Ways to Pay Attention (2022). Similarly, some people who have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) employ an inquisitive stubbornness that might be applauded if it were displayed by the likes of mathematicians or philosophers. Researchers have observed that people with GAD articulate personal rules such as ‘I feel I must focus on every conceivable solution to this worry,’ or ‘I must continue to worry until I have covered all the possible problems that this worry raises.’ This is strikingly similar to an epitome of rationality, the philosophical sceptic. From René Descartes to David Lewis, the sceptic is conceived as someone who isn’t satisfied until she has reached certainty.
So, is overthinking irrational, or not? Among philosophers as well as among people with mental illness, some feel driven by reason to think without stopping. Are they right – is it never irrational to overthink? Seeking an answer to this question, and seeing that finding one is less straightforward than it might appear, can throw a different and more empathic light on individuals with mental health conditions.
As a first pass, we can distinguish between two kinds of rationality: epistemic and practical. Epistemic rationality is concerned with what we ought to believe; it governs our thinking with respect to truth. Practical rationality is concerned with how we ought to act; it directs our activities relative to the goals we set for ourselves. Accordingly, saying that someone is showing practical irrationality means they are violating what they ought to do with respect to their chosen ends. Imagine that you want to be a more attentive parent, but are unwilling to allocate any more time to be with your child, even though you could. Since your means don’t align with your ends, you are being practically irrational. A charge of epistemic irrationality, on the other hand, is appropriate when a thinker has gone awry in their attempt to arrive at knowledge – eg, they’ve committed errors in logical reasoning, failed to adhere to the available evidence, and so on. Whether we consider a line of thinking rational or not, then, depends on what sort of rationality we’re talking about.
With these conceptual tools in hand, it’s clear that overthinking will often be practically irrational. For instance, many people with OCD spend hours a day on obsessive thoughts, which interferes with them pursuing their goals. Severe forms of the condition can even be life-shattering. For those with OCD, overthinking can deeply impair everyday life. However, psychiatrists, healthcare professionals and researchers often go further than casting these thinking patterns as practically irrational. On the mainstream understanding, a person experiencing OCD is also epistemically irrational because they entertain irrational beliefs. A classic example is the following: Amelia is driving in her car. Suddenly, she hears a weird noise that is impossible to identify. She starts to wonder if she’s run over someone, and can’t stop thinking about this possibility. So, she turns the car around and conducts an extensive search for any signs of a victim.
One can have so much evidence that it would be epistemically irrational to enquire any longer
The standard psychiatric model assumes that Amelia has formed the irrational belief that she’s run over someone. An important part of cognitive behavioural therapy, then, is challenging this belief with reasoning and ‘Socratic questioning’. In his touching memoir Touch and Go Joe (rev ed, 2021), Joe Wells recounts how his therapist helped him with ‘convincing myself of OCD’s irrationality’. These aren’t references to practical irrationality; a patient often needs little convincing that their overthinking is harming their life. Rather, calling OCD ‘irrational’ here means that it makes no sense. What’s invoked is a distinctively epistemic sense of irrationality. The person with OCD is seen as someone who forms strange beliefs on thin evidence and has in some ways lost touch with reality.
Accordingly, a therapist might try to persuade Amelia that, given her evidence in a situation like this, the belief that she’s just hit a pothole is much more rational than the belief that she’s run over someone. But there could be problems with this approach. It’s not clear Amelia actually formed any belief in the first place. She’s primarily asking a question: ‘Did I run over someone?’ Whether someone entertains a belief or just a question matters for the assessment of irrationality. If you were to discover a big crack in the wall of your flat, it would seem rationally permitted to ask the question of whether this crack will lead to the destruction of the building, even though it would be irrational to form the belief that the building is going to collapse. In some sense, the conditions for rational questions are a lot looser than those for beliefs. So, if Amelia is primarily asking herself a question (‘Did I run over someone?’) instead of holding a belief (‘I did run over someone’), it’s unclear what is epistemically irrational about her thinking.
Is it ever irrational to ask a question? The epistemologist Jane Friedman thinks it can be. According to her, one can have so much evidence that it would be epistemically irrational to enquire any longer. Sometimes, reality is so obvious, you ought not to wonder. You could think that Amelia is epistemically irrational because she’s questioning something that’s just completely obvious; if there are no traces of a victim, Amelia didn’t actually harm anyone: no further questions allowed. But, there are other instances of OCD where this matter is less straightforward. Consider the case of a man I’ll call Joseph, who for four years has had uncontrolled repetitive thoughts about being gay. He constantly has doubts about his sexual orientation.
Joseph exhibits OCD with sexual obsessions, in which the object of enquiry is the person’s own desire. This complicates the assessment of rationality. In cases like Amelia’s, there either is a visible trace of the supposed victim, or there isn’t. But with one’s mind, it isn’t so simple. Who is to say whether Joseph has any evidence that he is gay? Joseph himself? Since gay people are often stigmatised and mistreated, it’s quite likely that he’s afraid of the possibility of being gay, which could skew his self-enquiry. He might not be able to trust his own assessment of the evidence. But if not himself, who can he trust? As the question concerns his own mind, there is no independent arbiter of what the evidence for his desires really is.
Without the possibility of an objective assessment, we lose grip on the basis for saying that Joseph is being epistemically irrational. As I argue in a recent paper, an enquiry like Joseph’s cannot be deemed epistemically irrational in Friedman’s way; he is not questioning something that is obvious.
It seems, then, that pathological overthinking is often not epistemically irrational in the sense that overthinkers have a distorted view of reality or that they make mistakes about what’s actually there. If there is something epistemically amiss here, it’s a more nuanced and subtle mistake.
Thinking well … means knowing which enquiries are worth putting one’s energy into
My hypothesis is that the epistemic problem with overthinking lies in its relation to success. A striking feature of overthinking is its failure to generate answers. Overthinkers may exhibit admirable rigour and inquisitive creativity, but all this effort is to no avail; they do not get where they want to be, at least not for long. Amelia never truly settles on a firm answer about whether she’s run over someone, despite her searching, and Joseph doesn’t come to know his sexual orientation with certainty. Overthinking is fruitless thinking. What makes overthinkers epistemically irrational is that they continue to enquire even though they have no reason to think that their enquiry will be successful. This isn’t just a practical mistake: fruitless thinking can be seen as irrational from a purely epistemic standpoint. A person who overthinks is wasting scarce cognitive resources. Moreover, by thinking endlessly about the same questions, one misses out on opportunities to acquire true beliefs and get closer to knowledge.
Overthinkers may excel in following traditional norms of rational thinking (accuracy, coherence, evidence-gathering, etc). However, overthinkers are epistemically irrational because they are invested in enquiries that are doomed to be unsuccessful. And if we can see this as an epistemic, and not just a practical mistake, we stay in line with therapeutic perspectives on overthinking. Thinking well doesn’t just mean always having accurate and coherent beliefs. It also means knowing which enquiries are worth putting one’s energy into. Good thinkers also know when to stop. So, is overthinking ‘irrational’ or ‘rational’? Well, it can be both.
Acknowledging that there are similarities between pathological overthinking and stubborn inquisitive rigour may provide a novel way of challenging the widespread stigma attached to people with mental health conditions, and the notion that they are beyond reason. My hope is that doing so can ultimately promote empathy and a sense of commonality among those with and without these conditions. What seems to be missing for someone with OCD or GAD is the same thing that tells a stubborn scientist to drop a research question or a philosopher to stop trying to answer every possible objection her view raises – and this may still be difficult for the scientist or philosopher to do. Learning to think well is a task for all of us, whether we are experiencing a mental health problem or not.