Ideas Of Reference: Definition And Examples

By Mary Elizabeth Dean

Updated November 20, 2019

Reviewer Emily Genever

As humans, we tend to overestimate the impact we have on our surrounding environments. When random events occur, we may assume something we did or thought was the reason. These thoughts, known as ideas of reference, are relatively common. At times, however, ideas of reference can negatively impact how we view our world and live our lives.

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Ideas of reference are false beliefs that random or irrelevant occurrences in the world directly relates to a person. When someone believes their thoughts, actions, or presence caused something to occur, the irrational thoughts are considered ideas of reference. Most people have these thoughts from time to time. For example, someone walking into an unfamiliar situation like a party might think everyone is looking at him. Most people could shake a nagging idea of reference by rationally thinking about the situation. Say someone is walking through a crowded shopping area and hears two people laughing. At first, that person may think those people are laughing at him. It may make him self-conscious or even a little anxious, but we'll dig deeper into that throughout the article.

How Cognitive Biases Can Distort Reality

A cognitive bias is an error in thinking that occurs while people process and interpret information from the world around them. Since there are limitations to the brain's attention and processing, the brain often seeks shortcuts to become more efficient. Unfortunately, this "efficiency" can affect the objectionability and rationality of thoughts. Although some of these shortcuts can be accurate, others can lead to errors distorting your thoughts. Here are some common cognitive biases:

  • Confirmation Bias: Favoring information that aligns with your existing beliefs while discounting evidence that doesn't conform.
  • Availability Heuristic: Your brain creates mental shortcuts known as heuristics to be more efficient. Sometimes these shortcuts work while other times they create a bias. By placing greater value on thoughts entering your mind quickly, you may dismiss more probable answers or explanations.
  • Halo Effect: Your overall impression of a person influences your opinion of all his characteristics. This especially applies to your perception of the person's physical appearance and how it relates to their other qualities.
  • Self-Serving Bias: Blaming external forces when bad things happen and giving yourself credit when good things occur.
  • Attentional Bias: Similar to confirmation bias, this involves paying attention to some things while simultaneously ignoring others. For example, if you're shopping for a home, you may love the renovated kitchen and extra bathrooms but ignore the poor school district or appearance of mold in the basement.
  • Anchoring Bias: The tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information you learn. For example, if a friend tells you something negative about a person, you see this person as negative despite his or her actions and characteristics.
  • Misinformation Bias: This involves a memory being influenced by post-event information. For instance, if you enjoyed a restaurant, but your friends talked about their negative experiences, it may affect your memory of the restaurant.
  • Optimism Bias: Suggests you are more likely to succeed and less likely to suffer than others around you.


As you can see, there are many ways we shape and distort our thoughts to conform to what we want to believe. We all have cognitive biases and ideas of reference passing through our normal daily thoughts. Luckily, the mere presence of these thoughts isn't necessarily harmful unless it impacts our functioning and well-being.

When Can Ideas Of Reference Become Harmful?

Ideas of reference are often fleeting and easily released from consciousness. However, for some people, ideas of reference may be more pervasive. Those who have a mental illness like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or dementia have harder times realizing some events have nothing to do with them. Ideas of reference are more common in those suffering from personality disorders and other mental illnesses. Ideas of reference may be a precursor to another more serious type of thought pattern called delusions of reference. A delusion is a false belief, but the person having it believes it to be true. The person will hold firmly to the belief despite evidence that it is not true or rational.

The Three Criteria For A Delusion

Karl Jaspers gives three criteria for a true delusion. They are as follows:

  • Certainty: The person is convinced the delusion is real.
  • Incorrigibility: The person cannot be persuaded the delusion is false even with concrete evidence.
  • Impossibility: The delusion is not capable of being true.

If these thoughts remain for over a month and involve events that could happen, such as getting sick from germs or being followed, the person could be diagnosed with a delusional disorder. The main difference between delusions of reference and delusional disorder is that delusions of reference are not real.

Delusions of reference are one of several types of delusions. Others include delusion of control, delusional guilt or sin, and somatic delusions.

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Examples Of Ideas Of Reference

Ideas of reference could take on many forms. Some could be relatively harmless, while others may significantly impact the way a person lives. If an event occurs, big or small, it could be turned into an idea of reference. Here are some examples:

  • Bob believes every time a certain song plays on the radio, his long-lost lover is thinking about him.
  • Ken walks past a group of teens while walking through the mall food court. He hears them laugh a few seconds after he passes. He is convinced they were laughing at him.
  • Nancy thinks her favorite television show is broadcasting secrets about her with subliminal messages. She records and rewatches the program several times, trying to pinpoint when her secrets are being revealed.
  • Ben believes aliens can hear his thoughts every time he walks outside on a cloudless day. For that reason, Ben stays indoors unless there are clouds in the sky.
  • Jennifer thinks everybody is staring and judging the food choices she makes while at the grocery store. Because of this, she only shops late at night when there aren't many people out shopping.
  • Mike believes he needs to sit in a certain position on a specific part of the couch for his favorite sports team to win. He becomes anxious when someone else is sitting there during the game.
  • Melissa finds a penny facing "heads up" on the ground. She is convinced it is a sign she will win the lottery. She hurries to a convenience store to purchase several tickets.
  • Diane lives on a busy street. Whenever she hears a car honking, she believes it is an affirmation that she is telling the truth or acting honestly.

As you can see, ideas of reference can vary. Some might only be brief passing thoughts, while others can drastically change a person's behavior.

Causes And Factors For Ideas/Delusions Of Reference

Everybody has an idea of reference from time to time. It is in our nature. Some of us may even have deeply held beliefs or "superstitions" that could be very close to a delusion of reference. There are some factors that increase the intensity and frequency of ideas of reference and delusions in a person.

  • Bipolar disorder: Those with bipolar disorder may experience ideas of reference and delusions more frequently than an average person. Their ideas of reference may be congruent with their current depressive, manic, or hypomanic state.
  • Brain injury: Individuals with brain injuries, especially to the frontal lobe and right hemisphere of the brain, are more prone to delusions. This could be due to the resulting cognitive impairment or the other areas of the brain overcompensating for the damaged region.
  • Schizotypal Personality Disorder (STPD): Ideas of reference are common for those struggling with STPD. They have cognitive or perceptual distortions as well as difficulties establishing and maintaining close relationships.
  • Schizophrenia: Delusions are typical for those with schizophrenia. One of the most common types of schizophrenia involves paranoia and believing the world or others are plotting against them.
  • Psychosis: Those with organic psychosis (nondrug-induced) are likely to experience ideas of reference and delusions. This could be the result of dysfunctioning brain chemicals due to genetic abnormalities.
  • Stress: Studies have shown the negative impacts of chronic stress on one's body and mental state. Chronic stress can alter the brain and make someone more susceptible to deluded thinking.
  • Dementia: Those who have dementia often have a hard time basing their thoughts in reality. Confusion and memory loss often contribute to a person's ideas of reference and delusions.


Treatment For Ideas Of Reference And Delusions

When ideas of reference and subsequent delusions negatively impact a person's life, it is highly recommended that they seek treatment. If that person has been diagnosed with a mental illness like schizophrenia, personality disorder, or bipolar disorder, doctors or psychiatrists may prescribe antipsychotic medications to help manage symptoms. Antipsychotics work by blocking dopamine receptors. This inhibits dopaminergic activity to help decrease delusions.

Antidepressants and other mood-stabilizing drugs may be prescribed to help lessen symptoms so that a person is able to function more efficiently.

Journaling can also help combat the effects of ideas of reference. It is also a therapeutic way to deal with them.

Self-care is extremely important any time you are dealing with mental health issues. Make sure you are setting time aside for yourself each day.

Seeking Professional Help

If you are struggling with ideas or delusions of reference or have been diagnosed with a mental illness, getting psychotherapy is easier than ever. If the cost or inconvenience of a traditional therapy setting has kept you from getting the help you need, consider online counseling. The fully licensed and accredited therapists at can provide a more affordable, accessible option for psychotherapy.

Psychotherapy is also recommended in conjunction with medications. Typical talk therapies, such as cognitive behavior therapy, helps those with pervasive ideas of reference restructure their thought processes and distinguish reality from irrationality. During psychotherapy, individuals learn various coping strategies and ways to alter their behavior patterns when ideas of the reference surface. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing issues related to ideas of reference.

Counselor Reviews

"I have been dealing with quite a slew of issues, but after working with Mackenzie, I feel significantly more able to go forward in my life with effective strategies that match my abilities and goals. Mackenzie guided me toward establishing healthier boundaries, being more self-reflective, relying on both emotions and logic when confronting issues, and finding concrete ways to alleviate stress and anger at issues outside of my control. She is an incredibly skilled and valuable resource."

"Jessica is always there for me. Through my anxiety, sadness, and happiness. She helps me to focus on the positive rather than reflect on what I can't control."


Ideas of reference can lead to a lot of misinterpretations throughout your everyday life. Despite how common they are, they can still be a heavy burden to bear on your shoulders, especially if their interference is overwhelming you to the point of delusional thinking. Luckily, the path to restructuring your thought process is right around the corner. Take the first step today.

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