Ideas Of Reference: Definition And Examples

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated May 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Individuals may sometimes overestimate the impact they have on their surrounding environments. When random events occur, people may assume that their actions or thought patterns are the reason. These thoughts, known as ideas of reference, are relatively common. However, ideas of reference may sometimes cause harm to your mental health and daily well-being.  

Learn about ideas of reference and their implications

What are ideas of reference? 

Ideas of reference are false beliefs that random or irrelevant occurrences in the world directly relate to oneself. When someone believes their thoughts, actions, or presence caused an event to occur, they are experiencing this cognitive distortion. For example, someone walking into an unfamiliar situation like a party might believe everyone is looking at them. 

Some people might be able to shake a nagging idea of reference by rationally thinking about the situation. For example, someone walking through a crowded shopping area may hear two people laughing and assume they're laughing at them. It may make them feel self-conscious or anxious initially. However, they may use logical thinking to reframe the worry to believe the people may be laughing at a joke or something between them. 

How cognitive biases can distort reality

A cognitive bias or distortion is an error in thinking that occurs while people process and interpret information from the world around them. As there are limitations to the brain's attention and processing, the brain often seeks shortcuts to become more efficient. However, this "efficiency" can affect the objectiveness and rationality of thoughts. 

Although some shortcuts can be accurate, others can lead to cognitive errors that may impact how you communicate with others or interact with the world. Below are a few common cognitive distortions:  

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias can lead people to favor information that aligns with their beliefs while discounting evidence that doesn't conform.

Availability heuristic

Your brain may create mental shortcuts called heuristics to be more efficient. By placing value on thoughts entering your mind quickly, you may dismiss more probable answers or explanations.

Halo effect

Your overall impression of a person can influence your opinion of all their characteristics. This effect may especially apply to your perception of the person's physical appearance and how it relates to their other qualities.

Self-serving bias

This bias often entails blaming external forces when negative occurrences happen and giving yourself credit when positive ones occur. 

Attentional bias

Like confirmation bias, attentional bias involves paying attention to some areas of a situation while ignoring others. For example, if you're looking for a home, you may love the renovated kitchen of a home but ignore the lack of closet space.

Anchoring bias

This bias involves a 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 might see this person as negative despite their positive actions and characteristics.

Misinformation bias

Misinformation bias 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

This bias may cause you to believe that you are more likely to succeed and less likely to fail than others around you.

People shape and distort their thoughts in several ways to conform to what they want to believe. Many people experience cognitive biases and ideas of reference passing throughout the day. Although it isn't a reason for judgment, it could be an area for growth. Consider how you might challenge these biases in your daily life.

When can ideas of reference become harmful?

Ideas of reference can be temporary or constant. Those who experience mental health and neuropsychological conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or dementia may have more difficulty realizing that events are not directly related to them. Ideas of reference can be more common in those experiencing personality disorders and other mental illnesses. 

In addition, ideas of reference may be a precursor to another more serious thought pattern called delusions of reference. A delusion is a false belief, but the person having it believes it to be true. The person may hold firmly to the belief despite evidence that it is untrue. 

The three criteria for a delusion

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

  • Certainty: The person is sure 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 condition with primarily delusional symptoms. The main difference between delusions of reference and delusional disorder is that delusions of reference are not real, while delusions in delusional disorder could be realistic. 

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


Examples of ideas of reference

It can be challenging to understand ideas of reference without examples. Below are a few examples of fictional characters: 

  • Bob believes that each time a particular song plays on the radio, his ex-partner thinks about him. 
  • Ken walks past a group of teens through the mall food court. He hears them laugh and is convinced they are laughing at him. 
  • Zania 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 whenever he walks outside on a cloudless day. He stays inside on cloudless days. 
  • Jennifer thinks everybody is staring at and judging her food choices while at the grocery store. Because of this, she only shops late at night or early in the morning. 
  • Mike believes he needs to sit in a particular position on a specific part of the couch for his favorite sports team to win. 
  • Melissa finds a penny facing "heads up" on the ground. She is convinced it is a sign she will win the lottery. 
  • Taniyah sees a couple arguing in the street and notices one of the partners glaring as she passes. She believes the person is angry with her for listening to their argument in passing. 

Ideas of reference can vary. Some might only be brief, passing thoughts, while others can be forms of delusion that change a person's functioning. 

What causes ideas of reference? 

Ideas of reference can be normal. Some people hold beliefs or superstitions that could be close to a delusion of reference. However, other factors can increase the intensity and frequency of ideas of reference and delusions. When ideas of reference are severe, they may be a sign of the following: 

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 to the frontal lobe and right hemisphere of the brain may be more prone to delusions. This occurrence could be due to the resulting cognitive impairment or other brain areas. 

Schizotypal personality disorder (STPD)

Ideas of reference can be common among those struggling with STPD. They may have cognitive or perceptual distortions and difficulties establishing and maintaining close relationships.


Delusions can be common for those with schizophrenia. One of the most common types of schizophrenia involves paranoia or the belief the world or others are plotting against them.


Those with organic psychosis (non-substance-induced) may experience ideas of reference and delusions. These could be the result of dysfunctional brain chemicals due to genetic abnormalities.

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.


The adverse impacts of chronic stress on one's body and mental state may alter the brain and make someone more susceptible to deluded thinking.


Those who have dementia often struggle to base their thoughts on reality. Confusion and memory loss often contribute to a person's ideas of reference and delusions.

Learn about ideas of reference and their implications

Treatment for ideas of reference and delusions

When ideas of reference and subsequent delusions negatively impact a person's life, they may be treated by a mental health professional. If that person has been diagnosed with a mental illness like schizophrenia, a personality disorder, or bipolar disorder, doctors or psychiatrists may prescribe antipsychotic medications. However, consult a medical professional before starting, changing, or stopping a medication. 

If you are experiencing ideas or delusions of reference or have been diagnosed with a mental illness, you may benefit from talking to a licensed counselor. If the cost or inconvenience of a traditional therapy setting has kept you from seeking help, you might consider online counseling through a platform like BetterHelp. With an online therapy site, you can connect with your therapist over the phone, video, or live chat sessions. In addition, you can use a nickname instead of your real name if you don't want your identity to be known to your therapist.  

Psychotherapy may be recommended in conjunction with medications to help individuals experiencing ideas of reference. Talk therapy, including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), may help those with pervasive ideas of reference restructure their thought processes and distinguish reality from irrationality. Studies have found that online therapy is highly effective in treating conditions that may cause delusions, including bipolar disorder. One study found that 95% of all participants reported that online therapy offered them a more significant quality of life after treatment.  


Ideas of reference can lead to misinterpretations throughout your everyday life. However, you don't have to face them alone. Contact a licensed therapist online or in your area for further guidance and support.
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