What Is… Thought-Action Fusion

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In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is thought-action fusion.

Thought-action fusion (TAF) happens when people believe there is an equivalence between thoughts and actions. It was first described by researchers in relation to OCD, although it’s not exclusive to OCD.

There are a couple of different kinds of TAF. Likelihood TAF involves the belief that thinking about something makes it more likely to happen, and moral TAF involves the belief that thinking about an action is the moral equivalent to that action being performed or that event occurring.

A related concept is magical thinking, which involves the belief that thoughts, actions, or symbols can influence external events when there’s no logical reason to expect there to be a causative relationship. Thinking that knocking on wood actually has an effect on outcomes would be an example of this.

Thought-action fusion can increase the perceived importance and threat of intrusive thoughts. Inflating the significance of thoughts can lead people to try to suppress those thoughts, which in turn can intensify the thoughts. Appraising intrusive thoughts as more significant can also feed into a sense of moral responsibility for one’s thoughts.

The Thought-Action Fusion Scale

The Thought-Action Fusion Scale is a psychometric test developed by Shafran and colleagues to measure TAF in OCD. It contains three subscales—one for moral equivalence, one for increased likelihood of outcomes for others, and one for increased likelihood of outcomes for the self. Examples of items from each subscale are:

  • “Having violent thoughts is almost as unacceptable to me as violent acts.”
  • “If I think of a relative/friend being in a car accident, this increases the risk that he/she will have a car accident.”
  • “If I think of myself being injured in a fall, this increases the risk that I will have a fall and be injured.”

The average person tends to have higher levels of thought-action fusion with regards to an increased likelihood of thoughts affecting outcomes for the self compared to an increased likelihood of their thoughts affecting outcomes for others, as they recognize that their thoughts are more likely to affect their own behaviours. People with OCD, on the other hand, don’t tend to make that distinction, and they’re more likely to see their thoughts as influencing others’ behaviours.

Association with mental disorders

While thought-action fusion is common in OCD, not all people with OCD have TAF, nor can TAF on its own fully explain the symptoms of OCD. Some research has linked TAF with greater severity OCD, but findings have been inconsistent, and some studies have suggested that the TAF seen in some people with OCD actually has more to do with depression than the OCD itself.

TAF can skew an individual’s sense of personal responsibility, and they may feel that they need to take some sort of action to neutralize the perceived threat, which may fuel compulsive behaviours in OCD. One way of trying to do this is mental neutralizing, which involves trying to change one’s thoughts in order to reduce the likelihood of bad things happening. This sounds consistent with what’s sometimes referred to as pure-O OCD, where compulsions are mental rather than behavioural.

Likelihood TAF can be an issue for people with other anxiety-related disorders, but they tend to use avoidance rather than neutralization strategies. In particular, likelihood TAF has been linked to generalized anxiety disorder. This may relate to the belief that worry, a major element of GAD, can influence the likelihood of feared outcomes occurring.

Moral TAF has been associated with depression, and this may relate to the self-blame, personalization, and guilt that can go along with the illness.

A related concept, thought-shape fusion, has been described in relation to eating disorders and thoughts about food. This includes beliefs about the badness of thinking about forbidden foods and beliefs that thinking about food will affect body size and shape.

The role of religion

Culture and religion may influence baseline levels of thought-action fusion. A small study by Berman and colleagues compared the way that highly religious Protestant Christians and agnostics/atheists reacted to being instructed to think about particular harmful scenarios. The researchers found that the religious participants had more TAF, believing that it was morally wrong to think or write about negative effects and doing so increased the likelihood of those events happening. Other research has also linked Catholicism and Judaism with moral TAF.


I first stumbled across the term thought-action fusion quite recently when reading the book Everything You Need to Know About OCD. While moral TAF can be an issue for people with depression, I don’t think that’s the case for me. Does TAF sound like a pattern of thinking that you tend to have?

References

The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

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Ashley L. Peterson

BScPharm BSN MPN

Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

16 thoughts on “What Is… Thought-Action Fusion”

    1. I’m surprised the name for it is so low-profile, because it seems like something that’s probably quite common. I’m pretty sure I’d never heard it before until that OCD book I read recently.

  1. Hi! I’ve experienced this strongly during my psychoses as well as in the times when I was more esoterically influenced. Since I could move further away from this, TAF and magical thinking have crumbled, but crumbles are still around.

  2. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Thought-action fusion before as a concept. So it means someone can believe thinking about something will make it more likely to happen or thinking about something is morally like doing it.

    Would you say someone has high TAF / low TAF? It seems strange to say someone “has” TAF when I imagine most people will have a degree of one of the two aspects. It seems like it might tie into locus of control, having a higher importance of your thoughts/actions in outcomes than may be accurate. Except there’s less positivity in terms of affecting positive change, it’s more tended towards self-blame.

  3. Interesting read. I haven’t experienced this strongly, even as a semi-religious person, although I am aware of streams of Jewish thought that do liken thoughts to actions. I’m also the least OCD that a person could possibly be, so that might be part of it

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