A common compulsion in OCD is checking to make sure that something was done correctly: turning off the stove, copying an address, shutting the refrigerator, locking the door, and so forth.
We can never know with absolute certainty that we’ve done something right, so many people with OCD end up checking repeatedly, sometimes for hours. The lost time is bad enough, and most people find that they actually feel less certain that they’ve done it right.
How can it be that more checking yields greater uncertainty? A recent study addressed this paradox by having participants perform a computerized task and then check to make sure they’d done it correctly. The study authors predicted that repeated checking would lead to quicker, more automatic checking as well as less confidence in one’s memory of having done the task correctly.
The study’s results did show that repeated checking resulted in faster checking and less memory confidence. It was unclear whether the faster, more automatic checking caused the greater uncertainty, and more work remains to be done to understand how checking leads to uncertainty. Additionally the participants were undergraduate students, not necessarily individuals with OCD, which calls into question the applicability of the findings to checking in OCD.
What’s the bottom line for OCD sufferers? As most people with OCD-related checking have found, the best solution is not to start checking in the first place. Generally it’s easier to walk away from an urge to check than to “check a little” and then walk away.
Of course, it’s easier to say “don’t check” than it is to resist the compulsive urges. Exposure and response prevention (ERP) for OCD is designed to assist a person’s efforts to break free of compulsive behaviors. Over time it typically gets easier not to check, leading to less distress and more time to do the things a person actually cares about.
Elaine C. P. Dek et al. (2014). Automatization and familiarty in repeated checking. Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders, 3, 303-310.