Wikipedia:Editors with obsessive-compulsive disorder

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Wikipedia editors with OCD may have a strong desire to order content in a certain way or be precise with how information is laid out. While at times this trait can be perceived as obstinacy or refusal to find a compromise, there are many tasks within Wikipedia where people with this trait can contribute in a positive way.

Wikipedia is the ultimate honeypot for people with obsessive–compulsive disorder! If a group of researchers had been given the task of creating a working/hobby environment specifically designed to attract people with obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD), it's hard to see how they could have come up with anything better than Wikipedia. If you think you may have OCD, there are online screening tests that can give a general idea of whether you have some of the symptoms of OCD.[1] (However, be aware that OCD can only be properly diagnosed by a professional psychologist or psychiatrist.)

Even Wikipedia editors without OCD are known to develop a strong urge to check and re-check watchlisted articles, favourite articles, or articles they are concerned about. Wikipedia editors without OCD are known to develop a strong urge to repeatedly change articles to reflect a preferred formatting or inclusion/exclusion of certain text, even to the point of edit warring. Indeed, the media has noted this, with one 2008 newspaper article entitled "Who Are These Devoted, Even Obsessive Contributors to Wikipedia?"[2]

For editors with OCD, the urge to check and re-check articles and watchlists is even more powerful than it is for non-OCD editors, because one of the symptoms of OCD is the powerful urge to check and re-check things. For editors with OCD, the urge to keep changing an article back to a preferred version is even more powerful than for non-OCD editors, because one of the symptoms of OCD is to change things until they feel "right" or "perfect", which may involve ordering information in a certain fashion or following some sort of pattern that "feels good". For OCD editors, it can be easy to get fixated on changing an article in a certain way, and the OCD can make it very hard to "drop the stick" (i.e., "let go" of an issue).

As with many things some people would say that, when it comes to real-world applications, OCD is probably best not thought of as a "disability" and they would say that it is really about differences in ways of thinking. Adding the label of disability changes the way we think about things; it shifts us into the paradigm of "abnormality", whereas in real terms it can be just "less usual", in the same way that some hair colours, some eye colours, etc. are "less usual".

Hard-wiring of brains[edit]

The human brain has millions upon millions of nerve fibres, and connections (like minature switches) between those fibres. It can be thought of as being a bit like the insides of an incredibly complex computer. Different areas of the brain specialize in different functions. Some areas have vast amounts of wiring (or very highly active wiring), and some have more sparse (or less active) wiring.

Everybody's brain is unique, and every person has unique brain "wiring".

People with OCD have a unique type of brain wiring, which causes them to feel the need to check things repeatedly, perform certain routines repeatedly, or have certain thoughts repeatedly. People are unable to control either the thoughts or the activities. Common activities include hand washing, counting of things, and checking on things, such as checking e-mail repeatedly. Some may have difficulty throwing things out. These activities occur to such a degree that the person's daily life is negatively affected.[3] Often they take up more than an hour a day.[4] Most adults with OCD realize that their OCD behaviors do not make sense.[3]

Explaining the differences[edit]

Precise ordering can be a focus for people with OCD.

The majority of people – or those who are "neurotypical" – have very intense/active wiring in typical areas of their brains, and this means sometimes we have trouble with misunderstandings between neurotypical people and those with OCD.

Imagine three people, all listening to the same piece of music through headphones, but with each pair of headphones plugged into different stereo systems. One person's system has the treble turned up and the mid-range and bass turned down; one has the mid-range turned up but the treble and bass turned down; the third has the bass turned up but the mid-range and treble turned down. That's like having two people with OCD and a neurotypical in the same room. It's the same piece of music they're all listening to, but it sounds completely different to each one of them, and they can't help the fact that it sounds different. They can't adjust their ears! If none of them realize that the music is balanced differently for each of them, then they're each going to end up thinking that the other two are obstinate, stubborn, uncooperative, or whatever, for not being able to understand what they personally hear so obviously and clearly. (See also Blind men and an elephant § The story.)

Once we understand these differences, it becomes easier not just to deal with editors who may have OCD, but to make really good use of them and collaborate with them.

People with OCD can be capable of really intense concentration and focus on things which other people just don't find gripping. This has an up-side and a down-side.

One key down-side is that it can be really hard for editors with OCD to drop the stick and let something go. Editors with OCD can get "stuck" on certain ideas or thoughts. That's not an excuse for disruptive editing, it's just something which editors with OCD need to be aware of and neurotypical editors need to take special care with. Neurotypical editors should help editors with OCD to "let go" by kindly and clearly encouraging the other editor to shift their attention to a new issue. In some cases, finding another absorbing task or project for them to focus on instead can help: "I think we all agree that we have a disagreement over which source should be used for dating the first recording of this song; while we are trying to work out a consensus solution, perhaps you could help with checking the references for consistency of formatting style."

The up-side is that an editor with OCD who is "on a mission" can be the most indefatigable researcher and fixer-of-things. There are many WikiTasks which obsessive–compulsives excel at. Editors with OCD can be meticulous in their work. An editor with OCD can turn out, from scratch, a Good article quality piece of work in just a few weeks, if they get hooked on doing it. OCD can create an incredible drive to accomplish certain goals.

Editors with OCD may have a great focus on details and precision. One down-side is that a person with OCD may have an obsession with information being arranged in a certain order, and he or she may insist that the information in an article be presented in this order; other editors may find it challenging to convince this person that a different arrangement may be more appropriate for this article. Another down-side is that memories of past tiffs over editing or content can get "stuck" in the mind of a person with OCD. A third down-side is that editors with OCD are even more likely than other editors to get obsessed with repeatedly checking the edit history of a favourite article to look for changes. As well, editors with OCD may stick stubbornly to a version of an article that has a strong appeal for them, from an OCD perspective, such as a version that seemed "right" or "perfect" to them ("rightness" is a concept that many people with OCD have; a certain ordering of books on a table may seem "right", and all other orders may seem "wrong").

The up-side is that, once OCD editors have found out where to learn about WP's policies, they will typically get obsessed with reading all of the guidelines and policies until they know them inside out and backwards. A neurotypical's best helper for training a newbie with OCD is to have a well-versed OCD oldie on hand.

Dealing with OCD in the WikiWorld[edit]

Some people, whether they have OCD or not, just don't belong in Wikipedia. Vandals, trolls, and abusive and disruptive editors can be blocked or banned, and having OCD is no excuse for unacceptable behaviour.

On the other hand, some of our best editors have OCD.

In fact, it's very probable that here in Wikipedia we have a much higher percentage of people with OCD than you'll find in the Real World. Wikipedia is like a honey-trap for people with OCD. Order and structure are valued. Precision and detailed work are appreciated, such as fixing references and correcting the formatting of citation codes. Having an obsessive urge to "get an entire project done", such as filling in an entire table of data in an article or fixing the formatting of all the references can lead to good work being done for Wikipedia.

There are two sides to this:

  1. Neurotypical editors need to be aware that they're more likely to encounter people with OCD here than they are in Real Life, and to know how best to work productively with them.
  2. People with OCD need to be aware that pulling the "Oh, but I'm a poor misunderstood person with OCD" card out of the pack is a bad move! There are a lot of us in here, and we can tell when someone's using it as an excuse. Having OCD does not give you carte blanche to be a jerk or disruptively insist on a certain edit.

All editors, whether neurotypical or with OCD, need to be prepared to be creative in finding alternative ways of explaining things, remembering that thought-processes which come naturally to you may very well not come naturally to the person you're talking to.

  • Drawing parallels which activate different areas of the brain can work extremely well here.
  • Avoid ambiguity wherever you possibly can. People with OCD can get "stuck" on a certain issue or view, and it's just as easy to pick up the wrong end of the stick as the right one, and very hard to let it go and turn it around. Some of the most common problems arise from simple good-faith misunderstanding of what the other person actually meant.
  • It's always worth re-explaining something in fresh terms, and asking for an alternative explanation. Dispute resolution can be a good place to find people who can come up with a different explanation which will suddenly make things clear

Facts and information can be incredibly emotionally important for people with OCD. They're like tangible "Things", which you feel you can "own". Knowing them and remembering them makes you feel good. And because so many people on with OCD see their own major strength as "knowing stuff" and "remembering stuff", it can be devastating to them to discover that "A Fact" they were stuck on turns out to be wrong. Other editors can help editors with OCD see when the OCD editor is "stuck" on an incorrect fact by acknowledging that in a certain time or circumstances, the OCD editor's view may have been correct, but now there are new sources that indicate that a new fact replaces the old fact:

  • "You have repeatedly tried to add the statement that Foo Barkley was the top-selling guitarist of 1985, and now three editors have reverted you. You are correct that a number of sources from the 1980s claimed that Barkley was the top-selling guitarist in that year, but Sue Smith's 2015 research on the Billboard archives shows that Fingel Stempleton was in fact the top-selling guitarist in that year."


It is preferable not to state that you think that another editor has OCD. Diagnosis of OCD can only be done by a healthcare professional such as a psychiatrist or psychologist. An editor may show symptoms of what looks like OCD, such as being "stuck" on a certain issue, doggedly persisting in trying to make a certain change, being very focused on perfection and order in an article and so on. But this does not mean that the individual has OCD. As such, "accusing" another editor of having OCD or alleging that they have OCD (and this does happen, both in Talk pages and in edit summaries, such as "revert OCD edit") can be uncivil, given that you are probably not a psychiatrist or psychologist, and even if you are, you have not met and assessed the individual personally.

Instead of stating "It looks like you have OCD", which can be perceived as confrontational, if you believe that an editor may have OCD, you can try to communicate with them in a way which can gently help them overcome the OCD-associated issues of "being stuck", "refusing to drop an issue" (this arises from the OCD symptom of perseveration), or being unable to see the issue in another way ("But this article HAS to use the same formatting as all the other films in the trilogy").

If you think a certain editor may have OCD, you can look at his or her userpage. Some editors self-identify as having OCD, including by displaying the OCD userbox. If this is the case, you have better grounds for raising the issue, but it is still a sensitive issue, and it is probably better to address issues gently and politely, rather than saying "Well, your userpage says you have OCD, and I think that explains a lot about your refusal to compromise on this article".

OCDThis user lives with obsessive–compulsive disorder.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "OCD Screening Quiz". Retrieved 17 February 2016.
  2. ^ Mike Miliard (March 1, 2008). "Wikipediots: Who Are These Devoted, Even Obsessive Contributors to Wikipedia?". Salt Lake City Weekly. Retrieved December 18, 2008.
  3. ^ a b "What is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?". Retrieved 27 May 2015.
  4. ^ Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders : DSM-5 (5 ed.). Washington: American Psychiatric Publishing. 2013. pp. 237–242. ISBN 9780890425558.

Further reading[edit]

  • Abramowitz, Jonathan, S. (2009). Getting over OCD: A 10 step workbook for taking back your life. New York: Guilford Press. ISBN 0-06-098711-1.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  • Schwartz, Jeffrey M.; Beverly Beyette (1997). Brain lock: free yourself from obsessive–compulsive behavior: a four-step self-treatment method to change your brain chemistry. New York: ReganBooks. ISBN 0-06-098711-1.
  • Lee Baer (2002). The Imp of the Mind: Exploring the Silent Epidemic of Obsessive Bad Thoughts. New York: Plume Books. ISBN 0-452-28307-8.
  • Osborn, Ian (1999). Tormenting Thoughts and Secret Rituals : The Hidden Epidemic of Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder. New York: Dell. ISBN 0-440-50847-9.
  • Wilson, Rob; David Veale (2005). Overcoming Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder. Constable & Robinson Ltd. ISBN 1-84119-936-2.
  • Davis, Lennard J. (2008). Obsession: A History. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-13782-7.
  • Emily, Colas (1998). Just Checking: Scenes from the Life of an Obsessive-compulsive. New York: Pocket Books. p. 165. ISBN 067102437X.