Thoughts, images and impulses symptomatic of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) are widespread.
"This study shows that it is not the unwanted, intrusive thoughts that are the problem - it is what you make of those thoughts. And that is at the heart of our cognitive and behavioural interventions for helping people overcome OCD," said Adam Radomsky, a psychology professor from Concordia University in Canada.
"Confirming that these thoughts are extremely common helps us reassure patients who may think that they are very different from everybody else," Radomsky added.
For instance, most people who have an intrusive thought about jumping off a balcony or a metro platform would tell themselves that it is a strange or silly thing to think, whereas a person with OCD may worry that the thought means they are suicidal.
OCD patients experience these thoughts more often and are more upset by them, but the thoughts themselves seem to be indistinguishable from those occurring in the general population, the researchers added.
This means therapists can focus on applying effective treatments that will work cross-culturally.