What Is Concrete Thinking?

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis
Updated February 21, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

For some people, "black and white" or "extreme" thinking is the norm. The ability to think in this way, which many know as concrete thinking, may help someone make decisions effectively in their everyday life. Concrete thinking can also cut through the complexities around an issue to help you possibly find solutions, or help with mental health challenges like intrusive memories. However, "black and white thinking" can also be a form of cognitive distortion, which may be unhealthy, depending on context. 

While there may not be a "right" or "wrong" way of thinking, better understanding your tendencies and thought patterns may help you enhance your relationships. Understanding the different types of concrete thinking, supportive strategies to address it, and the role that therapy may take in restructuring it can be beneficial if concrete thinking has caused any challenges in your life.

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What is concrete thinking?

Concrete thinking or concrete reasoning is often regarded as a literal form of processing information that exists in the physical world. People who think concretely may struggle to conceptualize abstract ideas or thought patterns; this tendency might be perceived as stubbornness or inflexibility by others. In addition, literal thinking may sometimes impair one's ability to make decisions, solve problems, or understand figurative language.

For example, consider someone who always cleans their home on Thursdays, never swaying from this routine. An emergency may occur on Thursday, disrupting the person's regular pattern and routine. As a result, this person may struggle to do anything else until their house is clean, even if the emergency needs immediate attention.

A person who thinks concretely may often think in extremes. It can be difficult for them to understand any information that doesn’t relate to the concrete details of a situation. They may also struggle to acknowledge the gray areas of certain circumstances. This concrete thinking strategy can be perceived as dogmatic and may negatively influence relationships because it can make compromise challenging. 

However, there are times when the concrete thinking process can be helpful and effective in moving someone through a situation. Learning about differences in thought-processing styles and the range in which humans can experience cognition can lead to a more empathetic and understanding environment for those of all tendencies and processing styles. 

Concrete versus abstract processing: A comparison 

One of the opposite forms of concrete thinking is abstract thinking or abstract reasoning. Unlike a concrete thinker, an abstract thinker can often process philosophical concepts and imagine ideas that may not be physically present. People with the ability to think abstractly may better understand the theories behind actions, complete theoretical math problems, or engage in creative endeavors. 

Abstract thinkers can utilize this way of thinking to solve problems throughout their lives. Because they may be able to use their abstract reasoning skills and imaginations in different ways compared to concrete thinkers, people who think abstractly may be able to show empathy more easily. 

However, human thinking may not be 100% abstract or concrete because the world is not black and white. Often, people experience a spectrum of thought that varies in different settings, as well as with different physical objects and stimuli. One person may be a more concrete thinker, while another may be a more abstract thinker. Depending on the situation, you may fall somewhere in the middle. How you process your thoughts can be comprised of factors related to biology, genetics, and life experiences.

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Concrete operational thinking

Many people know how to think concretely if the setting calls for it. For many, concrete operational thinking develops between the ages of seven and 11. Around this time, children can learn how to think and perform mental operations using concrete thought. They may begin to understand that an object can be the same in many forms, even if cut in half or quartered (a form of thinking that builds on the concept of object permanence they learned earlier in life). This way of thinking can contribute to mental development and problem-solving abilities.  

Is concrete thinking holding you back?

If the development of abstract thinking is hindered or a person’s thought processes tend to be primarily concrete, they may experience specific difficulties associated with using concrete thinking as a dominant form of thinking. These difficulties may include the following:

  • Difficulty changing plans last minute
  • Difficulty making last-minute plans
  • Difficulty seeing someone make changes in their personality
  • Challenges changing your daily routine 
  • Seeing many situations as "all negative" or "all positive" 

Conversely, if you are prone to more abstract thinking, you may struggle to remain grounded or see specific areas of life as absolutes. 

How to shift concrete thinking patterns

In some cases, concrete thinking may be a sign of a neurological or developmental disorder, like autism spectrum disorder, schizophrenia, or dementia. Those experiencing autism spectrum disorders and other neurological conditions may need different assistance to address concrete thinking patterns and should consult with their doctor. 

For others dealing with concrete thinking patterns, shifting your thought process may provide relief and comfort. This is often done by attaining a balanced way of thinking that adopts more of a spectrum between concrete and abstract thinking rather than a linear model. The following tools and supportive strategies may help you shift your thought patterns and experience a higher quality of life as you navigate communication and life challenges.  

Challenge yourself

Instead of completing your routine as you've completed it in the past, you may try changing it slightly. It can be challenging to develop a new routine, and it may seem counterproductive. However, you might notice that you enjoy the new routine more or can find a more flexible or efficient way to get through your day. 

You could also consider why other people make different choices than you with similar activities. For example, observe someone else completing a task in a way that's different from your approach. Ask yourself what in their approach might work for them and how it might benefit your own. Self-reflection may offer growth and development of thought processes and styles. 

Discuss your experience with your loved ones

Concrete thinking may affect your relationships at times. If you'd like to change how your thinking impacts others, consider discussing it with the people you love and trust. Let them know how you plan to make changes, and ask them for their advice and feedback. 

Read about cognitive restructuring 

Challenging yourself to learn and understand the concepts and theories behind cognition and cognitive development can help you change your thinking. Tactics like cognitive restructuring are often used in therapeutic modalities like cognitive-behavioral therapy to help clients change their thoughts if they're experiencing cognitive distortions like "black and white" thinking. These concepts may be challenging to learn at first. However, if you struggle to understand them, a cognitive-behavioral therapist may be able to support you as you learn. 

Try a therapy group 

RO-DBT is a therapy explicitly founded for those struggling with concrete thinking as a symptom of a mental illness like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD). Radically-open dialectical-behavioral therapy (RO-DBT) focuses on how individuals can become more open to unique, spontaneous, and open-minded thought patterns. Each group participant may receive an RO-DBT workbook with worksheets and ideas to cope with common symptoms associated with black-and-white thinking and other concrete thought-related challenges. 

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Looking to change your way of thinking?

Seek therapeutic support 

For additional support in understanding how concrete thinking affects you, your relationships, and your life, you may choose to seek an in-person or online individual counselor. A counselor may teach you tools to help you recognize concrete thinking and develop and strengthen abstract thinking skills if applicable. 

If you are working to find new methods of cognition as a concrete thinker, it may be challenging to physically leave the house to seek support if it might interrupt your routine. In these cases, online therapy through an online counseling provider like BetterHelp may allow you to receive convenient and flexible services via a smart device in your own home. Your counselor can also be available via in-app messaging for additional support in more challenging moments, should you need it. This type of flexibility may be unavailable in specific in-person therapeutic formats. 

Many therapeutic modalities can be practiced online, including RO-DBT or cognitive-behavioral therapy. One study found that online CBT could be as effective as in-person therapy in treating common mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety, and social anxiety disorder. If you're looking to learn cognitive restructuring techniques or need help coping with anxiety or depression symptoms, an online CBT therapist can offer these techniques as efficiently as an in-person therapist can. You may also be able to receive worksheets from your device to fill out immediately after sessions. 

Takeaway

While concrete thinking can feel limiting, it may be helpful in certain situations. Learning to think on a spectrum can offer someone more flexibility and comfort in each thought process. If you feel concrete thinking negatively impacts your life or relationships, consider contacting a cognitive-behavioral therapist or RO-DBT program for further guidance and support.

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