Thinking Outside The Box: The Difference Between Concrete Vs. Abstract Thinking

Medically reviewed by April Justice
Updated February 21, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Abstract thought is a defining feature of human cognition. Scholars from diverse fields — including psychologists, linguists, anthropologists, neuroscientists, and even philosophers — have contributed to the scientific discussion of how abstract ideas are acquired and used by the brain. Concrete thought is somewhat better understood, as it represents a more grounded form of thinking than what is typically found in abstract thought. Concrete thinkers focus on physical objects and the physical world, making their thinking process more immediately obvious and tied to the literal form. Both modes of thinking are useful for human cognition.

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Distinguishing between concrete and abstract thoughts

Understanding the differences between these two types of thinking may help illustrate their unique contributions to human thought.

Concrete thinking

Concrete thinking is grounded in facts and operates in a literal domain, focusing on objective facets such as physical attributes (e.g., color and shape) and verifiable occurrences (e.g., chronological sequences). Concrete thinkers often rely on concrete objects and specific examples to solve problems and classify objects. It avoids extrapolations, categorizing information superficially and within rigid boundaries. Concrete thinking is chiefly concerned with detail gathering, excluding analyses of trends and exploration of potentialities.

Rumination, a cognitive process characterized by excessive or repetitive thoughts, including intrusive memories, that interfere with daily life, might use concrete thinking to contemplate complex issues. These thoughts might include questions like "What happened in this situation?" and "What steps can I take to address the problem?" Although these questions address more than basic attributes, they are anchored in objectively definable detail.

Abstract thinking

Abstract thinking, in contrast, introduces a more flexible cognitive framework that links themes, causality, and intangible concepts. Abstract thinkers often engage in abstract reasoning and processing theoretical concepts, which involve understanding relationships separate from concrete facts.

It synthesizes and integrates information into broader contexts, forming the bedrock of creativity, critical analysis, and problem-solving. This thinking style is a vital skill for those who exercise creativity in fields like theoretical math or philosophical concepts. This allows individuals to transcend surface-level understanding. Abstract thinking is indispensable for grappling with intangible concepts, including emotions, and often involves contemplating hypothetical scenarios.

Rumination, explored above, also has an abstract component. Abstract ruminative thoughts may include questions like "Why do I always feel so unhappy?" or "Why didn’t I handle this better?" These queries pivot away from objective facts and explore concepts that may be interpreted in multiple ways.

When is each type of thinking most useful?

Several factors determine whether concrete or abstract thinking is most appropriate, but in practice, most deliberate thought processes benefit from the interplay between the two modes. Abstract thinking skills, including abstract reasoning skills, are crucial in understanding complex concepts and integrating existing knowledge. For instance, effective problem-solving necessitates the initial definition of its core features (concrete thinking) and subsequent high-level analysis (abstract thinking).

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Psychologists and sociologists have scrutinized the relationship between abstract and concrete thought, often using construal learning theory (CLT) as a framework. CLT identifies how psychological distance influences a person’s choice between abstract and concrete thinking. “Psychological distance” can be measured in various ways:

  • Temporal distance: The amount of time between a person and their subject of contemplation.
  • Spatial distance: The physical separation between a person and their subject of contemplation.
  • Social distance: The emotional distance between individuals.
  • Hypothetical distance: An individual’s assessment of the likelihood of their subject of contemplation occurring.

CLT suggests that individuals tend toward abstract thinking when they perceive substantial psychological distance and favor concrete thinking when that distance diminishes. This indicates that more abstract thinkers are likely to engage in abstract reasoning when dealing with subjects that are not immediately present or concrete. For example, a person planning to attend a family reunion next year (significant temporal distance) is more likely to think of big-picture, abstract elements of their plan — perhaps their excitement about attending the event. But as the event approaches, their thoughts shift toward concrete details, such as what they’ll wear to the party.

CLT can be used to assess a person's propensity for risk-taking behavior. Evidence suggests that individuals with a high construal level (greater psychological distance) employ more abstract thought processes and are more likely to engage in risky behaviors. Conversely, individuals with a low construal level (lesser psychological distance) display greater risk aversion as they are more aware of objective risk factors.

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How do concrete and abstract thinking develop?

It’s worth noting that babies are not born with the ability to think abstractly. Jean Piaget’s stages of cognitive development illustrate how a child’s cognition develops over time. This cognitive development is crucial in the transition from a concrete thinker to an abstract thinker.

  1. Sensorimotor stage (birth to age two): Babies engage primarily with their sensory world, absorbing concrete information like a sponge without making abstract connections. This stage is fundamental in developing motor skills and concrete thinking skills.
  2. Preoperational stage (ages two to seven): Young children begin to develop abstract thinking, engaging in imaginary play, comprehending the rudiments of symbolism, and understanding someone else’s point. They start to understand figurative language and can interpret facial expressions, moving towards more abstract thinking abilities.
  3. Concrete operational stage (ages seven to 11): Children can understand that other people may experience the world differently than they do. They can recognize abstract concepts but remain tethered to empirical experiences. This stage involves processing theoretical concepts and developing concrete thinking skills to solve problems.
  4. Formal operational stage (age 11 to adulthood): Abstract thought matures as individuals use concrete information to derive abstract conclusions. Individuals expand their ability to empathize and discern patterns among abstract concepts. This stage is where strong abstract thinking skills are developed, allowing individuals to grapple with more complex concepts and engage in theoretical math and philosophical concepts, and solve abstract riddles such as brain teasers. This stage equips individuals with the capacity to analyze hypothetical scenarios and address "what-if" questions.

Key insights from Piaget's theory underscore the development of abstract thinking, where concrete thinking lays the foundation. This progression from being a concrete thinker to an abstract thinker is a vital aspect of cognitive development. That is, concrete thought is a prerequisite for abstract thought because objective facts must be defined before they can be analyzed. Proficiency in abstract thought unfolds gradually over many years.

Assessing the merits of abstract and concrete thinking

Abstract thinking allows humans to create art, reach conclusions through debate, and predict what the future may hold. It involves a thinking process that is less immediately obvious than concrete thinking, often requiring the individual to consider other meanings and exercise creativity. Because abstract thought empowers higher cognitive functions, it may seem that it is a preferable mode of cognition over concrete thought.

However, abstract thinking is not without its limitations. An unbalanced reliance on abstract rumination can lead to mental health concerns, such as depression. In individuals with mental health conditions like autism spectrum disorder or who have had a traumatic brain injury, the balance between abstract and concrete thinking can be particularly crucial, and reading body language and understanding figurative expressions may be difficult for some individuals. Conversely, a conscious preference for concrete thinking can potentially mitigate negative mental health. Both concrete and abstract thinking are necessary for human cognition. For instance, abstract thinkers may engage in the active practice of new ideas, while concrete thinkers might focus on classifying objects and dealing with the literal form of information. While abstract thought may be associated with higher-order cognitive processes, those processes are built upon the foundation of concrete thinking.

Can therapy help manage cognitive and abstract thinking?

If you’re interested in recognizing and adapting your cognitive tendencies, a therapist can help. Therapists are trained in a variety of evidence-based techniques, including cognitive behavioral therapy, to analyze your mental processes and guide you toward meaningful conclusions about your thought patterns. This therapy can be particularly helpful for those struggling with difficulty relating to others due to their thinking style, whether they are more comfortable with abstract thinking vs concrete thinking.

You may wish to consider online therapy, which is available for individuals to avail the care of a skilled mental health professional. Working with a therapist online removes some common barriers to therapy, like having to commute to an office. Removing geographical constraints allows you to choose a therapist outside of your local area, which may be especially helpful to those who live in regions with limited mental health professionals. Online therapists have the same training and credentials as traditional therapists, and evidence indicates that therapy delivered remotely is just as effective as in-person therapy.

Takeaway

While concrete thinking thrives on objectivity and factual details, abstract thinking fosters creativity, critical analysis, and problem-solving. Concrete and abstract thought are both integral facets of human cognition, each fulfilling distinct yet complementary roles. Individuals may experience thought patterns that rely more heavily on one mode of thought over the other, which may cause distress or even mental health issues. Working with a licensed online therapist can help individuals achieve a more effective cognitive balance between these two essential skills.

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