The Difference Between Concrete Vs. Abstract Thinking
By Julia Thomas
Updated December 20, 2018
Reviewer Tiffany Howard, LPC, LCADC
The brain is a complex organ, and how it creates and processes thoughts is just as complicated. No one has the same way of thinking. What we think about, how we think about it, it all depends on the person.
With that said, there are still types of thinking that we can divide thoughts into. The main two are concrete and abstract, and we're going to break both of them down for you.
What Is Concrete Thinking?
Have you ever met someone who seems to take everything too literally? They may be more of a concrete thinker. Concrete thinking focuses on what is physically around you. Concrete thinkers see a physical object and just think of what's in front of them. They may see their surroundings, but not think of what is beyond their viewpoint.
A concrete thinker may take words literally. If someone tells them to break a leg, they may wonder why they should snap their leg bones in two. If someone tells them it's raining cats and dogs, they may wonder why they can't hear a cacophony of barks and meows outside.
This is why it's called concrete thinking. Concrete doesn't bend. It stays put. It's there. It's purely physical. A concrete thinker, fittingly enough, may not even understand the comparison and think you're referring to someone who thinks about what cement turns into.
Who's A Concrete Thinker?
Young children learn to become concrete thinkers first. This makes sense, as babies and toddlers are all about the here and now, and don't think anything of the object when it's gone. That's why you can tell them you have their nose and they believe you.
As the child grows, so does their way of thinking. They think of objects that are not in front of them, which is object permanence. The abstract thinking slowly develops throughout childhood. They learn about people's emotions and soon realize how complex people can be. Later on, as they learn to read, they'll learn metaphors and be able to understand philosophy, math, and other concepts that require you to be an abstract thinker, which we'll talk about later.
Also, most animals are concrete thinkers. They see an object in front of them, and when it's gone, they usually don't think anything of it. There are some animals, such as our primate relatives, that can think more abstractly.
There are mental disorders that can make a person think more concretely. Most people do have some form of abstract thinking, as thinking in only literal terms is a serious social impairment. It's hard to associate when you think of everything, can't empathize with anyone, can only see what's in front of you, and so on.
Children with autism may have troubles with abstract thinking. While this can improve as they grow older, especially if they're higher functioning, it can be difficult for both the parent and child if the child thinks too concretely. Brain damage and injury can make someone think more concretely as well.
What Is Abstract Thinking?
Abstract thinking is what sets us apart from most animals. As you can probably tell from the definition of concrete thinking, abstract thinking is when someone can think about things that aren't physically in front of them. You can think of an object you just saw, think of philosophies, keep a set of principles in your head, and so on.
Abstract thinkers use analogies and metaphors to understand the world. They can read body language and know the difference between verbal and nonverbal. They can see the space difference in an object and see what it looks like behind it without having to rotate. They're critical thinkers, science-minded, and can reason quite well.
Who's An Abstract Thinker?
As mentioned before, children become more abstract thinkers as they age, and it's usually the last stage of their mental development or the formal operation. Stage. The age this happens usually happens between preteen and mid-teen years, but it can vary. Some gifted children may develop it much earlier.
Nature Vs. Nurture?
While the complexity of the human brain is one of the reasons we're abstract thinkers, it's also believed that abstract thinking is a product of the world around you. As the children have different experiences, read different stories, are educated, and learn to empathize, their thinking grows. They may be exposed to both literal stories, like a frog turning into a prince, or more complex stories with themes, lessons, and nuances. There are stories where the good guy is all good, and the bad guy is all evil, but there are also stories where the protagonist does questionable things while the villain is more sympathetic.
It's safe to say that abstract thinking is a mix of our complex minds and the world around us.
Abstract Thinking And Intelligence
Someone who thinks more abstractly can do better on intelligence tests. Abstract thinkers are better with language, can see what's not there, and understand concepts that are important to humanity's development. Most of our modern inventions would not exist if there were no abstract thinking. Meanwhile, someone who is not an abstract thinker may do poorly on an intelligence test.
Other Forms Of Thinking
Thinking is not just a binary, but abstract and concrete are just the two main types of thinking. There are other types of thinkers as well, with many of them being an offshoot of abstract thinking.
As the name implies, a creative thinker is one who thinks of new ideas and makes them come to life. Everyone is creative in their way, but a creative-minded person will take it a step further and try to make their ideas a reality, instead of just thinking about them.
An analytical thinker can unpack a concept and separate it into different parts, and then look at each part individually while linking it back to the main concept. Analyzing people and concepts can be quite a useful skill, as you can see what others miss.
A critical thinker can learn to think carefully about what they're looking at. Someone who is less critical may share dubious information while thinking it's true, while a critical thinker is going to look at that information and try to figure out if it's genuine. Critical thinking involves other traits, such as reflecting, reconstructing, and looking at different factors than what is just there. It's a complex way of thinking, and we could do an article on it alone.
This is an offshoot of creative thinking. You're looking at different solutions to a problem to find the one that will work the best. You may look at facts, apply the solution and see what it works, and even try to look at less likely solutions as well. It's when you think outside the box, to put it into a metaphor our abstract thinkers can understand.
This is when you can take a large number of perspectives from different people or sources and put them together. You'll find common ground, and you may end up realizing that there is a solution lying somewhere in the middle.
Also known as sequential thinking, this is when you can process information in order. If you've heard of a solution that requires a step-by-step solution, being a linear thinker will work wonders. They don't stray away from the instructions in front of them.
Also known as holistic thinking, this is when you can see the entire picture in front of you and see how everything connects. You don't go from point A to point B, but instead see all the points in front of you and know their relationship. While being a linear thinker has its uses, sometimes nonlinear thinking can create some brilliant concepts.
How To Think More Abstractly
Very few people are total concrete thinkers. Even those who have mental impairments will have some abstract thinking. It's a spectrum. The average person could learn how to think abstractly even more. One way to do so is to talk to more people. Learn their perspective and try to empathize with them. As the cliché goes, you walk a mile in their shoes.
If someone you know is struggling with abstract thinking, some therapists can help them become better at thinking. While disorders such as autism are not curable, people with it can still learn how to think more abstractly, and this can improve with age.
If you want to improve your thinking, why not speak to a counselor? They can help get into your mind and tell you how you think, what you can do to think better and make you more aware of yourself. Whether in person or online, there is a counselor to help you.
With that said, always use your mind and learn how to improve your thinking as you age.