How We Use Abstract Thinking

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Abstract thinking, also known as abstract reasoning, involves the ability to understand and think about complex concepts that, while real, are not tied to concrete experiences, objects, people, or situations.

Abstract thinking is considered a type of higher-order thinking, usually about ideas and principles that are often symbolic or hypothetical. This type of thinking is more complex than the type of thinking that is centered on memorizing and recalling information and facts.

Examples of Abstract Thinking

Examples of abstract concepts include ideas such as:

  • Humor
  • Imagination
  • Friendship
  • Freedom
  • Jealousy
  • Success
  • Love
  • Growth
  • Happiness
  • Hope
  • Wisdom

While these things are real, they aren't concrete, physical things that people can experience directly via their traditional senses.

You likely encounter examples of abstract thinking every day. Stand-up comedians use abstract thinking when they observe absurd or illogical behavior in our world and come up with theories as to why people act the way they do.

You use abstract thinking when you're in a philosophy class or when you're contemplating what would be the most ethical way to conduct your business. If you write a poem or an essay, you're also using abstract thinking.

With all of these examples, concepts that are theoretical and intangible are being translated into a joke, a decision, or a piece of art. (You'll notice that creativity and abstract thinking go hand in hand.)

Abstract Thinking vs. Concrete Thinking

One way of understanding abstract thinking is to compare it with concrete thinking. Concrete thinking, also called concrete reasoning, is tied to specific experiences or objects that can be observed directly.

Research suggests that concrete thinkers tend to focus more on the procedures involved in how a task should be performed, while abstract thinkers are more focused on the reasons why a task should be performed.

It is important to remember that you need both concrete and abstract thinking skills to solve problems in day-to-day life. In many cases, you utilize aspects of both types of thinking to come up with solutions.

Other Types of Thinking

Depending on the type of problem we face, we draw from a number of different styles of thinking, such as:

  • Creative thinking: This involves coming up with new ideas, or using existing ideas or objects to come up with a solution or create something new.
  • Convergent thinking: Often called linear thinking, this is when a person follows a logical set of steps to select the best solution from already-formulated ideas.
  • Critical thinking: This is a type of thinking in which a person tests solutions and analyzes any potential drawbacks.
  • Divergent thinking: Often called lateral thinking, this style involves using new thoughts or ideas that are outside of the norm in order to solve problems.

How Abstract Thinking Develops

While abstract thinking is an essential skill, it isn’t something that people are born with. Instead, this cognitive ability develops throughout the course of childhood as children gain new abilities, knowledge, and experiences.

The psychologist Jean Piaget described a theory of cognitive development that outlined this process from birth through adolescence and early adulthood. According to his theory, children go through four distinct stages of intellectual development:

  • Sensorimotor stage: During this early period, children's knowledge is derived primarily from their senses.
  • Preoperational stage: At this point, children develop the ability to think symbolically.
  • Concrete operational stage: At this stage, kids become more logical but their understanding of the world tends to be very concrete.
  • Formal operational stage: The ability to reason about concrete information continues to grow during this period, but abstract thinking skills also emerge.

This period of cognitive development when abstract thinking becomes more apparent typically begins around age 12. It is at this age that children become more skilled at thinking about things from the perspective of another person. They are also better able to mentally manipulate abstract ideas as well as notice patterns and relationships between these concepts.

Uses of Abstract Thinking

Abstract thinking is a skill that is essential for the ability to think critically and solve problems. This type of thinking is also related to what is known as fluid intelligence, or the ability to reason and solve problems in unique ways.

Fluid intelligence involves thinking abstractly about problems without relying solely on existing knowledge.

Abstract thinking is used in a number of ways in different aspects of your daily life. Some examples of times you might use this type of thinking:

  • When you describe something with a metaphor
  • When you talk about something figuratively
  • When you come up with creative solutions to a problem
  • When you analyze a situation
  • When you notice relationships or patterns
  • When you form a theory about why something happens
  • When you think about a problem from another point of view

Research also suggests that abstract thinking plays a role in the actions people take. Abstract thinkers have been found to be more likely to engage in risky behaviors, where concrete thinkers are more likely to avoid risks.

Impact of Abstract Thinking

People who have strong abstract thinking skills tend to score well on intelligence tests. Because this type of thinking is associated with creativity, abstract thinkers also tend to excel in areas that require creativity such as art, writing, and other areas that benefit from divergent thinking abilities.

Abstract thinking can have both positive and negative effects. It can be used as a tool to promote innovative problem-solving, but it can also lead to problems in some cases:

  • Bias: Research also suggests that it can sometimes promote different types of bias. As people seek to understand events, abstract thinking can sometimes cause people to seek out patterns, themes, and relationships that may not exist.
  • Catastrophic thinking: Sometimes these inferences, imagined scenarios, and predictions about the future can lead to feelings of fear and anxiety. Instead of making realistic predictions, people may catastrophize and imagine the worst possible potential outcomes.
  • Anxiety and depression: Research has also found that abstract thinking styles are sometimes associated with worry and rumination. This thinking style is also associated with a range of conditions including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Conditions That Impact Abstract Thinking

The presence of learning disabilities and mental health conditions can affect abstract thinking abilities. Conditions that are linked to impaired abstract thinking skills include:

The natural aging process can also have an impact on abstract thinking skills. Research suggests that the thinking skills associated with fluid intelligence peak around the ages of 30 or 40 and begin to decline with age.

Tips for Reasoning Abstractly

While some psychologists believe that abstract thinking skills are a natural product of normal development, others suggest that these abilities are influenced by genetics, culture, and experiences. Some people may come by these skills naturally, but you can also strengthen these abilities with practice.

Some strategies that you might use to help improve your abstract thinking skills:

  • Think about why and not just how: Abstract thinkers tend to focus on the meaning of events or on hypothetical outcomes. Instead of concentrating only on the steps needed to achieve a goal, consider some of the reasons why that goal might be valuable or what might happen if you reach that goal.
  • Reframe your thinking: When you are approaching a problem, it can be helpful to purposefully try to think about the problem in a different way. How might someone else approach it? Is there an easier way to accomplish the same thing? Are there any elements you haven't considered?
  • Consider the big picture: Rather than focusing on the specifics of a situation, try taking a step back in order to view the big picture. Where concrete thinkers are more likely to concentrate on the details, abstract thinkers focus on how something relates to other things or how it fits into the grand scheme of things.

Abstract thinking allows people to think about complex relationships, recognize patterns, solve problems, and utilize creativity. While some people tend to be naturally better at this type of reasoning, it is a skill that you can learn to utilize and strengthen with practice. 

It is important to remember that both concrete and abstract thinking are skills that you need to solve problems and function successfully. 

11 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."