What Is Abstract Reasoning?

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What Is Abstract Reasoning?

Abstract reasoning, also known as abstract thinking, involves the ability to understand and think with complex concepts that, while real, are not tied to concrete experiences, objects, people, or situations. This type of reasoning involves thinking about ideas and principles that are often symbolic or hypothetical.

Abstract reasoning is considered a type of higher-order thinking. This type of thinking is more complex than the type of thinking that is centered on memorizing and recalling information and facts.

Abstract reasoning requires thinking about ideas, principles, and objects in novel ways.

Examples of Abstract Reasoning

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.

Abstract vs. Concrete Reasoning

One way of thinking about abstract concepts is to contrast them with concrete ones. 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 reasoning 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.

How It Develops

While abstract reasoning 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 reasoning skills also emerge.

This period of cognitive development when abstract reasoning 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.


Abstract reasoning 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 reasoning 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 Reasoning

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 reasoning 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 reasoning 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 reasoning 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 reasoning abilities. Conditions that are linked to impaired abstract reasoning skills include:

The natural aging process can also have an impact on abstract reasoning 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 reasoning 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.

A Word From Verywell

Abstract reasoning 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 reasoning are skills that you need to solve problems and function successfully. 

7 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
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.