• Abstract thinking, essential in various aspects of life, enables us to tackle problems ranging from calculus to navigating busy highways, showcasing its broad applicability.
  • Applied on a daily basis, abstract thinking is a universal skill, transcending professions and daily routines, highlighting its pervasive nature.
  • Abstract thinking involves thought processes that deviate from everyday rhythms, habits, and routines, providing a framework for simple to complex problem-solving scenarios.
  • Delving into the concept of abstract thinking, it encompasses the ability to engage in unconventional thought processes, fostering creativity and strategic thinking.

From completing calculus problems to enabling us to strategize to successfully navigating a busy highway, abstract thinking allows us to accomplish a lot. Abstract thinking is applied daily, no matter what your profession or daily routines and habits are. 

But what exactly is abstract thinking? And how can it be used? Learn more about abstract thinking below, including examples and comparisons between abstract and concrete thoughts.

What Is Meant By “Abstract Thinking?”

Abstract thinking typically refers to thinking and thought processes that often diverge from the ordinary rhythms, habits, and routines of daily life. Abstract thinking allows us to engage in simple to complex problem-solving.

Abstract thinking can be used to make decisions in split seconds or even ones that take days to consider. This form of thinking involves:

  • Strategy
  • Logic
  • Predictions
  • Prior knowledge
  • Past experiences 

Often, abstract thinking patterns are not rooted in tangible, visible things but are rooted in concepts.

What Is an Example of Abstract Thinking?

A simple example of abstract thinking is solving a math problem; you might look at the problem and begin to use prior knowledge and logic to strategize on how to solve the problem before you begin. 

A more psychologically-rooted example of abstract thinking can include character strengths, for example, such as wisdom and strength. In order to be able to define, discuss, and recognize wisdom and strength as concepts, you must first be able to think abstractly as to what they are, for you cannot see them physically or tangibly as items. 

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What Are the 4 Stages of Abstract Thinking?

Abstract thinking and thought patterns tend to follow the four stages below:

  1. Non-objective fragmentation (birth months): This stage is characterized by the developmental task of the infant building their understanding of the world through the use of their senses and being able to identify objects.
  2. Deconstruction (2-6 months):  As children in this stage continue to develop relationships with objects and their senses, they can begin to understand routines and cause-and-effect patterns.
  3. Two-dimensionalization (6-12 months): This is an exciting stage, as object permanence begins to develop; that is, being able to understand the abstract concept that an object can still exist even when you can’t physically see it.
  4. Non-figurative (12-18 months): As sensorimotor and object permanence continue to develop, children begin to understand and develop memories for abstract concepts and ideas.

These four stages are based on the four stages of development posited by the developmental psychologist, Piaget. The four stages described above are developmental experiences that Piaget discovered that all children go through in their journey toward beginning to develop abstract thinking. 

Though the four stages tend to end at approximately 18 months, as you can guess, the development of abstract concepts and thought processes is a lifelong process and continues to develop well past 18 months; the start of this secondary process occurs at 18 months. The stages above are described as the “sensorimotor stage” of development. 

What Are Abstract Thinkers Good at?

Abstract thinkers tend to be very well-adjusted and well-adapted at handling difficult, unpredictable, and complex situations. They are often good at bringing original ideas to the table and this enables them to effectively solve complex problems as they can think critically and creatively, using flexible thought processes and patterns of thinking that are abstract, allowing them to be generative in their thinking.

Abstract thinkers are also great at context; they can typically use this generative way of thinking to make more informed decisions.

How Can You Tell if Someone Is an Abstract Thinker?

One of the best ways that you can tell if someone is an abstract thinker is to watch or have them describe ways that they solve problems. If they typically solve problems quickly and with few options or solutions, they are not typically an abstract thinker.

 Abstract thinkers tend to involve many different types of cognitive inputs from various sources (past knowledge/experiences, current life experience, knowledge of certain concepts, etc.) to formulate many different solutions. Abstract thinkers are generative and typically offer a more structured, thorough thought process and multiple different solutions to one problem instead of formulating/focusing on one solution only.

What Does Abstract vs Concrete Thinking Mean?

The term “abstract vs. concrete thinking” simply refers to the description of two different philosophies or schools of thought. In other words, it identifies that there are two separate, distinct thought processes and ways of thinking that humans use to problem-solve and navigate their world and environment daily. 

Humans will tend to demonstrate one type of problem-solving over the other due to predispositions, learned behaviors, past experiences, current environmental influences, and the type of problem or challenge they face.

What Is the Difference Between Abstract Thinking and Concrete Thinking?

There are many differences between abstract and concrete thinking styles. One of the most recognizable differences is that abstract thinking patterns involve uses of logic, and non-tangible ideals such as predictions, and typically cannot be fully tangibly measured whereas concrete thinking patterns typically involve constructs that can be fully measured from start to finish (think facts, numbers, statistics, etc). 

Abstract thinking requires flexibility to be able to develop a solution(s) that fit the outcome and are usually highly individualized. Concrete thinking patterns tend to focus on simply solving the problem at hand using faster, non-flexible thought patterns and do not tend to include any measures of prediction or future-oriented thinking.

Am I an Abstract or Concrete Thinker?

One of the best ways to identify if you are an abstract or a concrete thinker is to test yourself. Give yourself a problem that needs to be solved and write down or record yourself speaking as you engage in the thought process.

Explore how you make your decisions:

  • Was your decision-making process quick and did you settle on just one decision? 
  • What sources did you consider and how many did you consider as you pursued solutions for your decision? 

Concrete thinkers also tend to gravitate towards tangible, measurable facts-based items to make decisions such as statistics. On the other hand, an abstract thinker might base their solution-making process on not only facts/statistics but also theories, philosophies, and other “abstract” thought patterns.