Abstract Thinking

Close up of fossilized spiral shellAbstract thinking is the ability to think about objects, principles, and ideas that are not physically present. It is related to symbolic thinking, which uses the substitution of a symbol for an object or idea.

A variety of everyday behaviors constitute abstract thinking. These include:

  • Using metaphors and analogies;
  • Understanding relationships between verbal and non-verbal ideas;
  • Spatial reasoning and mentally manipulating and rotating objects;
  • Complex reasoning, such as using critical thinking, the scientific method, and other approaches to reasoning through problems.

How Does Abstract Reasoning Develop?
Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget argued that children develop abstract reasoning skills as part of their last stage of development, known as the formal operational stage. This stage occurs between the ages of 11 and 16. However, the beginnings of abstract reasoning may be present earlier, and gifted children frequently develop abstract reasoning at an earlier age. Some psychologists have argued that the development of abstract reasoning is not a natural developmental stage. Rather, it is the product of culture, experience, and teaching.

Children’s stories frequently operate on two levels of reasoning: abstract and concrete. The concrete story, for example, might tell of a princess who married Prince Charming, while the abstract version of the story tells of the importance of virtue and working hard. While young children are often incapable of complex abstract reasoning, they frequently recognize the underlying lessons of these stories, indicating some degree of abstract reasoning skills.

Abstract Reasoning and Intelligence
Abstract reasoning is a component of most intelligence tests. Skills such as mental object rotation, mathematics, higher-level language usage, and the application of concepts to particulars all require abstract reasoning skills. Learning disabilities can inhibit the development of abstract reasoning skills. People with severe intellectual disabilities may never develop abstract reasoning skills, and may take abstract concepts such as metaphors and analogies literally.


  1. Harwood, R., Miller, S. A., & Vasta, R. (2008). Child psychology: Development in a changing society. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  2. Tutorial: Concrete vs. Abstract Thinking. (n.d.). Tutorial: Concrete vs. Abstract Thinking. Retrieved July 24, 2012, from http://www.projectlearnet.org/tutorials/concrete_vs_abstract_thinking.html

Last Updated: 08-4-2015

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