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

  • Leave a Comment
  • Vince


    July 7th, 2015 at 4:52 PM

    I recently took a psych test for a police department. I was told I failed horribly. When. Contacted the physician that administered the test. He told me I did not do well with abstract thinking. How is that? I am very intelligent, served as a soldier in the US Army for 14 years. Been to combat and was never injured.

  • david


    August 27th, 2016 at 8:36 AM

    Vince, Most professions including most MOS fields involved in soldiering don’t require much abstract thought. They are typically operating in the concrete world with specific tangible and practical applications with boots on the ground. Most police activities deal with policy and procedures which are concrete in form. The application of these must seen through the abstract variables of people and personalities. Many people have a limited ability for abstraction in thought process, that doesn’t mean that they are not intelligent. It just means that their thinking is external and associated with more about what is seen and known in the physical representations in actual form rather than internally as to the function of origin and meaning behind the actual form. One who is a concrete thinker may look at a a painting as a picture of a house. The abstract thinker may think of the meaning behind a place of rest and peace and view warmth of the colors, light, and shadows, as an inter-play with the emotions and vision of the artist in representation of a place of heart where meals are shared and love is fostered, called home.

  • Guy


    August 2nd, 2017 at 11:04 AM

    Your answer explains exactly why you failed. Somehow you figured your past job was evidence for your ability for abstract thought. Well sorry my friend you just don’t get it. Also, the Army stresses concrete thought and discourages abstract and higher order thinking. If you wanted that, should have joined the Air Force.

  • Kelsey G.

    Kelsey G.

    January 23rd, 2019 at 1:47 AM

    I don’t know much haha but from what I’ve been researching I believe you aren’t stupid in a sense but just not as strong with the abstract part of things. You’re intelligence could be fine but practicing your mathematics and using your ‘minds eye’ to see past what’s in front of you is the real test. Practice some spatial reasoning as well. I love sciences and mathematics it’s really stimulates my mind and I always think way outside of what anyone else is thinking so it’s hard to even find common ground sometimes but you’ll get there. You aren’t any less intelligent because your skills aren’t as developed you just have knowledge in a different area.

  • George C.

    George C.

    January 24th, 2019 at 3:43 PM

    When you think about it, all thought is abstract thought. It all comes from experience gained, from birth onwards.
    The brain is just an engine of sorts. It doesn’t know anything at birth.
    I discount here, the minimal learning in utero.

  • Joe


    May 3rd, 2017 at 4:59 AM

    What percentage of 16 year-old people are capable of abstract thinking?

  • Rhonda J.

    Rhonda J.

    June 13th, 2017 at 11:18 AM

    This stuff is very interesting to me

  • nhoj


    June 22nd, 2017 at 11:20 AM

    I believe that stories that use anxiety to keep the reader engrossed are anti-abstract thought.

  • Nioh


    August 27th, 2017 at 11:32 AM

    Would a 3 year old trying to find meaning in what a adult said be considered abstract thinking ?

  • Zitachoi


    September 27th, 2017 at 7:57 PM

    Yes, to some level (of 3 yrs. old) it’s a form of abstract inquiry though it may not be as abstract as if it were asked by an adult.

  • Danielle


    December 20th, 2018 at 9:54 PM

    I remember almost everything as a child an questioning god was one of them before grade school it made no scentes to me the things people would say I new I was different An no one could answer my questions that only made me more curious I was definitely odd I felt separate from people because I view things different in my head but adapted to others but kept my way of thinking because it felt right to me if I could paint a picture we would be an atom on an evolutionary scale

  • George


    December 30th, 2017 at 8:03 AM

    What are non-verbal ideas? Abstract thoughts can be verbalized or not, so I don’t understand the comment “understanding the relationship between verbal and non-verbal ideas.

  • Richelle S

    Richelle S

    January 1st, 2018 at 10:45 PM

    Non-verbal ideas, to me, means symbols.

  • george


    January 2nd, 2018 at 12:04 PM

    Ah yes. and those are neural networks from our experience.

  • Kelvin


    February 7th, 2018 at 12:28 PM

    Telepathy abstract means of communication I guess!

  • Claudia


    January 25th, 2019 at 5:41 PM

    I heard people with schizophrenia have trouble with abstract thought. I had an early onset, been on medication for 10 years (all different antispychotics, anti-anxiety, and now mood stablizer), now I’m in my mid 20s and I can’t relate to anyone. How can I improve my thoughts? I take everything so literal and can’t flip an object in my head. When I took a career test in high school, I bombed every section. I will never be sucessful @ anything. Cant even drive. When I do flip objects in my head, I’m deeply psychotic and can’t control it. Please no negative comments like “your stupid”. I never did drugs and keep getting psychotic breaks. If you dont know what they are, look up “what is a psychotic break from reality”. Thanks.

  • Barbara H.

    Barbara H.

    February 14th, 2019 at 5:21 AM

    You say you can’t relate to anyone & are bad at abstract thought but you just communicated beautifully when describing your situation, triggering empathy in others (me), both of which are essential pre-requisits for forming relationships. Do not give up hope. B:)

  • Claudia


    February 20th, 2019 at 10:02 PM

    Barbara, thank you. I need hope, and I needed to hear that.

  • Beth


    May 21st, 2019 at 10:51 AM

    Hi Claudia. My heart goes out to you. My brother is currently suffering from something like a psychotic break, and it’s really hard. I hope you are finding the support you need and piecing things together. Everyone has gifts, and often people see them after they’ve dug themselves out of something dark and really challenging. I’m not sure if this is helpful given where you are, but the book that most helped me get control of my thoughts is Bryon Kate’s “Loving What Is.” It starts with interrupting the thought with curiosity and simply asking, “Is it true?” Followed by three other simple questions. Eventually the process asks you to look at things from other perspectives, and sounds like that might be hard for you right now. You can look at her website thework.com. Just start with the four questions (not the whole worksheet) and see how that feels. Hang in there and take care of yourself – that’s your most important job right now. Sending you hope. Warmly, Beth

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