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.

  • 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.

  • 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!

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