Abstract Thinking

Staircase photographed to look like a Fibonacci spiralAbstract 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.

What Is Abstract Thinking?

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

  • Using metaphors and analogies
  • Understanding relationships between verbal and nonverbal 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

Abstract thinking makes it possible for people to exercise creativity. Creativity, in turn, is a useful survival mechanism⁠—it allows us to develop tools and new ideas that improve the quality of human life.

Abstract Thinking in Psychology: How Does It 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 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 vs. Concrete Thinking

Concrete thinking is the opposite of abstract thinking. While abstract thinking is centered around ideas, symbols, and the intangible, concrete thinking focuses on what can be perceived through the five senses: smell, sight, sound, taste, and touch. The vast majority of people use a combination of concrete and abstract thinking to function in daily life, although some people may favor one mode over the other.

A study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience found abstract thinking was tied to parts of the brain occupied with vision. Concrete thinking, on the other hand. activated parts of the brain that focus on actions taken to complete a goal.

Other research found that abstract thinkers are more likely than concrete thinkers to take risks. This may be partly due to the idea that concrete thinkers, more concerned with “how” to perform an action rather than “why,” might be dissuaded from starting a risky task because they’re more focused on the practical effort involved with the task, while the abstract thinker might be more occupied with considering the pros and cons of the risk.

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. Abstract thinking skills are associated with high levels of intelligence. And since abstract thinking is associated with creativity, it may often be found in gifted individuals who are innovators.

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. Since abstract reasoning is closely connected to the ability to solve problems, individuals with severely inhibited abstract thinking ability may need assistance with day-to-day life.

Mental Health and Abstract Thinking

Some mental health conditions can negatively impact an individual’s ability to think abstractly. For example, schizophrenia has been found to impair abstract thinking ability in those it affects. Some other conditions that may impair abstract thinking include:

Some research has connected the ability to think abstractly with a stronger sense of self-control. This means that when people were given a reason to do or not to do something, it was easier for them to adhere to that rule than if they were simply told how to follow the rule.

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found an interesting link between power and abstract thought. A person’s conception of how much power they have may more strongly influence their behavior than the actual amount of power they have. Because of this, researchers posited that an increased capacity for abstract thought would increase an individual’s sense of personal power, creating a positive feedback loop in which their beliefs influence their behavior, and their behavior shapes their personal outcomes.

Abstract Thinking Exercises

In many cases, it is possible to improve your abstract reasoning skills. Working on your abstract reasoning skills may help you improve your ability to solve problems, understand and communicate complex ideas, and enjoy creative pursuits.

One way to exercise your abstract reasoning skills is to practice solving puzzles, optical illusions, and other “brain teasers.” These thinking exercises allow individuals to practice viewing information from different perspectives and angles. As they may help open a person’s mind to different possibilities through the problem-solving process, puzzles can be an engaging way for both young people and adults to get better at abstract thinking.

Strengthening improvisation skills may also help increase an individual’s creativity and abstract thinking skills. Tasks that require the person to rely mostly on their imagination may help strengthen their ability to think abstractly over time.

References:

  1. Culpin, B. (2018, October 16). ‘Abstract thought’ – How is it significant and how does it define the basis for modern humanity? Retrieved from https://medium.com/@bc805/abstract-thought-how-is-it-significant-and-how-does-it-define-the-basis-for-modern-humanity-a98a5b92fb9f
  2. Dementia: What are the common signs? (2003, March 1). American Family Physician, 67(5), 1,051-1,052. Retrieved from https://www.aafp.org/afp/2003/0301/p1051.html
  3. De Vries, E. (2014). Improvisation as a tool to develop creativity mini-workshop divergent thinking. IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE) Proceedings. doi: 10.1109/FIE.2014.7044132
  4. Gilead, M., Liberman, N., & Maril, A. (2013, May 18). From mind to matter: Neural correlates of abstract and concrete mindsets. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9(5), 638-645. doi: 10.1093/scan/nst031
  5. Harwood, R., Miller, S. A., & Vasta, R. (2008). Child psychology: Development in a changing society. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  6. Lermer, E., Streicher, B., Sachs, R., Raue, M., & Frey, D. (2016, August 26). The effect of abstract and concrete thinking on risk-taking behavior in women and men. SAGE Open, 6(3). Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2158244016666127
  7. Logsdon, A. (2019, June 17). Why children need to use abstract reasoning in school. Retrieved from https://www.verywellfamily.com/what-is-abstract-reasoning-2162162
  8. Marintcheva, B. (2013, May 6). Looking for the forest and the trees : Exercises to provoke abstract thinking. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 14(1), 127-128. doi: 10.1128/jmbe.v14i1.535
  9. Minshew, N., Meyer, J., & Goldstein, G. (2002). Abstract reasoning in autism: A dissociation between concept formation and concept identification. Neuropsychology, 16(3), 327-334. doi: 10.1037//0894-4105.16.3.327
  10. Oh, J., Chun, J., Lee, J. S., & Kim, J. (2014). Relationship between abstract thinking and eye gaze pattern in patients with schizophrenia. Behavioral and Brain Functions, 10(13). doi: 10.1186/1744-9081-10-13
  11. Renzulli, J. S. (2003). The international handbook on innovation. Elsevier
  12. Scherzer, B. P., Charbonneau, S., Solomon, C. R., & Lepore, F. (1993). Abstract thinking following severe traumatic brain injury. Brain Injury, 7(5), 411-423. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8401483
  13. Smith, P. K., Wigboldus, D., & Dijksterhuis, A. (2008). Abstract thinking increases one’s sense of power. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(2), 378-385. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2006.12.005
  14. Ylvisaker, M., Hibbard, M., & Feeney, T. (n.d.). Tutorial: Concrete vs. abstract thinking. Retrieved from http://www.projectlearnet.org/tutorials/concrete_vs_abstract_thinking.html

Last Updated: 07-30-2019

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  • Vince

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    george

    January 2nd, 2018 at 12:04 PM

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

  • Kelvin

    Kelvin

    February 7th, 2018 at 12:28 PM

    Telepathy abstract means of communication I guess!

  • Claudia

    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

    Claudia

    February 20th, 2019 at 10:02 PM

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

  • Beth

    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

  • Ren

    Ren

    October 6th, 2019 at 4:11 PM

    so that means if you haven’t been using much of a critical thinking over the last yeara, there’s a big possibility that you’ll fail in a an abstract reasoning skill test.

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