Concrete thinking is literal thinking that is focused on the physical world. It is the opposite of abstract thinking. People engaged in concrete thinking are focused on facts in the here and now, physical objects, and literal definitions. The term “concrete thinking” is, ironically, a metaphor (and a metaphor is a type of abstract thinking); concrete is a hard, physical substance and concrete thinking is focused on literal–and often physical–facts. A person who thinks only in concrete terms might think that the term “concrete thinking” means thinking literally about concrete.
Development of Concrete Thinking
Concrete thinking is the first form of thinking children master. Very young babies think extremely concretely, and most research indicates that they cannot conceive of an object as existing if it is not physically present. As development continues, children develop object permanence–the ability to think about things that are not present–but still struggle with abstract thoughts. The development of abstract thinking is a gradual one, with children first understanding abstract concepts such as emotion and then being able to understand more challenging abstract ideas such as theoretical math, metaphors, and philosophical concepts. Recent research indicates that most animals tend to think in highly concrete terms, though some highly intelligent primates can master abstract concepts, object permanence, and may develop a theory of mind.
Concrete Thinking and Mental Health
Abstract thinking is critical for normal development, and exclusively concrete thinking can severely inhibit a person’s ability to learn, empathize, and relate to other people. The development of a theory of mind–the ability to place oneself in another’s shoes and guess what they are thinking or what it is like to be them–is key for developing strong social skills.
The inability to think abstractly can be symptomatic of developmental delays. Children on the autism spectrum frequently struggle with abstract thinking, and may have difficulty with empathy and understanding others’ emotions. Head injuries and brain damage can also interfere with an individual’s ability to grasp abstract thoughts.
- Colman, A. M. (2006). Oxford dictionary of psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Harwood, R., Miller, S. A., & Vasta, R. (2008). Child psychology: Development in a changing society. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
- Prinz, J. J. (2007). The emotional construction of morals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Last Updated: 08-4-2015
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jmrAugust 4th, 2014 at 9:05 AM
Thank you for breaking this down. Is it a challenge for an adult to learn how to think more abstractly? How much did trauma in childhood and abuse contribute to blocking creativity and spontaneity? Perfectionism? I notice that I get stuck a lot when I’m in a brainstorming session at work. Also, have a hard time “thinking up” things to write because I get stuck on the meaning of one word. Any suggestions?
DesreenMay 8th, 2018 at 11:23 AM
based on my understanding of the concrete and abstract thinking and you being a therapist I tend to agree with your supervisor that you are too concrete in your thinking. Maybe if your are able to empathize a bit more you may begin to think more abstractly .
WLCAugust 10th, 2014 at 10:12 PM
I’m sometimes accused of “being a concrete thinker” because I try to keep work related matters grounded in reality, and because I ask for details on how policies are applied and how intricate tasks are to be performed. I can talk philosophy all day, but if I don’t know how something is done, or if I don’t think something sounds logical or grounded in reality, I say something. That has supervision saying I “think too concretely.” I am a therapist.
robinMarch 14th, 2019 at 4:05 PM
WLC-you sound like you are not concrete enough-perhaps your creative brain is dominant—i am a new clinician hungry for understanding and heard this term used on a coworker-I was thinking this term seems very severe for a person who is not with any outstanding developmental delays.
Drew N.June 9th, 2019 at 11:59 AM
I have trouble thinking abstractly in my daily life. Ironically, I’m an artist who has to think abstractly all of the time. I’m used to being told I don’t have common sense. Just the other day I was asked to clean the dishes and put everything away. I still had spices out, and some cheese out. I’d honestly thought they’d asked me to put those away and clean the dishes. Not clean the dishes and put EVERYTHING away, included the dishes after they dried. Any tips?
SarahAugust 10th, 2019 at 7:29 AM
Funny, I’m not an artist and whenever I do art I feel I need to think have a concrete mind to produce anything worth looking at. I think you’re being too hard on yourself, embrace your style for what it is.
PullanJune 18th, 2020 at 6:05 PM
The reason why people have a mouth and two ears is because they listen twice as much as they say
KHAugust 6th, 2020 at 1:59 PM
That person should have been clear. You now have to fill in the blanks because their instructions were vague. “Clean the dishes and put away everything, including the dishes when they are dry.” I don’t think you showed a “lack of common sense”, you just needed clarification on what the broad term “everything” means.
Ciel7777December 12th, 2020 at 5:39 AM
KH, I think they were assuming that Drew I had prior knowledge, and had done dishes before, Which is not at all unreasonable.
Ciel7777December 12th, 2020 at 5:45 AM
Jmr: from what you were speaking of very specifically it sounds like codependency. There’s a great book called codependency for dummies, which helps break down these behaviors. I don’t think you’re lacking empathy, which someone commented on, with no foundation. What might be happening is you are, at the core, creative, and when put on the spot in the presence of others, You flood with emotions or embarrassment. If you have a difficult time thinking up the definition of one word, you could draw out a thought chart, noting all the various definitions, selecting one that makes most sense after looking at them all.
Ciel7777December 12th, 2020 at 5:49 AM
I share your frustration. As a creative person myself who is forced into a concrete world of data entry, in accounting, having very concrete expectations and instructions saves time in the long run, especially when setting policies that we then have to enforce with the broader community. People who accuse you of these things, I feel are being lazy. Maybe it doesn’t impact them as much as it impacts you.
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