The Development of Concrete and Abstract Thinking Patterns

The Development of Concrete and Abstract Thinking Patterns
November 17, 2020

Abstract thinking and concrete thinking are fundamentally different and can even be considered opposites. Concrete thinking typically lacks depth and involves surface concepts. On the other hand, abstract thinking involves deeper concepts. Read on to learn about the difference between concrete and abstract thinking.

Key Points:

  • Thinking will generally fall into the categories of abstract and concrete thinking.
  • As children, we start by thinking in concrete terms but transition to abstract thinking.
  • Concrete thinking can limit your social skills.
  • You can develop different thinking skills with the help of a therapist.

Concrete Thinking

It is the simplest form of thinking, and it develops in children. As a child, you could identify objects in your surroundings and could not think deeper than the surface. That is why children tend to take things literally and cannot understand figures of speech. In early childhood, kids tend to learn mainly using the senses of sight, touch, smell, smell, and hearing.

When they grow up, children can understand that their actions can have specific results. For example, they know that when they push a door, it will open. Until they finish their second year, children are not usually able to understand object permanence, and that is why they think objects stop existing when they are out of sight. That is the same reason why you can trick kids that you have their nose in your hand.

As kids grow past their second year, they start understanding hand signals and non-verbal communication. Also, they start learning about ideas and emotions and don’t just rely on surface concepts.

In their seventh year, kids start understanding why people do what they do, and they can recognize emotions in other individuals. This ability is improved past the age of 12 in most people, and at this level, most individuals can analyze situations and generalize ideas. The transition from concrete to abstract thinking is enhanced by gaining experience and learning new concepts in school. Over time, individuals can form ideas on what other people feel and how they are likely to act in certain situations.

Is it Possible to Maintain Concrete Thinking as an Adult?

Most adults think in abstract terms since concrete thinking can be extremely limiting. For instance, if you cannot understand other people’s motivations, you will find it difficult to interact in social situations. People who think in concrete terms may also have trouble understanding common social rules and cannot tell when a statement is made as a joke. However, certain mental conditions can make it harder to move away from concrete patterns of thought. A common disorder that affects thinking patterns is autism, and even the mildest spectrums could greatly impact an individual’s ability to reason in abstract terms.

It is important to note that individuals can develop abstract thinking to a level and still fail in other aspects of this form of thinking. For example, many individuals can’t understand other figures of speech and would still apply literal meanings to such phrases.

Also, you should remember that failing to think in abstract terms does not mean that an individual is mentally impaired. However, you will be unable to form creative thoughts and fix complex problems. It is because you may find it hard to imagine things that are out of sight. Concrete thinkers also tend to be extremely rigid in their behaviors and do not change their minds often. This can end up creating some friction in social situations.

It is also important to note that people with enhanced abstract thinking skills can score higher on IQ quizzes and can use language more effectively. By transitioning to abstract thinking, you will be more innovative and will be able to live a more fulfilling life.

Abstract Thinking

Unlike animals, human beings can process ideas. This ability may exist in higher primates, but it is largely underdeveloped in these mammals. As an abstract thinker, you can meditate on philosophies, and you can also think about objects or people you met a long time ago. Abstract thinking also allows people to comprehend human motivations and interpret non-verbal cues. As such, developing abstract thinking can significantly improve your ability to interact with people and form lasting relationships.

Abstract thinking usually develops just before individuals enter teenage, but some children may develop the ability much sooner. Also, it may be delayed until the mid or late teen years in some individuals. You should note that abstract thinking does not just develop by age.

Interacting with the environment and getting different experiences also helps one learn how to contemplate ideas. Some activities that can improve your cognitive abilities include reading, watching movies, and thinking about the traits of characters in stories. For instance, instructors can help kids learn certain character traits by presenting stories where the protagonists do some wrong things, and the bad guys engage in positive behavior. For example, a story like Robin Hood can help children learn complex concepts since the protagonist works as a thief but distributes the loot among poor people.

Therefore, the development of abstract thinking depends both on age and interaction with different ideas.

Communicating with a Concrete Thinker

Communicating with concrete thinkers can be challenging. One thing you need to avoid when talking to concrete thinkers is the use of idioms and figures of speech. For example, they may not be able to understand what you mean when you say that someone is a chicken. They would interpret the idioms literally, and that would break down your communication entirely. Similarly, you should avoid using sarcasm and telling jokes because these usually require imagination and wordplay.

Another important tip to keep in mind is that concrete thinkers don’t easily comprehend generalizations. As such, you should avoid using words like soon and can instead give specific time periods.

Does Concrete Thinking Offer Any Benefits?

Although concrete thinking can affect your ability to function properly in society, it can offer a few excellent advantages. One of the biggest pros of this form of thinking is that it can reduce trauma as you are better able to arrive at realistic conclusions. In fact, therapists train individuals to develop concrete thoughts when exposed to traumatic events since that helps them understand the results of specific actions. Thinking in general terms can make it easier to get unrealistic conclusions.

Also, some studies have shown that concrete thinking can reduce feelings of depression as you will not keep generalizing events. By thinking in concrete terms, you will be able to avoid worry and will not have to suffer repeated negative memories.

It is possible to learn how to think in more concrete terms, and for the best results, you will need to work with a therapist. They will come up with a plan that will help you identify specific actions and details associated with a traumatic event. With this exercise, you can determine the actions you can take to avoid similar outcomes if the same challenges are presented in the future.

Do All People Fall into the Concrete and Abstract Thinker Categories?

Although there are many forms of thinking, most types are considered subcategories of abstract thinking. Let’s look at some of these types of thinking.

Creative Thinking

A good proportion of the population can think creatively to some extent. Individuals with advanced creative thinking skills can come up with new solutions to problems and will usually implement their thoughts. Creativity is not just useful to those in creative fields like writing but can improve the lives of all types of individuals. As an example, you will need to come up with creative solutions when faced with relationship issues as that can present new solutions and allow you to facilitate compromises. In some cases, working with a couples’ therapist can help you come up with such ideas.

Analytical Thinking

Analytical thinking can also be essential for problem-solving as it allows you to break down complex issues into smaller problems. This way, you will be better able to manage the problem as it will be less overwhelming. Analytical thinkers can gather all the relevant information in a particular case and identify possible patterns of cause and effect. This form of thinking is usually integrated with visual thinking, as they both involve getting insights into specific situations.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking has been a subject of debate since the days of Greek philosophers. By developing critical thinking skills, you will be able to reflect on events and come up with your own conclusions. It is especially important today since we are bombarded with news from all sources and will usually be influenced to take a specific stand or conclusion. With critical thinking, you will be able to understand why there are so many negative news items in a particular time and will also be able to understand how different ideas link. For example, you will be able to determine when someone is using a false appeal to authority to influence your stand. In this case, a high ranking doctor will not be able to give an authoritative opinion on matters regarding history or religion.

Convergent and Divergent Thinking

These two are strongly related to creative thinking. With divergent thinking, you will be able to consider different ideas and opinions and choose one that will work best. On the other hand, convergent thinking involves combining different ideas to come up with a new solution entirely.

Is It Possible to Improve Your Abstract Thinking Skills?

As mentioned earlier, abstract thinking can significantly improve your life. Most people think in abstract terms to an extent, even those with mental disorders. But we can all improve our abstract thinking skills by taking some exercises. One way of improving your abstract thinking skills is by interacting with a diverse group of people. This way, you will be able to understand different perspectives and increase your level of empathy. Other ways of improving abstract thinking skills include:

  • Looking for patterns in everyday challenges;
  • Asking “why” questions;
  • Participating in improvisational theatre;
  • Solving puzzles;
  • Playing with figurative language.

You can also work with a counselor to get a plan.

Talk to Our Therapists

As you have seen, developing thinking skills can significantly improve your wellbeing. So why not talk to our therapists today and grow your skills? The professionals are available 24/7 and can be reached even without making a schedule.

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Kate Skurat

Kate Skurat

Licensed Mental Health Counselor

Washington, United States

Kate has a B.S. in Psychology and M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Pepperdine University and has worked in healthcare since 2017. She primarily treated depression, anxiety, eating disorders, trauma, and grief, as well as identity, relationship and adjustment issues. Her clinical experience has focused on individual and group counseling, emergency counseling and outreach. Read more.

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