What is Abstract Thinking?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Abstract thinking is a concept often compared to concrete thinking, in which thinking is limited to what’s in front of the face, and the here and now. In contrast, the abstract thinker can conceptualize or generalize, understanding that each concept can have multiple meanings. Such thinkers might see patterns beyond the obvious and be able to use patterns or a variety of concrete ideas or clues to solve larger problems. One example of this contrast could be the reactions of a concrete and abstract thinker to the same painting of a women holding a torch. The concrete thinker would interpret the painting in a literal way, but the abstract thinker might interpret the painting as a representation of the Statue of Liberty and conclude the painter wanted to celebrate freedom.

Abstract art may mean different things to different people.
Abstract art may mean different things to different people.

There are many ways in which abstract thinking may be of benefit to people. It helps to problem solve in more creative ways, and has a tendency to allow people to think “outside of the box.” It also allows for richer conceptual understanding, and there are some early psychiatrists that believe “thinking” is not the only part of abstract knowledge. Carl Jung defined some personality types as having the ability to abstractly feel, intuit or sense, in addition to having ability to think.

Children may have trouble with abstract concepts such as length of time.
Children may have trouble with abstract concepts such as length of time.

In normal human populations people exhibit a range of abstract thinking ability, which is very clear as humans develop. Most younger children can’t think in abstract terms. For example, a child is told to expect a new brother or sister in nine months. Yet the concept of nine months especially to someone lacking counting ability or patience, can be dreadfully abstract, and the child might ask repeatedly when the new baby was going to arrive. Later on, the child would likely develop a concept of time and this information of thinking into the future becomes possible.

Abstract thinking can help people solve problems in creative ways.
Abstract thinking can help people solve problems in creative ways.

Not all people develop abstract thinking strengths and some people who have previously been strong in this area may lose the facility. People with certain learning disabilities and some types of mental retardation can have great difficulty conceptualizing beyond a certain point or they have trouble with words that represent ideas rather than things. In some instances brain injury, particularly in the frontal lobe, affects a person’s ability to think abstractly, and this may cause difficulties when people need to make conceptual decisions, make moral judgments or problem solve in complex ways.

Brain injury to the frontal lobe may affect a person's ability to think abstractly.
Brain injury to the frontal lobe may affect a person's ability to think abstractly.

It should be reiterated that there is a normal range of abstract thinking ability, and some people are more concrete than they are abstract. This does not predict less success in life, though high deficits in abstract thinking might indicate some learning disabilities. There are concrete and abstract thinking tests, but the reputable ones must be found through professionals like school psychologists. Online tests can be amusing to take but there is no way of judging their accuracy.

Mentally handicapped people may have difficulty with abstract thinking.
Mentally handicapped people may have difficulty with abstract thinking.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


I believe there are different types of abstract thinking. For example, I can think in abstract terms such as "freedom", "justice" or "beauty", however I do poorly in math. I suppose the kind of abstract thinking called for in math is different from the kind I am capable of.


The child's exmaple is invalid to me; she keeps asking when the baby is coming because she has no idea what "month" means due to limited life experience, isn't it? For instance, if I am an alien visiting the Earth and tell you I'm 20-mica-old, can you feel how "old" I am? No, because you don't have the word in your vocabulary database. Can I say you keep asking how "old" I am because you don't have the sense of time (i.e. lacking abstract thinking)?


"If Santa makes all the Christmas presents then why does he put 'made in China' on the bottom?"

What kind of thinking is that?

Just curious. She was 8 at the time. Totally crushed Christmas.


I feel stupid in the company of concrete thinkers. When I give them suggestions they don't understand them at times. Sometimes there is some kind of awe. And they see me as smug or superior.

I'm so high on that abstract plane that I can not focus on concrete happenings. I'm basically useless in practical matters.This is the time I get called slow.


@anon938536: People with Asperger's actually have trouble with abstract thinking. People with Asperger's are very concrete thinkers. They are literal and specific. They have trouble with sarcasm.


People who think in the abstract tend to be good in math. They are good in science and mathematics. Their brain is almost thinking about something, but in real life, they do weird stuff like ride a bicycle in the winter.


Well, according to my therapist, I might have Asperger's because I was a highly abstract thinker as a very young child. I usually spoke in terms of generalizations and observed connections, asked lots of moral and ethical questions etc. In practical reality I'm usually useless. Even today some people have hard time to understand my generalizations. I usually hear lots of ".... oh that is why you said that".

Actually Hans Asperger said those patients were using highly abstract language.







a*(b+c) = a*b + a*c


I am working on a project, and it seems to me that it is critical thinking I am asked to do rather than abstract thinking because the assignment is a question.


@anamur-- I personally don't think it's always a measure of intelligence, especially since abstract thinking can be learned.

But I do think that some of us are born with a more abstract thinking brain. I think I can think more in abstract terms than my mother for example. She can't interpret situations and language as well as I can. But by no means do I think that I'm more intelligent than her.


Do you guys think that there are levels of abstract thinking and reasoning? Are some of us born with more abstract thinking ability than others?

Is abstract thinking a measure of intelligence?

People with Asperger's Syndrome often have trouble engaging in abstract thinking. They cannot interpret meanings that are not clearly expressed. When they communicate, they also speak directly, describing openly what they mean.

For example, I watched a movie about this and in the film, the main actor who suffered from Asperger's was told "I want to die!" Of course, the person didn't mean this literally, she was trying to express her frustration. But since he doesn't have abstract thinking skills, he took the phrase literally and was begging her not to die.

I actually found his concrete thinking very simple, honest and lovable.


"...When her boss said to draw the curtain, she would sit down and actually draw them as apposed to closing the curtain..."

I'm a concrete and an abstract thinker. Next time I'll draw the curtain first and draw the curtain later.


i agree that concrete thinkers are literal thinkers. they take every word at face value and abstract thinkers understand that words have different meanings and different aspects. --Masoom


this website was very useful and helpful to my project. all the information is to the point. i understand about abstract thinking and that perfect meaning.


I loved the Amelia Bedelia books when I was growing up and I agree that they are a great tool to help children understand what abstract thinking is.

At the same time, I think it takes a special and experience-refined balance in judgment to determine when and how to use abstract thought. It can help in situations where the solution to a problem isn't readily obvious. At the same time, one must be capable of straight forward thinking so as to not overlook the facts.


A simple example of a concrete thinker versus an abstract thinker is to think to the kids books about Amelia Bedelia. She was the maid who would take every order literally. When her boss said to draw the curtain, she would sit down and actually draw them as apposed to closing the curtain.

Concrete thinkers are literal thinkers; they take every word at face value. Abstract thinkers understand that words can have more than one meaning.

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