Abstract thinking vs Concrete thinking: Understanding the difference

Last Updated on October 7, 2023 by Editorial Team

When you look at a country’s flag, what do you see?

If your answer was something along the lines of a piece of cloth with different shapes and colors on it, then chances are you are a concrete thinker.

Whereas, if you thought it was a symbol of the country’s freedom and sovereignty and a representation of the country as an independent nation on the international level, then chances are you are an abstract thinker. At the same time, many might wonder if there can be any impacts of any learning disabilities like dyslexia on abstract thinking. 

This blog will delve into the differences between the two thinking styles, abstract and concrete. It will also illustrate various advantages and disadvantages that might come with adopting one of these styles under various conditions.

Abstract thinking vs Concrete thinking: Understanding through meanings

Jean Piaget talked about the concept of abstract and concrete thinking in his theory of cognitive development[1].

He illustrated that younger children and infants could only perceive and think about objects and people that are right there, present in front of them. Children younger than 6-7 months of age don’t have what is known as object permanence yet. So for them, anything that isn’t present in their field of vision doesn’t exist in the world[2]. He called this type of thinking, which is only surface level and focuses on the objects present in the “here and now” concrete thinking[1].

abstract thinking

Abstract thinking, according to him, is higher-order thinking that involves thinking on a deeper and philosophical level about various ideas, concepts, and symbols. Here the individual engages in analytical and critical thinking using metaphors and focuses more on the ‘why’ of problem-solving instead of ‘how’[1].

So if given a math problem, concrete thinkers would just try to learn the formula and the conditions under which it is applied. On the other hand, abstract thinkers would attempt to understand how the formula is derived, what can be its real-life applications, what hypothetical conditions it can be applied to, etc.

According to Piaget, abstract thinking skills are developed over time and are usually fully present in adolescents or teenagers. However, depending on individual and cultural differences, they can appear earlier or later in some children[3].

As people grow, their concrete thinking abilities are not eradicated. Actually, almost everyone engages in concrete thinking, even as fully grown adults, while doing mundane everyday tasks like brushing one’s teeth or tying one’s shoelaces. 

It is not necessary for someone to just be a concrete thinker or an abstract thinker. Thinking styles actually fall on a continuum where people can go from engaging with their thoughts on the concrete to an abstract level. 

Different situations and contexts call for a different style of thinking, and humans, being adaptive in nature, adapt their style of thinking according to the demands of the environment. However, different people can have a stronger preference for different styles of thinking.

The upsides of abstract thinking and concrete thinking explored

Concepts like Abstract Thinking and Concrete Thinking can be insightful and mindful to young learners. However, to weigh which is better, it is crucial to know the upsides of the concepts. Hence, here are the few advantages that one has over the other. 

Concrete thinking

1. Flexible

Concrete thinkers tend to follow instructions to the T, but abstract thinkers are more flexible in their patterns of thinking as well as behaving. They find new ways of approaching a problem and, if blocked, can think of several other ways of doing the same thing.

2. Creative

Abstract thinkers tend to be more creative in their approach to the world. While concrete thinkers like to follow the path that has been tried and tested, abstract thinkers often wander on the one less taken. They tend to look for new ways of looking at the world and various meanings, patterns, and relationships in the happenings around them. 

3. Going Beyond

Concrete thinkers tend to take things at face level and accept them as they are being presented. Whereas, abstract thinkers tend to go beyond what is being shown and said and try to understand the underlying meanings and mechanisms of it.

4. Complex relationships

Because of their preference for thinking at a deeper level and looking at the nuances, abstract thinkers tend to be involved in inferring complex relationships between various processes. Many famous philosophers and scientists have been found to have a preference for engaging in abstract thinking.

5. Higher-order emotions

Emotions like empathy, or being able to put oneself in someone else’s position, come more easily to abstract thinkers. Because of their imaginative and creative thinking abilities, they can relate to and understand more complex emotions and look at the world from someone else’s perspective.

Are there any limitations?

Limitations can be the only factor why one can be more beneficial. Hence, knowing the downsides of abstract thinking and concrete thinking can help learners decide which is better than the other. Here are a few disadvantages of abstract thinking and concrete thinking. 

1. Faulty Generalizations

Abstract thinkers often engage in finding patterns between various situations and happenings and generalizing the reason behind them. But sometimes this tendency could backfire and they could end up attributing a faulty reason to something.

For example, just because grocery shopping takes about 7-10 minutes every day doesn’t necessarily mean it was because of your laziness that it took 15 minutes today. There could be several other reasons like more customers, busy checkout counters, changes in the store’s layout, etc. At the same time, this doesn’t tend to happen in the case of concrete thinking, as thinkers reason on the basis of what they can see, feel, or experience.

2. Time and energy consuming 

Always engaging in deep-level thinking about everything and everyone can be a cumbersome task. This could take up a lot of extra time and energy and thwart quick and timely decision-making. Concrete thinkers tend to be better and faster at decisions that don’t require much forethought and don’t have any long-term and lasting effects.

3. Finding hidden meaning where there isn’t any

Since abstract thinkers tend to go beyond what is obvious and engage in deeper-level thinking, sometimes they attribute meanings to situations or actions where there isn’t any. For example, abstract thinkers could think that just because their friend did not stop and give them a hug, they are angry about something.

When in reality, the friend could just be in a hurry to get somewhere or could’ve simply forgotten to give them a hug. On the other hand, concrete thinkers think factually and do not get the mental process behind things in between.

4. Unpleasant Emotions 

While people with abstract thinking tendencies tend to be better at understanding other people’s emotions, they also tend to have a hard time stopping. This leads to constantly worrying about what the other person is feeling.

Additionally, they also tend to get stuck in a loop of unpleasant emotions of their own because they spend a lot of time thinking about everything. This tendency, known as rumination, does not show up as much for concrete thinkers who don’t tend to engage in analytical thinking about any aspect of their own or other people’s lives, be it pleasant or unpleasant[4].

5. Psychological Conditions

The tendency to engage in deeper-level thinking all the time and not knowing when to stop and disengage can have severe repercussions for one’s psychological and physical health. While this might not be the case for all abstract thinkers, studies do show links between abstract thinking and various psychological conditions like depression[5] and anxiety[6].

Key differences between both: Table of Comparison

Concrete ThinkingAbstract Thinking
PurposeInvolves thinking about the tangible – objects that are present and can be touchedInvolves thinking about the intangible – ideas, symbols, and relationships that can only be thought of
Natureis straightforward and literal is analytical and metaphorical
Depththinking on the surface levelthinking on a deeper level
Focusmore on the “how” of problems and conceptsmore on the “why” of problems and concepts

Is one better than the other?

As illustrated above, both abstract and concrete thinking have their pros and cons. Piaget called abstract thinking a higher level of thought, a symbol of one’s growth and development. But, that does mean abstract thinking is always better and superior to concrete thinking.

Being able to engage in abstract thinking does not mean one should abandon concrete thought. There are several contexts and situations, like faulty generalizations or finding a deeper meaning where there isn’t any, where concrete thinking would serve much better.

Both abstract and concrete thinking styles are essential ways of approaching the world. Even more essential is the skill of knowing which situation requires what kind of thinking style.

The verdict

Abstract and concrete thinking styles, while almost complete opposites of one another, make for complementary partners that help an individual effectively deal with the world. At the same time, there are a number of real-life examples of abstract thinking, that can be used to enlighten an individual about the same. 

The challenges and problems one faces in life are often many and varying. So it is useful to have different tools and ways of approaching and solving them.

It is important that no matter what the preferred style of thinking of the individual is, they understand the advantages and limitations of both. It also helps to have an adequate level of both abstract and concrete thinking skills so that the individual can adapt one’s thinking style according to the demands of the situation.


  1. Rabindran, & Madanagopal, D. (2020b). Piaget’s Theory and Stages of Cognitive Development- An Overview. Scholars Journal of Applied Medical Sciences. https://doi.org/10.36347/sjams.2020.v08i09.034
  1. Wozny, C. D., & Cox, D. L. (1973). The Effects of Culture and Education on the Acquisition of Formal Operational Thinking.
  1. Watkins, E. D., & Moulds, M. (2005). Distinct modes of ruminative self-focus: impact of abstract versus concrete rumination on problem solving in depression. Emotion, 5(3), 319.
  1. Dey, S., Newell, B. R., & Moulds, M. L. (2018). The relative effects of abstract versus concrete thinking on decision-making in depression. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 110, 11-21.
  1. Wong, Q. J., & Moulds, M. L. (2009). Impact of rumination versus distraction on anxiety and maladaptive self-beliefs in socially anxious individuals. Behaviour research and therapy, 47(10), 861-867.

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