15 Types of Thinking and Their Characteristics

Thinking well allows you to live better. One way to achieve this is by knowing the different types of thoughts that your brain can produce.
15 Types of Thinking and Their Characteristics

Written by Valeria Sabater

Last update: 27 September, 2022

Your mind produces different types of thoughts on a daily basis. Some are more worthwhile than others. Many of them allow you to make decisions in the face of both small and large challenges. However, currently, neuroscience still doesn’t really know what human thought is and how it’s produced.

What they do know is that thoughts respond to the fascinating result of neuronal activity and that they require the activation of different areas of the brain. In fact, the German physician and physicist, Hermann von Helmholtz, once claimed that cognitive magic was the result of unconscious inferences. Later, Roger Shepard defined them as mental representations.

Today, neuroscientists emphasize that thought and emotion have a direct relationship, to the point that the way you think can impact the way you feel. As a matter of fact, despite the complexity in the definition of these psychological processes, it’s undeniable that thinking well, as Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman would say, allows you to live better.

One way to achieve a better mastery of your thoughts is to get to know them and recognize how to distinguish each modality of thought that your brain produces.

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”

-Albert Einstein-

Woman with her eyes closed with a light in her mind

The definition of thinking

Thinking is any mental process, voluntary and involuntary, through which you develop content about the environment, others, and yourself. In fact, thinking refers to all the ideas, memories, reasoning, beliefs, and images created by your mind.

However, no matter how hard scientists have tried to define thinking, they tend to fall short. After all, it’s an extremely complex process. Indeed, its underlying neurological mechanism still remains a mystery, not only for neurology but for science in general.

That said, we can define some characteristics of thinking:

  • It’s an abstract activity of the mind.
  • It’s conditioned by neuronal, physical, and motor development. Furthermore, it’s influenced by language, environment, experiences, and emotions.
  • Distortions in thinking can lead to mental health problems.
  • Thinking is a capacity that can be improved through mental exercises and the incorporation of new content.

Disciplines that study thinking

Since it’s such a complex entity, the study of thinking is approached by different disciplines and from different angles. Among them are:

  • Psychology. This field addresses the influence of thinking on behavior and emotions, as well as the impact that the latter has on our thoughts. It also studies the distortions that occur within our thoughts and proposes healthier thinking alternatives. In addition, it studies how language and the environment affect thinking and vice versa.
  • Logic. This is a formal science that deals with the laws that govern human thought. It also determines the correct forms of reasoning.
  • Philosophy. Since ancient times, this field has provided numerous reflections on the nature of thought and its characteristics. The philosophical field has contributed to the advancement of the empirical sciences that study thought and other mental phenomena.
  • Psychiatry. This is the branch of medicine that analyzes the modes of thought and treats the disorders that derive from their alteration.

Types of thinking

Throughout the day, you have many different types of thoughts. You imagine, daydream, worry about things that haven’t yet happened, make judgments, and think of solutions to problems that you might be losing sleep over. They all modulate the way that you process and react to what surrounds you and what happens.

Becoming aware of the thinking pattern that dominates you throughout the day can be extremely useful. In fact, although it’s true that many of them appear in your mind involuntarily, becoming aware of them can allow you to strive to have greater control over them.

Let’s examine the most common types of thinking.

1. Reflective thinking

Thinking reflectively allows you to analyze the different realities that surround you in a profound, thoughtful, and calm way. It favors making better decisions without leading to impulsiveness.

A study conducted by the Tunku Abdul Rahman University (Malaysia) emphasized the need to develop this competence in children in order to achieve the ability of critical thinking.

2. Critical thinking

Few skills are as necessary as reasoning and critical thinking. They go beyond what’s apparent, normative, or established to capture nuances, question the obvious, and find contradictions and loose ends. In fact, it’s in these small corners of everyday life that, sometimes, great revelations are found.

3. Deductive thinking

The person who thinks deductively infers information from the analysis of specific variables. They do so by starting from some general premises, to later arrive at a particular conclusion. In a way, it’s one of the most common types of thoughts that’s used on a daily basis.

For example, if you go into a store and see that the clothes you’re looking at are expensive, you deduce that the store is too expensive for you.

4. Inductive reasoning

In 1938, Leon Thurstone, a pioneer of psychometry, defined induction as a way of reasoning that starts from a series of particular observations. These allow the production of general laws and conclusions (the opposite of deductive thinking).

5. Logical thinking

Logical thinkers are great observers. They meticulously analyze each fact, then compare, deduce, infer, and later draw conclusions based on that available information. This allows them to always justify each step, thanks to the data they’ve collected.

Logical thinkers don’t go by their instincts. They put aside assumptions and prejudices to make use of thoughtful and always objective approaches.

6. Creative thinking

This way of reasoning could change your life. That’s because creative thinkers explore multiple perspectives and possibilities. In fact, having groundbreaking and genuine ideas allows you to take different cognitive paths.

A study conducted by the Radboud University of Nijmegen (The Netherlands) highlighted that creating training programs in creative thinking improves the academic results of students.

7. Systematic reasoning

One of the most interesting types of thinking is systematic. In this case, you make contact with what surrounds you to understand each component without transforming it. It involves looking at things through a magnifying glass to try and understand what they’re made of.

8. Deliberative thinking

A person who practices deliberate thinking acts, decides, and thinks based on their values and emotions. In this case, reflection is left aside, and they behave and respond in an authentic, human, emotional way.

9. Divergent thinking

Spontaneity, creativity, challenge, originality. Divergent or lateral thinking is capable of generating multiple and ingenious solutions to a specific problem. This cognitive flexibility allows you to deactivate the dogmatism of everyday life.

girl with glasses symbolizing the different types of thinking

10. Convergent thinking

Logic, reason, induction, deduction. Convergent thinking is one of the most interesting types of thinking. It makes use of the logical, experience-based approach routinely used to solve problems.

11. Magical thinking

Magical thinking is typical of children, superstitious people, or even certain religions. It’s also found in certain literary genres. It consists of reaching conclusions based on unsound, unjustified, fanciful, or supernatural variables.

However, on certain occasions, you might even use this magical reasoning yourself. For example, when you think that it’s enough to want something really badly for it to happen.

12. Analog thinking

This thinking is used by human beings when understanding the world and making decisions. It’s characterized by the use of perceptible similarities as a basis to interfere with some other similarity that hasn’t yet been perceived or verified with certainty.

One example of analogical reasoning is the following: Anna and John are athletes. Anna is in good health; therefore, it’s likely that John is too. It’s the type of thinking that’s typical of science. For instance, it’s evidenced in the analogies made between animal and human studies.

13. Soft thinking

This type of thinking is characterized by resorting to abstract and unclear concepts, often metaphorical, and the tendency not to avoid contradictions.

People who think this way tend to avoid definitive conclusions. In addition, it’s usually associated with the discourse of postmodern philosophical currents and psychoanalysis.

14. Hard thinking

This kind of thinking was proposed by Roger van Oech. It’s characterized by offering concrete concepts and ideas, which go straight to the point and don’t admit any ambiguity in their words.

In addition, hard thinking is noted for its accuracy, consistency, precision, and logical validity. People who tend to reason in this way offer ideas and opinions that are more like science than subjective or fanciful discourse.

15. Synvergent thinking

Synvergent thinking was proposed by Michael J. Gelb. It refers to the optimal use of both cerebral hemispheres: the right and the left. In turn, this implies the conjunction of two of the types of thinking mentioned above: convergent and divergent.

Therefore, this kind of thinking provides the benefits of both convergent and divergent thinking for solving a problem.

To conclude, all of these types of thinking make up the way you process your everyday reality. They’re abstract entities that neuroscience can’t yet clearly define, yet they integrate everything that you are, what you feel, and the way you make your decisions.

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  • Cacioppo, John; Freberg, Laura (2012). Discovering Psychology: The Science of Mind. Canadá: Cengage Learning.
  • Choy, Chee & Oo, Pou & Oo,. (2012). Reflective thinking and teaching practices: A precursor for incorporating critical thinking into the classroom. International Journal of Instruction. 5. 167-182.
  •  Ritter SM, Gu X, Crijns M, Biekens P (2020) Fostering students’ creative thinking skills by means of a one-year creativity training program. PLoS ONE 15(3): e0229773. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0229773

The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.