What Abstract Thinking Is All About

20 November, 2020
What's abstract thinking? In this article, we'll be talking about its characteristics, functions, and differences with concrete thinking. Don't miss it!

You’ve probably heard of abstract thinking once or twice. But do you really know what it is? Basically, it refers to a type of thinking that allows you to reflect on things that aren’t present in the current space and moment. Additionally, it allows you to reflect on general concepts and principles, both in your daily life and in a more academic or professional setting.

Are there any advantages to abstract thinking? Well, a 2006 study by the University of Amsterdam found that people feel more powerful when they’re allowed to think abstractly. This shows how abstract thinking is sometimes more favorable than concrete thinking, which is more restrictive.

Do you want to learn more about this type of thinking, how it differs from concrete thinking, what it’s for, and its benefits? Keep on reading!

Abstract thinking: what it is and what it’s for

According to the Psychology Dictionary, abstract thinking is the ability to grasp essential and common properties. It serves to keep different aspects of a situation in mind, foresee and plan for the future, think symbolically, and draw conclusions. It’s the opposite of concrete thinking which, in this case, refers to literal thinking based on the present time and space.

What’s this type of thinking good for? As you can see, abstract thinking allows you to see the link between different ideas, beliefs, or elements of both the external and internal environment. In addition, it helps to innovate, create, imagine, develop new ideas, learn from past experiences, and reflect on the future.

Additionally, this type of thinking also constitutes a cognitive ability. More specifically, it’s one of the last cognitive abilities that human beings acquire at an evolutionary level. Without further ado, we’re going to teach you a bit more about this type of thinking.

A man with flowers growing on his head.

Let’s see some of its characteristics.

Characteristics

These characteristics focus on the form, content, and functions of this type of thinking. In brief, abstract thinking:

  • Focuses on the elements that aren’t present (it goes beyond the current environment).
  • Allows you to imagine, create, and innovate.
  • Stimulates reflective and deep thinking.
  • Helps to find different meanings for each situation.
  • Allows the creation of interesting and abstract ideas.
  • Is hypothetical-deductive thinking. In other words, it allows people to build hypotheses without the need to test them empirically.
  • Is flexible, which means it stimulates discussion.

Examples

To better understand this type of thinking, let’s think about concrete examples: someone who thinks beyond what’s right in front of them. Let’s put it this way. Imagine a person who’s thinking about a specific book. Well, that isn’t abstract thinking. They’ll use this type of thinking when imagining multiple books that don’t have to be in the same room or in front of them.

You can also think of the books that you feel represent you, the books you’ve read, the books that mean a lot to you, etc. As you can see, imagination plays a big part in abstract thinking. When an artist thinks about the best colors for their painting, when a musician thinks about the best note to finish off their symphony, that’s also abstract thinking.

Let’s see other examples. A composer who uses his ideas to write the lyrics of a song or a mathematician who analyzes numbers to draw a conclusion (in the same way that a physicist extracts meaningful relationships from their data). Believe it or not, you use it on a day-to-day basis when you analyze certain situations that involve thinking beyond the present.

When does it appear? Piaget’s hypothesis

Swiss epistemologist and biologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) spoke of abstract thought during his time. Specifically, he developed a hypothesis that stated that abstract thinking, as well as reasoning, came on in the last stage of development (the stage of formal operations). In fact, Piaget called abstract thinking “formal thinking” because it belonged to this evolutionary stage.

The stage of formal operations begins between the ages of 11 and 15 and lasts until adulthood. The following elements are essential at this stage:

  • Hypothetical reasoning.
  • Abstract reasoning.
  • Systematic problem-solving.
  • Abstract thinking.

According to Piaget, this type of thinking is closely related to logic and the ability to solve problems. This is one of the distinctive characteristics of human beings, which distinguish them from other animal species.

How to apply it

Can you apply this kind of thinking in your everyday life? In what areas? Well, it can be incredibly useful for your personal development, in areas as abstract as spirituality.

On the other hand, it can be useful in fields such as mathematics or science, since analytical reasoning requires the use of abstract thinking. Don’t forget that, in order to understand a certain topic or knowledge, you must be able to connect it to real life so that it becomes more practical.

A man using abstract thinking to make a decision.

Differences between abstract thinking and concrete thinking

At the beginning of the article, we commented that concrete thinking was the opposite of abstract thinking. But how are these two types of thinking different? Abstract thinking allows you to process, describe, and manipulate mental information. Concrete thinking does the same but with objects in the physical world.

On the other hand, we already mentioned that abstract thinking was hypothetical-deductive. This means that it makes it possible to make hypotheses without having to test them empirically. On the other hand, through concrete thinking, knowledge can only be formulated through direct experience with the phenomenon in question (this would be a type of inductive thinking).

Abstract thinking goes from the general to the particular, which allows the formulation of laws and theories, for example. Instead, concrete thinking goes from the particular to the general. Finally, abstract thinking allows for reflection and debate, as it’s flexible thinking, whereas concrete thinking doesn’t allow variations since it’s based on the tangible and the obvious.

As you can see, abstract thinking is found everywhere and has notable advantages when it comes to stimulating other types of thinking such as reflection or reasoning. There are multiple types of thinking convergent, divergent, practical, theoretical, and literal. Which is the best one, though? All and none. The best will always be the one that best adapts to the task you want to carry out. This explains why flexibility is a great virtue of human cognition.

  • Espino, O.G. (2004). Pensamiento y razonamiento. Pirámide.
  • Garnham, A. y Oakhill, J. (1996). Manual de Psicología del Pensamiento. Ed. Paidós.
  • Pagés, J. (1998). La formación del pensamiento social, pp. 152-164. En Pijal Benejam y Joan Pagés, Enseñar y aprender ciencias sociales, geografía e historia en la educación secundaria. Barcelona: ICE/Horsori.
  • Piaget, J. (1986). Psicología evolutiva. Madrid: Editorial Paidós.