What to Know About Concrete Thinking

Medically Reviewed by Christopher Melinosky, MD on March 07, 2024
4 min read

Concrete thinking is a more literal form of thinking that focuses on the physical world. Concrete thinkers may take information at face value without thinking beyond or generalizing the information to other meanings or situations.

While concrete thinking is needed, relying exclusively or too much on this style of thinking can impede learning, empathy, and the ability to relate to others.  

Concrete thinking focuses on facts and information in the immediate present. This type of thinking is essential to master so that we can later develop more complex forms of thinking, like abstract thinking.

Abstract thinking goes deeper than the physical information. Abstract thinking allows us to make generalizations, contemplate philosophical concepts, and "think outside the box." Abstract thinking helps us understand metaphors, emotions, and abstract ideas like theoretical math. It can also be essential to humor, speaking figuratively, analyzing information, and putting information into perspective.

For example, if you said that you wanted to extend an olive branch to someone after a disagreement, a concrete thinker would focus on the olive branch as part of an olive tree. A more abstract thinker would understand that the olive branch represents a peace offering.

Psychologist Jean Piaget’s stages of cognitive development highlight how concrete thinking develops and evolves. We start concrete thinking as babies when using our senses and motor skills to discover the world. Concrete thinking also is prominently used from ages 2 to 11, although aspects of abstract thinking will also emerge during this time.

For instance, children begin thinking symbolically between the ages of two to seven, which is considered foundational for abstract thought. Children then start developing aspects of logical reasoning from ages seven to 11, although they still rely on concrete thinking.

Eventually, most people develop more abstract thinking throughout adolescence. Their ability to use more abstract reasoning expands and strengthens, allowing them to become skilled at understanding others, making inferences, analyzing, and generalizing information.

Most people develop both concrete thinking and abstract thinking through childhood and into adulthood. However, some developmental conditions and external injuries can cause people to have a more concrete style of thinking.

Conditions that can prevent or delay the development of abstract thinking include:

How significantly a condition impacts a person’s thinking skills can vary, especially in the case of autism spectrum disorders. 

When individuals rely too much on concrete thinking, it can be challenging for them to connect to certain situations or understand more complex aspects of social interactions. For instance, high-functioning individuals with autism often have difficulty navigating social exchanges. This may be related to difficulties in applying information to situations in their daily life. 

Relying too much on a concrete style of thinking may also impact:

Empathy: Concrete thinkers can have difficulty relating to what others feel. They might have difficulty understanding social cues correctly, including facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language.

Flexibility of thought: Concrete thinkers may struggle to apply information in novel or new ways. This approach can lead to misunderstandings with others, as the concrete thinker can’t move beyond a rigid or literal interpretation.

Creativity: Concrete thinkers may struggle to use their imaginations.

Concrete thinkers may also misunderstand or misinterpret certain styles of communication. For example, sarcasm and jokes may be confusing, since these rely on understanding and applying abstract ideas or plays on words. Metaphors and analogies also can lead to problems, as concrete thinkers may interpret the expressions literally and not understand the expression.

Most people need a combination of concrete and abstract thinking to function successfully in their day-to-day lives. Additionally, there are situations where a more concrete style of thinking can be beneficial.

For example, people trained to use a concrete approach when processing traumatic film clips are less likely to experience intrusive memories. 

This suggests that people who have jobs that expose them to trauma regularly may benefit from using a more concrete method of processing information. This style could potentially provide a protective feature and help prevent issues like intrusive memories and build resilience.

Helping people with depression use a more concrete thinking strategy when processing upsetting events may help ease their symptoms. This approach may help their tendency towards rumination, worrying, and over-thinking information.

Most people will find themselves using a combination of concrete and abstract thinking in their everyday life. Both approaches have their benefits. 

However, some conditions can inhibit a person’s ability to develop beyond a concrete thinking style. In those situations, communicating with them in concrete, specific terms can help.