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What is Concrete Thinking?

Tricia Christensen
By
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Concrete thinking in its most literal form would be thinking about the stuff that gets poured onto sidewalks. That is something of a joke, but it illustrates the nature of thinking in concrete terms. The idea of “concrete” stands for literal, right now, and immediate, and yet a person who sees the world only in concrete terms would likely have difficulty understanding the abstract nature of its definition. In fact concrete and abstract are often contrasted to each other, where abstract thinking is idea based, able to move to more figurative definitions, and likely to be able to understand conceptual knowledge that exists outside of the moment.

In human development, most individuals begin thinking in concrete ways. This is easily illustrated with infants. If an infant is playing with a toy and the toy is suddenly covered with a blanket, the baby is likely to think the toy is gone: out of sight, out of mind. It takes a while for the baby to realize that the toy is still there if not seen, and this is the beginning of the ability to think in abstract ways.

Still, most children won’t be particularly abstract in their thinking for many years, and will view things in literal ways for a long time to come. As they age, they develop different levels of facility for being abstract thinkers, and some will become very skilled at conceptualizing, while others will retain a more concrete thinking bent.

While most people have the ability to think concretely and abstractly, there are some circumstance where facility to think concretely becomes absent. Certain mental disorders are characterized by a person’s inability to demonstrate concrete thinking and see things from a literal perspective. This is true of any mental illness that causes delusions, such as schizophrenia. At times these delusions create an almost totally abstract world that makes brushes with the concrete rare or difficult. Given medication, many people are able to return to more concrete ways of thinking, but while fully delusional, it can be deeply challenging to interpret a person’s thoughts; they range too far from the concrete.

Similarly, conditions like dementia may cause periods of abstractness, where ability to think in concrete terms is hampered. Alternately, some people are unable to develop abstract thinking due to inadequate brain development or they lose this facility as a result of illness or brain injury. They may remain in a concrete thinking state and be unable to think in abstract terms. There are psychological tests that can gauge ability of abstract and concrete thinking, which might be used to determine certain conditions or treatment. Yet leaning toward a more abstract or concrete thinking style is not, in itself, abnormal.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon992990 — On Oct 16, 2015

I have sometimes extreme difficulties with concrete reality.

Even subjects like physics were hard to comprehend, not because of its mathematical representation, but the issue of understanding what forces interact with an object. It was very hard for me to grasp mechanics before I learned some differential calculus.

I hated how the study of languages involved texts in real life experiences. It made me totally uninterested in it. I can use English somewhat because scientific literature made me to learn it.

I don't do well in workplaces that require attention to my environment. Getting some work experience is valuable, but I don't do well in concrete environments. I would get fired almost instantly. Not because I'm not trying to be conscientious.

Life has been a very hard experience for me.

By anon354954 — On Nov 12, 2013

I was an English major, too in college. I was fascinated by the ideas we discussed, but the more abstruse and divorced from reality concepts became, the more I just wanted to scream! If an idea utterly lacks connection to the real world, what use is it? What I have found is, if you think of something carefully enough, you can make concrete connections from even rather abstract ideas. Like a very wise professor once said to me, if you cannot explain something to your grandparents, you really do not understand it.

By anon354953 — On Nov 12, 2013

People often call us "concrete thinkers" because their own reasoning skills are inadequate or they are a little evasive, and they don't like the reality testing that concreteness brings to a discussion. I'm fed up with people telling me I'm a "concrete thinker," as if it were something to be worked on. It always happens when I catch someone in an inconsistency, or when I insist on clarifying a work related procedure that doesn't make sense, but for which I will be held accountable.

By anon315075 — On Jan 21, 2013

@angelBraids: Try philosophizing through the interpretation of famous literature and work on finding symbols, making connections, etc. Some good literature is: "Heart of Darkness," "Waiting for Godot" and anything by Kurt Vonnegut. Marijuana and hallucinogenics have worked for me, but drugs are not for everyone.

By Penzance356 — On May 10, 2011

I remember having a birthday party when I was a child, I think I was about seven or eight. After games and presents we had a lovely tea with cakes, sandwiches and cookies. After everyone left I asked my mother what time we were having dinner. She laughed and told me that we had already had it.

For the life of me I couldn't figure out that the party food was instead of dinner! I think it was a few years after that before I realized how weird my question must have sounded.

By MissMuffet — On May 09, 2011

@angelBraids - I studied psychology and found this whole topic of personality traits really fascinating. I don't think that it is something you can change in a major way, but perhaps you shouldn't want to!

There are plenty of famous concrete thinkers who are excellent role models. I know Donald Trump and Simon Cowell are both in this category. Perhaps the reason they've both been so successful is their ability to keep things real, and in the moment.

I would say it's better to spend your time and energy on working with what you have rather than trying to be something you're not.

By angelBraids — On May 07, 2011

This article is really interesting to me because recently someone told me I should stop being such a concrete thinker! I didn't really get what they meant until I read this.

Now I'd like to become more abstract, but I'm not sure if that's possible. Is this just a way of see-ing the world that we are born with and cannot be changed?

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen

Writer

With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia...
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