Picture this: a noisy middle-school classroom in which a teacher has just given the instruction, “Everybody hop up and change seats with your neighbor.”
Most of the students stand, move to another spot, and sit back down. But one kid is actually hopping. He’s actually going to take his neighbor’s chair. That kid might be the class clown, but he also might be a concrete thinker. He’s taking the teacher’s instructions literally.
Concrete thinking is reasoning that’s based on what you can see, hear, feel, and experience in the here and now. It’s sometimes called literal thinking, because it’s reasoning that focuses on physical objects, immediate experiences, and exact interpretations.
Concrete thinking is sometimes described in terms of its opposite: abstract thinking. This is the ability to consider concepts, make generalizations, and think philosophically.
Concrete thinking is a necessary first step in understanding abstract ideas. First, we observe and consider what our experiences are telling us, and then we can generalize.
All people experience concrete thinking. According to noted psychologist Jean Piaget, babies and young children go through predictable stages of cognitive development during which they gradually move from concrete to abstract thinking.
From their earliest moments, babies are constantly observing their environments, learning primarily through their five senses.
As they grow, they learn that they can interact with objects and people, getting predictable results: Shake the rattle and a noise happens. Toss the spoon to the floor, and someone picks it up.
At this early developmental stage — from birth through about age 2 — babies and toddlers think in terms of what they can observe.
Babies lack object permanence — the idea that an object continues to exist even if we can’t see or hear it. If the ball drops behind the couch, to an infant or toddler, it is gone.
As children mature, they begin to think symbolically. A hand signal represents the idea of “more” or “milk.” They learn to express their desires with words, which are audible symbols of thought.
Gradually, from the age of 2 to 7, they begin to develop the ability to reason and predict.
Elementary school years
From around the age of 7 until approximately age 11, children still rely heavily on concrete thinking, but their ability to understand why others act the way they do expands. Child psychologists think this stage is the beginning of abstract thinking.
From age 12 into adolescence, children gradually develop the capacity to analyze, extrapolate, generalize, and empathize.
Adolescence and adulthood
As we mature, we gain experience. We’re increasingly able to generalize about the things we’ve seen and heard. We use our concrete personal experiences and observations to form hypotheses, to predict, to consider alternatives, and to plan.
It’s at this stage that most people become skilled at inferring what other people will think and feel in a given situation.
Some conditions can cause delays in the development of abstract thinking. People with these conditions may rely heavily on concrete thinking, limiting their ability to think abstractly and perhaps affecting the way they socialize. Some of these conditions include:
- autism spectrum disorder
- brain injury, whether traumatic or medical
- intellectual disability
These studies didn’t find or imply that intelligence was lower, just that these particular abstract reasoning skills were a challenge.
People whose thinking is very concrete may find some situations or tasks harder as a result. These might include:
- Empathy. The ability to understand what other people feel and need requires you to be able to look and interpret facial expressions, body language, words, tones, and behaviors in a social context. Some people who think concretely may not read these social signals accurately.
- Creativity. Concrete thinkers may have difficulty problem-solving or creating things as abstract thinking and imagination may be required.
- Flexibility. Concrete thinkers sometimes stick to literal interpretations and rigid behaviors, and this inflexibility may cause some conflict with other people.
How to communicate with a concrete thinker
If someone in your life has a condition that makes them prone to concrete thinking, you can communicate more effectively with these tips:
- Avoid idioms, metaphors, and analogies. A person who thinks concretely, for example, might not understand expressions like “the ball is in your court” or “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
- Be as specific as possible. It’s better to say, “This must be finished by 5 p.m. on Wednesday” than to say, “I need this as soon as possible.”
- Use photographs or illustrations. These literal objects may help you explain.
- Limit jokes and sarcasm. These forms of communicating can be hard to explain because they often rely on abstract ideas and plays on words.
- Anticipate differences in the ability to compare, categorize, and contrast. A concrete thinker might group things in concrete ways: When looking at photos of a wheelbarrow, a rake, and a hoe, a concrete thinker might point to a shared characteristic instead of describing the general function, “They all have wooden handles,” rather than, “You can use them all in the garden.”
Researchers have found that training people to think concretely can actually help in some situations.
During a trauma, your ability to cope may be enhanced if you’ve been trained to think through what’s actually happening, to examine the concrete causes, and to repeat the steps you need to take to resolve the problem or get out of danger.
After a trauma, thinking concretely about these same things has been shown to help people build resilience and lessen the number of intrusive memories.
In a 2011 study, people with depression were asked to think about a recent upsetting event. Researchers instructed the study participants to break down the event into concrete details and consider how those details influenced the outcome.
Participants who used this concrete thinking strategy had reduced depression symptoms afterward. Researchers concluded that training in concrete thinking helped to counteract the depressive tendency to ruminate, worry, and come to unhealthy, inaccurate conclusions.
If you believe more concrete thinking could help you ruminate and worry less, talk to a therapist about exercises you could do to strengthen your concrete thinking abilities.
Your therapist may work with you to develop a step-by-step process for looking at the warning signs, sensory details, decisions, and specific actions that took place during a negative event.
By analyzing the concrete details, you can discover opportunities to change the outcome of future events. When faced with similar circumstances, you can activate the concrete thinking process to better handle the event.
Concrete thinking can:
- help you process and learn from traumatic experiences
- reduce the symptoms of depression by stopping you from overgeneralizing
Concrete thinking may also:
- prevent you from understanding some forms of communication, such as humor, irony, idioms, and figurative language
- limit your ability to empathize with others
Concrete thinking is a kind of reasoning that relies heavily on what we observe in the physical world around us. It’s sometimes called literal thinking.
Young children thinking concretely, but as they mature, they usually develop the ability to think more abstractly.
Thinking concretely is one of the hallmarks of autism spectrum disorder, dementia, schizophrenia, brain injuries, and some intellectual disabilities.
People whose thinking is solely concrete may have some difficulties in social situations, but concrete reasoning does have some benefits. It may actually help some people cope with depression and trauma.