Concrete Thinking – 17 Important Facts (2024)

It’s one of the simplest forms of thinking. Yet one of the most misunderstood concrete ideas.

To break through the confusion, come with me to learn what you need to know about concrete thinking in this piece.

Let’s dive in!

1. What Do We Call Concrete Thinking?

Concrete thinking is the type of thinking that focuses on the physical objects, and experiences in the sense of what we hear, see, and sense. This mode of thinking also defines statements literally in their exact interpretations without metaphorical connections. 

Concrete Thinking
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Also called literal thinking or perceptive thinking, concrete thinking is the foundation of all thinking. It’s how a child starts to think from birth so that a more complex thinking can develop. The child learns about people based on what they see, do, or wear, pets from how they look, and so forth.

Let’s go further to understand more.

2. What Is Concrete vs Abstract Thinking

Concrete and abstract thinking are sometimes contrasted as concrete versus abstract processing styles by many people. But they’re merely different sides of the same coin.

Concrete thinking is processing immediate information or objects in basic, immediate concepts (like the size and color of an apple) while abstract thinking is the process of relating basic things with the big picture and forming complex ideas and generalizations around them (like how the apple is beneficial to the body plus what it produces when it ferments).

Concrete and abstract thinking can be explained by thinking too much and too little – check the following video to understand further these concepts:

3. Example of Perceptual or Concrete Thinking

To get a better grip on what concrete thinking means, check out these examples.

3. Example 1: We’re in the same boat

Think about it – you’re at the lake fishing and your cousin is talking to you about how Corona has affected his business. His experience is the same as yours so you remark, “We’re in the same boat my friend, we’re in the same boat.”

He looks at you puzzled at your supposed lack of empathy. “Of course, we’re in the same boat, I know I’m here with you. I’m talking about Covid’s effects on my business.” He replies.

You look at him surprised. And then you remember that he took it literally and you’re surprised for a second. “Ah no that’s an idiom for saying we’re in the same situation, I’ve also been struggling in my hustle since this Covid hit.”

“Ooh right! I took it literally, haha.” Your cousin laughs off his ignorance.

See, your cousin thought concretely here and came up with literal interpretations of being in the same boat, not knowing you were speaking in a metaphor.

4. Example 2: Take a seat

But concrete thinking isn’t only about taking idioms literally. Many slang phrases mean something different than their literal meaning.

For instance, when you tell someone to take a seat and they literally take the chair and hold it, they probably are thinking concretely. 

5. Example 3: Processing an experience

This example is less humorous and very important for developing emotional intelligence.

Instead of assuming what happened in the abusive home you were in, you go back to the place in your mind (as if physically present) and focus your mind on the exact memories of what happened.

To truly remember events and process the emotions attached to them you have to first detach from the emotions and remember what happened by hearing, seeing, and feeling the experience from your memory.

This is a remembering strategy therapists use to help their clients process trauma. It’s a form of concrete thinking strategy at work. 

While abstract reasoning can promote rumination of past traumatic events, concrete memory processing helps open a path in the brain to process the experience constructively and facilitate healing.

6. Concrete Thinking in Child Development

Jean Piaget, a Swiss developmental psychologist in the early 20th century came up with the Stages of Cognitive Development Theory that shows that a child operates only in concrete reasoning from birth until two years of age to ensure object permanence.

Even though they start thinking abstractly from age 2, literal thinking works most in their minds to develop foundational principles around how the world works in daily life. They mostly learn through their five senses, observing their surroundings and absorbing concrete information. 

From 2 to 7 years, they develop foundational abstract knowledge. They start developing logical reasoning from age 7 to 11 years old even though they still lean on concrete thinking strategy at this time.

When they hit adolescence, abstract thinking takes the lead, developing rapidly which helps the adolescent understand people’s emotions more, make generalizations around different ideas, process analyses, and make conclusions. This continues to adulthood, expanding according to one’s context.

Related: Ways To Learn Neutral Thinking

7. Concrete Thinking in Psychology

In the field of psychology, concrete thinking is vital for processing traumatic experiences and other events important in processing emotions.

Concrete Thinking in Psychology
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A psychologist/coach/therapist can help in developing abstract thinking skills in a client.

In depression cases where one is deep in negative and inaccurate abstract thought regarding a situation, concrete reasoning can help. 

But too much of it in adult life can stem from some developmental delays from birth due to intellectual disabilities or as a result of brain damage following head injuries.

Let’s explore all the relations of concrete thinking to modern psychology.

Related: 120+ Best Quotes For Overthinkers

8. Concrete thinking and cognitive development of abstract thinking

The concrete thinking process is the foundation of abstract thinking skills. Without the understanding of basic math, objects like chairs and their respective functions, and other basic concepts, developing abstract reasoning like theoretical math and philosophical concepts is challenging.

That’s why if a child has their concrete learning challenged by brain injury and mental disorders such as the  autism spectrum disorder, Attention Deficit Hyper-activity Disorder (ADHD), and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), their abstract reasoning skills development becomes challenging as well.

For this reason, people with mental disorders may find understanding others emotions and making some complex analyses difficult. 

9. Concrete thinking and depression

Depression mainly stems from rumination of negative thoughts which can be cultivated by too much generalization and assumptions all in the name of making conclusions. This is a downside of abstract thinking skills applied wrongly.

For instance, one may make one single mistake and brand themselves as useless. Of course, this came from abstractly overgeneralizing the mistake, connecting it to other instances of failure, which leads to a fallacy/irrational reasoning of total uselessness. The repetition of this fallacy causes major depression.

To deal with this, some researchers recommend concreteness training, a self-help treatment of depression where one can seek a concrete understanding of a recent upsetting event to show that the depressing abstract understanding is false.

This proved successful on a couple of subjects hence reliable for treating many people with mental health issues in the UK and beyond.

It all makes sense if you think about it. 

Even spirituality gurus recommend focusing on the here and now to cope with depression –  another way to say “think concretely”. This is to alleviate depression symptoms like negative thoughts and welcome the pleasing reality to be grateful for.

10. Concrete Thinking Schizophrenia – Concrete Thinking Psychiatry

In psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia, concrete reasoning is too limited since the individual is experiencing frequent states of abstract reasoning or in concrete terms, delusions.

A person suffering from schizophrenia is mostly unable to live in the physical world but instead operates in their own fantasy world full of abstract concepts separate from reality.

While this abstract thinking seems to prevent concrete thinking, it can also seem like they’re concrete thinkers since, in an absent-minded state, they might give a literal meaning of a phrase instead of its rightful metaphorical meaning.

For instance, if a schizophrenic student is experiencing one of their delusions and is asked what is the meaning of “raining cats and dogs,” they might reply in the form of literal raining of cats and dogs instead of its metaphorical meaning.

It’s counterintuitive, I know. But that’s the plight of schizophrenics.

11. What Does It Mean When Someone Is Concrete?

When someone is concrete, it means they think in immediate terms and don’t understand many things in broad concepts. They think about the literal definitions of things and functions but can’t reason creatively, or in other words “think outside the box.” They mostly exercise concrete thinking.

Related: 31 Signs You Are A Deep Thinker – Pros & Cons

12. Is It Bad to Be a Concrete Thinker?

It’s not an entirely bad thing to be a concrete thinker since it helps you live in the moment and therefore, enjoy things as they come and let go of negative thoughts and feelings faster. 

Related: Ways To Overcome Shallow Thinking

13. Benefits of Concrete Thinking

  • It helps reduce the depressing tendency to worry, overthink, ruminate, and come up with false philosophical concepts, plus inaccurate conclusions.
  •  It helps develop effective abstract thinking
  • Concrete thinking is one of the BEST Ways – How To Be A Quick Thinker
  • It helps you break down big ideas and situations more accurately
  • It helps thrive in primary care jobs like first responders due to less intrusive memories following analogue trauma

14. Risks of Concrete Thinking

When you rely too much on concrete thinking:

  • Navigating social exchanges is tough since you lack an understanding of abstract social cues such as facial expressions and body language
  • It limits your ability to connect with others through empathy
  • You’d lack significant creative imagination which helps “think outside the box”
  • You can be too inflexible to operate on non-literal information and therefore, cause frustration in others

15. How to Communicate With a Concrete Thinker

Now that you’ve learned the plight of concrete thinkers, how can you communicate with them effectively? Here are  some tips:

  • Specify details: Instead of saying, “I need this ASAP (As Soon As Possible), say, “I need this by 6 p.m tomorrow.”
  • Limit jokes because a concrete thinker might take your jokes literally: A statement like, “I need a slap to wake up from this nightmare,” can end up in you getting a slap from a concrete thinker.
  • Avoid artsy languages like metaphors, idioms, and sarcasm: You might end up with the wrong results if you talk to concrete thinkers in these expressions.
  • Use visual illustrations: When explaining some things, use photos and other literal interpetations to help the concrete thinker understand what you mean.
  • Expect differences in your understanding and seek to learn: When you identify concrete thinkers, instead of forcing your way, seek to understand how they interpret things
  • Be direct as much as possible: Say what you mean and mean what you say

16. How to Improve Your Concrete Thinking

Are you more of an abstract thinker? It’s okay. You can still improve on your literal thinking.

Improve Your Concrete Thinking
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But why? You may wonder.

The main reasons abstract thinkers should learn concrete thinker strategies are:

  • To ruminate less on negative thoughts
  • To identify concrete details so as to come up with accurate conclusions in critical thinking
  • To become more of a quick thinker due to lessened abstract thoughts like intrusive memories
  • Developing strong social skills for one more abstract thinker and even concrete ones

Here’s how to develop more concrete thinking as an abstract thinker:

  • Stop rumination on its tracks
  • Practice mindfulness
  • When solving problems, choose to lay down concrete details first
  • Involve a therapist or coach for professional advice 

Learn more in this resource for a  Person Who Thinks All The Time – Ways To Coach.

17. Concrete Thinking Is Consciousness

Coming to think of it, concrete thinking is consciousness.

Instead of getting lost in abstract ideas, literal thinking helps us focus on what we’re experiencing in the physical world, here and now. This helps us enjoy the moment more and stay grateful and as a result it improves our mental health for more happiness and productivity.

Related: Detail Oriented vs Big Picture – Strategies To Keep The Balance

What’s The Balance? Wrapping Up

Concrete thinking is great. But we need a balance. 

It’s best to cut down on abstract thinking whenever it derails our productivity and turn on concrete thinking. While using abstract ideas from time to time, our concrete everyday life would be more balanced. 

What do you say? Let’s talk in the comments! Also share this piece with a friend if you loved it.

Thanks for stopping by!

About The Author

Bijan Kholghi is a certified life coach with the Milton Erickson Institute Heidelberg (Germany). He helps clients and couples reach breakthroughs in their lives by changing subconscious patterns. His solution-oriented approach is based on Systemic- and Hypnotherapy.