Have you ever interpreted an instruction quite literally that you were the only one who did something different in the room?
Perhaps, you felt strange at that time while all the attention was on you.
Being a concrete thinker is a gift, but in extreme cases, it could also hold you back from reaching your goals.
That’s why we need to learn how to strike a balance between concrete thinking and abstract reasoning.
Concrete vs. Abstract Thinking
Concrete and abstract thinking are two different types of reasoning that allow us to view situations from different perspectives.
You might ask: so what’s the difference?
In simple terms, concrete thinking is the complete opposite of abstract reasoning.
When you think literally, it means you use literal definitions, physical objects, and facts.
With abstract reasoning, you go beyond literal thinking, especially when you’re presented with new and unfamiliar situations.
The Concrete Thinkers
Pause for a moment, and think hard…
Try to recall the time when you told someone that it’s “raining cats and dogs,” and they began anticipating for real cats and dogs to fall from the sky.
Or perhaps, when they heard the idiom, “bite the bullet,” and believed that somebody actually bit one?
Can you recall somebody who takes everything literally?
Maybe they have a hard time interpreting what “break a leg” means or “needle in a haystack,” or even “fall in line”…
If so, that person could be a concrete thinker, who’s subconsciously fixated on the physical world.
To put it simply, concrete thinkers often have a hard time understanding metaphors which is why they could hardly “read between the lines.”
The Abstract Thinkers
On the other side of the spectrum, abstract thinking refers to how we humans think about intangible things. It allows us to imagine and think beyond what we can see, hear, touch, and taste.
Abstract thinkers, unlike literal thinkers, usually consider metaphors and analogies in an attempt to understand the world. That’s why some of them can “read” other people’s personalities and intentions solely by observing and interpreting verbal and non-verbal social cues.
Moreover, abstract thinkers have the ability to envision an entire object without seeing the entirety of it. When put into practice on a regular basis, abstract thinkers evolve as critical thinkers over time. They can develop their reasoning skills, too, faster than their counterparts.
People who lack abstract reasoning skills often have a hard time using their imagination. Or they might find it difficult to develop an understanding of other people’s emotions — much less empathy.
Unfortunately, some conditions delay or prevent abstract thinking. Intellectual disabilities, dementia, schizophrenia, or even traumatic injuries are some of the few culprits.
What is concrete thinking?
Concrete thinking, also called literal thinking, is a type of reasoning that focuses on immediate experiences and physical objects.
In other words, if you’re the kind of person who leans more towards concrete thinking, you base your reasoning solely on what you could sense physically – on what you feel, hear, see or experience altogether.
You’d probably be surprised to know that the initial form of reasoning we develop as humans is concrete thinking. It happens during the early stages of our childhood — to allow our developing brains to process and understand the existence of physical things around us.
Development for concrete reasoning is usually gradual and happens as early as the infancy stage. But as babies grow older and wiser, they begin to interpret symbols, metaphors, and even philosophical concepts.
The benefits of concrete thinking
Concrete thinking is not an entirely bad thing as it helps us shape how we perceive the world around us.
By knowing how to think concretely, we can separate our thoughts from our emotions and begin to see things as they really are. It can be beneficial in certain circumstances, too.
According to a study, first responders, who have undergone concrete thinking training, experience fewer encroaching memories from traumatic experiences.
In another study, people suffering from depression were asked to re-examine and analyze a recent upsetting event. Those who used concrete thinking were able to reduce their symptoms of depression. Concrete thinking reduced the subjects’ depressive tendencies to worry, overthink and draw inaccurate conclusions.
These are only a couple of examples of how concrete thinking can be beneficial to those who tend to ruminate and worry.
When faced with any traumatic experience, it is said that it’s easier to cope if you can think objectively as it helps build resilience and significantly reduces intrusive memories. Concrete reasoning, therefore, can be a vital survival skill.
The risks of thinking too concretely
As mentioned earlier, concrete thinking is great in some situations, but it can also be detrimental in some cases.
One of the most important factors in social skill development is understanding another person’s point of view while putting yourself in their shoes.
But too much reliance on concrete thinking could inhibit your ability to empathize, relate to other people, and learn.
The cons of too much concrete thinking include:
- Overlooking other people’s social signals, such as body language, facial expression, behavior, among others;
- Becoming devoid of empathy towards others;
- The Lack of imagination;
- The tendency to focus more on rigid behaviors and literal interpretations;
- Inflexibility may cause conflicts among different people;
Things to keep in mind when dealing with a concrete thinker
If you tell a concrete thinker that something needs to be done as soon as possible, they might end up misunderstanding what you truly mean. Rather, it is best to provide an exact date and time when you want the task to be completed.
Limiting sarcasm and jokes is also important when communicating with a concrete thinker. As mentioned earlier, it’s difficult for them to understand abstract ideas. They don’t play with words, so they might take everything literally.
What to do when you lack concrete thinking skills
If you’re experiencing some challenges in concrete thinking, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s nothing you can do about it.
Even if you’re more of an abstract thinker, you can train your brain to be better at thinking concretely! The goals are simple: for you to worry less and transform those inaccurate assumptions into concepts that you can explore rationally.
In fact, here are some things you can do to improve your concrete thinking skills:
Talk to your therapist.
Nobody gives better mental health advice other than your trusted therapist. After all, they understand you and your condition better than anyone else. They might even give you some exercises tailor-fit for you, so you can unlock your concrete thinking skills.
Take a few tests.
Trying to make sense of all that’s going on in your brain is a tall order. But one way to do this is to take some tests. Speak with your therapist so you would know which tests are more appropriate for you.
Make an effort to analyze concrete details.
One of the most common problems for people, when they’re learning a new skill, is that they don’t make an effort to use it. The same goes with literal thinking.
You need to use your concrete thinking skills regularly so you can keep honing them. Remember, the brain is a muscle. The more you use it, the better it gets!
How to develop your abstract thinking skills
Taking everything literally can sometimes affect the way you engage with others. So, if you’re motivated to change that for the better, here are a few things you can do to boost your abstract thinking skills:
- Talk more to people and try to understand their perspectives;
- Empathize with others and try to walk in their shoes;
- Travel to different places, and experience different cultures to get new ideas, experiences, and perspectives.
- Consult a mental health expert and seek some advice about how you can improve your abstract thinking skills.
Concrete thinking can be beneficial if you use it to grasp things and situations that are meant to be understood objectively.
But always remember that to make the most out of your life, you need to be able to strike a balance between concrete and abstract thinking.
If you can put yourself in the shoes of others, and still be able to think objectively, then you’re on the right track.
I hope you learned a few things from this. So, what do you think?
If you can choose between being an abstract thinker or a concrete thinker, which would you rather be?
Let me know in the comments below!
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