Abstract thinking skills are essential to succeed in the workplace. Yes, we all have abstract thinking skills, but they’re of varying degrees. Certain jobs require a higher level of abstract thinking skills.

Abstract thinking helps us solve problems, make evaluations and select the right team. To give an example of abstract thinking, how does an HR Head reviewing two candidates with similar resumes make a selection? They probably observe the two candidates during their interviews and deduce their personality types, which involves using abstract thinking skills.


  1. Meaning Of Abstract Thinking

  2. Concrete Vs. Abstract Thinking

  3. Examples Of Abstract Thinking

  4. Development Of Abstract Thinking

  5. How To Improve Abstract Thinking

  6. Training With Harappa


So, let’s understand the meaning of abstract thinking.


Meaning Of Abstract Thinking

 Abstract thinking is a way of reasoning—a systematic approach to problem-solving that involves conceptualizing, making generalizations and arriving at conclusions. In abstract thinking, we process information received through our senses and try to connect it to the world.

Here’s another example of abstract thinking: two supervisors have been asked to inspect 100 boxes of mangoes to see if they’ve ripened. Supervisor A checks 10 mangoes per box. If he finds them ripe, he assumes the rest are too and finishes his task in 10 minutes. Supervisor B checks every mango in every box.

 From the above abstract thinking example, it’s clear Supervisor A is able to identify a pattern, whereas Supervisor B painstakingly adopts the longer route.

 The opposite of abstract thinking is concrete thinking, which is also sometimes called literal thinking. To better understand the meaning of abstract thinking, let’s look at the difference between the two.


Concrete Vs. Abstract Thinking

 Concrete thinking is reasoning based on what you can see, hear, feel and experience in the present moment. It’s sometimes called literal thinking because it focuses on the exact meaning of things. A concrete thinker will think of specific steps in a task and ‘how’ they’ll perform it, unconcerned about anything beyond the assigned task. An abstract thinker will want to know the ‘why’ behind the task.

 Abstract thinking means possessing the ability to comprehend concepts that aren’t directly tethered to concrete, physical objects or experiences but are ‘invisible’, such as wisdom or strength. They can conceptualize without the need to see or touch. Abstract thinking is considered part of higher-order reasoning. People who think abstractly can analyze situations, understand concepts, innovate and formulate theories. They’re usually good at:


  • Solving complex problems
  • Creating art of all types
  • Coming up with innovative solutions


However, a combination of both abstract and concrete thinking skills is required in a work environment for creativity and productivity. Organizations can select the right people for a task, depending on the type of thinking they veer toward.

 Abstract skills are valued not only in the workplace but also in educational institutions. The study of languages is an example of abstract thinking because it entails the expression of abstract concepts. So do science and math, which involve testing hypotheses and theories.


Examples Of Abstract Thinking

 The meaning of abstract thinking can be best expressed through examples.

A wonderful example of abstract thinking is humor. A person sharing a joke is usually able to find connections between seemingly unrelated things.

 Let’s have a look at some more examples to get a better idea of the meaning of abstract thinking. A storyteller who can visualize the whole narrative before they start writing it has strong abstract thinking skills. The ability to envision the whole picture without relying solely on existing knowledge is very useful in an organization. It enables one to think critically and find creative solutions to problems.

 But, are people born with this ability or is it developed? Jean Piaget, a renowned Swiss psychologist, explained that the development of abstract thinking begins in childhood. According to Piaget, abstract thinking skills develop as children get older, interact with their environment and learn from new experiences.

 Let’s now look at Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development to understand the development of abstract thinking.


Development Of Abstract Thinking

 According to Piaget, abstract thinking develops throughout the course of childhood—from birth through adolescence to early childhood. Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development identifies four distinct stages of intellectual development during childhood. They are:


  • Birth—around two years: Babies think only concretely. They think about what they can observe. They lack object permanence, which means that an object ceases to exist for them if they can’t see or hear it. So, if they can’t hear or see the rattle, they will not remember it.
  •  Two—seven years: Children start to understand symbols, which is when, according to Piaget, abstract thinking starts to develop in them. For example, they begin to understand that A is for Apple and realize that things that aren’t physically in front of them can exist.
  •  Seven—eleven years: Children are capable of logical reasoning, though their thinking still remains ‘concrete’ and connected to what they directly experience through their five senses.
  •  Twelve—adulthood: According to Piaget, abstract thinking skills come into their own in this period. This is the stage where the full development of abstract thinking takes place. For example, individuals learn how to empathize and put themselves in another’s shoes. Being able to think about hypothetical situations, they start making plans for the future.


The core idea of Piaget’s theory is that intellectual development in children is not a quantitative process achieved by adding knowledge. As they grow older, there is a qualitative change in their thinking. According to Piaget, abstract thinking naturally develops as children begin to interact with the people and objects around them. The question then arises: Does the development of abstract thinking stop in adulthood?


How To Improve Abstract Thinking

 Yes, it’s possible to improve abstract thinking skills, which in turn enhance your ability to solve problems, understand and share complex concepts and get more involved in creative activities. Once you know how to improve abstract thinking skills, you can make a conscious effort to practice them.

 Activities that involve recognizing patterns, analyzing ideas, synthesizing information, solving problems and creating things help improve abstract thinking skills. Extempore theatre, playing with puzzles, optical illusions, creating models, writing poetry and all forms of art train the mind to think in multiple ways beyond the obvious. Abstract skills are also domain-specific. Research has shown those in the field of science can improve their abstract thinking abilities by pursuing art-related activities. Metaphors and analogies also stimulate abstract thinking as they connect the concrete to the abstract. So, abstract thinking is not really abstract but a matter of creating connections, a matter of training.

Training With Harappa

Harappa’s Thinking Critically course helps professionals, managers and team leaders think through situations before making decisions, engage with opposing views to evaluate all possible outcomes and articulate the reasons behind their decisions. Strengthen your problem-solving skills and grow as a leader with Harappa. Sign up today!

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