The process by which we humans mentally elaborate and relate ideas about our surroundings is quite complex. It begins in our early years and progresses according to a series of determined stages and characteristics.

Among other things, this process allows us to develop two ways of thinking: one based on the physical objects of the world, which we call concrete thinking ; and the other established in mental operations, which we call abstract thinking.

In this article we will see what concrete thinking is and how it relates to or differs from abstract thinking.

What is concrete thought and how does it originate?

Concrete thinking is a cognitive process characterized by the description of facts and tangible objects. It is the type of thinking that is linked to real world phenomena, i.e. material objects. Concrete thinking allows us to generate general concepts about particular phenomena and to categorise them in a logical way.

In this area, the studies of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget on the stages of thought formation are classic. In broad terms, he analysed how cognitive processes develop from early childhood to adolescence.

From a biological, psychological and logical perspective, Piaget was interested in knowing how a child achieves his cognitive abilities . He proposed, among other things, that thought has patterns derived from genetic composition, which in turn are activated by sociocultural stimuli.

The latter are those that allow the person to receive and process information, with which, the psychological development is always active . From this, he proposed a series of stages, each qualitatively different from the others, and which allow the child to move towards a more complex form of understanding and organisation of knowledge.

Stage of the concrete operations

According to Piaget, concrete thinking takes place during the concrete operations stage, which occurs between the ages of 7 and 12. Here, the child is already able to perceive and discriminate between reality and appearances. He cannot do without reality and, unlike in previous stages, he begins to decentre his thinking, i.e., he gradually decreases self-centred thinking.

In addition, during this stage you can classify and report, for example, on the transformations of the states of matter. A series of logical comparisons thus occurs, allowing him to respond to stimuli in a way that is no longer conditioned by appearance, as in the previous stage, and begins to be determined by concrete reality .

In the area of mathematics, for example, the child is expected to be able to develop cognitive skills such as number retention, notions of substance, weight, volume and length, as well as spatial coordination. All the above are acquired once the child can describe objects based on their material composition .

In this sense, for learning to occur, the child must always have the object present: through his or her senses he or she establishes relationships that allow him or her to know reality. In this period, moreover it is still not possible for children to make hypotheses , nor is it possible for them to apply previously acquired learning to new situations (the latter belongs to abstract thinking).

Differences between concrete and abstract thinking

While concrete thinking is what allows us to process and describe the objects of the physical world, abstract thinking occurs through purely mental processes. The latter Piaget called “formal thinking” because it occurs at the “formal operations” stage, which occurs between the ages of 12 and 16. In addition to occurring at different times of development, concrete and abstract thinking have the following differences:

1. Deductive or inductive?

Abstract thinking is a deductive hypothetical thinking, which allows to build hypotheses without the need to test them empirically . In the case of concrete thought, the opposite occurs: knowledge can only be formulated through direct experience with the phenomenon or object; it is inductive type of thinking.

2. The general and the particular

Abstract thinking can go from the general to the particular, allowing the formulation of more general laws, theories and properties. Concrete thought operates in the opposite sense, it goes from the particular to the general. A broad or multidimensional phenomenon can only be understood and described by its particular characteristics .

3. Flexibility

Abstract thinking allows for openness to reflection and debate, and is therefore flexible. Concrete thought, on the other hand, being based on the tangible and the evident, does not allow for variations.

4. Complexity in the acquisition

Abstract thinking, as Piaget puts it, is acquired later than concrete thinking because it requires a more complex process. Although concrete thought is finally consolidated towards the end of childhood , throughout his development, the child acquires learning and psychological maturation only through direct experience with his environment. Abstract thinking only occurs after the need for purely empirical checks has been reached and satisfied.

Bibliographic references:

  • Fingermann, H. (2011). Concrete thinking. The guide. Retrieved July 26, 2018. Available at
  • Piaget, J. (1986). Evolutionary psychology. Madrid: Editorial Paidós
  • Pagés, J. (1998). La formación del pensamiento social, pp. 152-164. In Pijal Benejam and Joan Pagés, Enseñar y aprender ciencias sociales, geografía e historia en la educación secundaria. Barcelona: ICE/Horsori.