Concrete Thinking

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Jean Piaget was a Swiss developmental psychologist who studied children in the early 20th century. Many branches of education and psychology use his theory of intellectual or cognitive development (1936). It focuses on children, from birth to adolescence, and characterizes different stages of development, including: language, morals, memory, and reasoning.


Through his work on child development, he named four stages:

  1. Sensorimotor

  2. Preoperational

  3. Concrete operational

  4. Formal operation


What is concrete thinking?

Concrete thinking is literal thinking that is focused on the physical world, which is the opposite of abstract thinking. People who engage in concrete thinking are usually focused on the facts of the here and now, physical objects, and literal definitions. Someone who thinks concretely may think that the term concrete thinking literally means thinking about concrete.

Concrete thinking is the first form of thinking that children master. Young babies think concretely, including not being able to understand that an object exists even if it is not physically present. The development of abstract thinking is gradual, with the first understood abstract concept usually being emotions. Later, they begin to understand theoretical math, metaphors, and philosophical concepts.


Concrete Thinking and Mental Health

When someone can only think concretely, it tends to inhibit their ability to learn, empathize, and relate to others. Understanding someone else’s viewpoint and being able to put yourself in their shoes is important in developing strong social skills. The inability to think abstractly is common in those who are diagnosed with developmental delays, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder. It is common for one diagnosed with autism to struggle with abstract thinking, empathy, and understanding others’ emotions. Head injuries and brain damage can also interfere with an individual’s ability to understand abstract thoughts.