Abstract thinking is a type of higher-order reasoning about symbolic or hypothetical ideas and principles. It involves conceptualizing problems, extrapolating outcomes, and arriving at logical and rational conclusions on topics that are often intangible.
It sometimes involves sorting, categorizing and calculating data to interpret and condense complex issues into more meaningful and easily understood conceptual frameworks.
Examples of abstract thinking include conceptualization, extrapolation, counterfactual thinking, moral reasoning, and creativity.
Abstract thinking is far more difficult to perform than rote memorization of information or facts. The ability to engage in abstract thinking represents an advanced stage of cognitive development. Not everyone is capable of abstract thinking, as each individual possesses their own unique skillsets and intellectual abilities.
Abstract Thinking Examples
- Abstract debate: Javier likes to debate with his colleagues about the pros and cons of investing in countries with spotty human rights records.
- Metaphysical thought: Danielle’s apartment is full of crystals and glass triangles because she believes those items can attract positive cosmic energy.
- Digging beneath the surface: Gabriella rejects dating men that are only interested in pursuing physical relationships; instead, she is looking for a partner for life that understands the value of commitment.
- Sociological imagination: Jamal strives to understand how society works on a macro-sociological level rather than just relying on his own personal experiences to come to conclusions.
- Political theory: Sam likes to engage others in political debate about the pros and cons of capitalism versus communism.
- Artistry: Jensen is a skilled artist, though not everyone knows how to interpret his paintings. This is fine with him because he believes the meaning of his art rests uniquely within each individual.
- Social justice thinking: Amanda is determined to make the world a better place by helping the misfortunate and disadvantaged in society because she believes they deserve it.
- Introspection: Mary enjoys writing poetry about the meaning of life and how to connect with your inner self.
- Working with theories: Mika rejects the behaviorist/operant conditioning view of child development and is an avid proponent of functionalism.
- Mindfulness: Mr. Kim enjoys meditating early in the morning at sunrise and often wraps his arms around large old tress to absorb their energy.
Abstract Thinking Examples in the Workplace
- Working around problems: An engineer saw that the bridge his company was trying to build across a valley was going to be too expensive. So, he brainstormed a new idea: they would build a tunnel instead.
- Complex problem-solving: Annette saw that her workplace’s manual procedures were inefficient, so she wrote code for a new automated procedure that no one else had thought about before.
- Thinking from others’ perspectives: Justine is the founder of a tech start-up and has included priorities related to helping the disadvantaged in her company’s mission statement.
- Working on abstract ways to improve productivity: Gabriella is the HR Director of a large corporation and is trying to develop activities that will improve employee morale.
- Capacity to work around conflict: Harry is a master of conflict resolution. He can pinpoint the underlying issue when team members are quarreling and knows exactly what to say to ease tensions.
- Thinking ahead: Matthew has been working on a detailed budget for his department that includes the equipment his team will need to complete their projects.
- Artistic thinking: Melinda enjoys creating logos that convey a company’s type of business and also makes it easy for people to remember the company’s name.
- Strategic thinking: Mr. Jones has a talent for strategic planning. He is able to anticipate what markets will look like several years out and make sure his company is prepared well in advance.
Case Studies of Abstract Thinking
1. Industrial Design
Industrial design is a process of creating the design of a physical product that will be manufactured in mass. It is a highly creative endeavor that involves determining and defining the product’s form and key features.
An industrial designer carefully examines the function and form of a product and how it will connect with the user and environment. This level of analysis involves thinking in the abstract, even though the item of design is physical.
Although they don’t design motors or the mechanisms that make machines operate, designers are involved in technical aspects related to usability and human interface. Their work also incorporates marketing considerations such as consumer preferences, aesthetics and user profiles.
Fourth order design is an aspect of industrial design that requires more advanced abstract thinking skills. It involves the designer considering a broader array of issues surrounding the product, such as socio-politics, sustainability and impact on ecology.
2. Counterfactual Thinking
Counterfactual thinking is considering how the past might have been different. For example, reimaging how you could have acted differently in a job interview that would have changed what happened. Perhaps you could have said something differently or responded to the employer’s comments more cleverly, which would have then changed the outcome completely.
There are two types of counterfactual thought processes: downward and upward. Downward counterfactual thinking is when a person considers how the situation could have been worse than it actually was. This can produce positive emotions such as relief or satisfaction.
Upward counterfactual thinking is when a person considers how the situation could have been handled better. This usually leads to negative emotions such as regret or guilt.
Pondering hypothetical situations and examining various possible outcomes are examples of abstract thinking.
3. Moral Reasoning
Moral reasoning refers to how people consider issues of right and wrong, and analyzing the factors that impact a given situation. That analysis leads to a determination of which course of action is morally acceptable, or not.
One of the most prominent scholars in the study of moral reasoning is Lawrence Kohlberg (1958). He studied the development of moral reasoning in children and adults by describing a moral dilemma and asking his subjects to explain their reasoning. He was more interested in their rationale than in their final conclusion.
At younger ages, children’s understanding of right and wrong is very concrete and centered on the issue of rules and consequences. If a behavior is rewarded, then it is good. If it is punished, it is bad.
However, as human beings grow and their cognitive development progresses, their thinking becomes more abstract. According to Kohlberg’s theory, at the highest level of moral reasoning, the determination of what is right or wrong is based on universal ethical principles.
People at this stage conclude that society’s laws may or may not be morally just. Laws may actually be considered immoral because they fail to uphold the universal rights of individuals.
4. Installation Art
Perhaps one of the best examples of abstract thinking comes in the form of installation art. This is visual artwork that involves a wide variety of materials and locations. In can occur in a gallery or outside on a city street or park. There really are no limits.
It differs from other three-dimensional artwork in that it incorporates the changing points of view that occur as the viewer moves around the piece. Often, viewers can interact with installation and sometimes even participate in the piece itself. It may contain mixed media as well, such as audio and dynamic visual images.
Sometimes the goal is for viewers to undergo an experience that is transformative and lead to a new realization of an important societal or global issue.
The creator of the installation must consider the effects of their work on viewers and incorporate design elements that allow them to connect with the piece and its transformative goals. This requires perspective taking, dealing with the hypothetical, and trying to anticipate the emotional and cognitive experiences of others.
Installation art is an excellent example of abstract reasoning in practice.
5. A Futurist
A futurist is a person that predicts what will happen in the future. Although it may sound a bit like a glorified reading of crystal balls, their methods are a little more rationale. They start with an acute understanding of history, combined with the ability to examine existing trends. By synthesizing societal, industrial, and geopolitical matters, a futurist then formulates extrapolations regarding the future.
Large corporations might consult with a futurist to provide insights on possible business opportunities. Those insights might lead to the innovation of a new product or service. Anything that can improve a company’s competitive edge is worth pursuing.
Futurists might also consult with the head of state or high-ranking government officials that would like another perspective on geo-political matters, economic trajectories, or even potentially dangerous security threats.
A futurist must have substantial abstract reasoning skills; their work is completely immersed in the hypothetical. Click here to learn about how one futurist got his start.
Strengths of Abstract Thinking
1. Solving Complex Problems
One primary strength of abstract reasoning is that it allows a person to solve quite complex issues. Problems that are intricate and contain numerous interconnected factors require an analysis that is deliberative and methodical.
A person must be capable of looking at the issue from a myriad of angles and perspectives, while extrapolating various paths that could or could not have substantially different ramifications.
This type of problem-solving requires the highest level of abstract reasoning.
2. Developing a Just Society
Abstract reasoning has allowed societies to evolve to be just and fair. The consideration of all people as being created equal and deserving of equal opportunities has been the foundation for the advancement of civilization.
Abstract reasoning was the impetus for the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., gender equality in many nations, and the overthrow of the British Empire. Modern legal systems in democratic nations are rooted in the principle of fairness that guarantees every individual a right to a fair trial.
These developments would have never occurred were it not for the human capacity of abstracting reasoning.
The creation of great marketing and advertising campaigns, or the innovation of science and technology stem from abstract reasoning.
The ability to think in the hypothetical is the first step of invention; the capacity to use metaphors and symbolism allows for ads that create great impact on customers; and the exercise of imagination is what makes great directors that are able to produce films that can stir viewers to great sadness or inspiration.
Perhaps one of the biggest weaknesses of abstract thinking is that it takes place in the realm of the imagination. Although that is necessary for artistic creativity and scientific innovation, it is done so outside the realm of reality.
Great thinkers that produce great things often find that what they want to create and what is practically feasible exist in two different worlds. To imagine is one thing, but to actually produce is often a completely different matter, and sometimes simply not possible.
Catastrophizing is a cognitive distortion that involves imagining the worst possible outcome of a situation. Instead of thinking realistically about what may happen in the future, which should be based on the past, a person can jump to conclusions and only think of the worst possible scenario.
This is the downside of being a person with abstract reasoning skills. One cannot imagine so much negativity without considering the hypothetical and extrapolating possible outcomes, both hallmarks of abstract thinking.
Related Thinking Processes
Abstract thinking has allowed human beings to make incredible advancements. It has produced amazing scientific and technological inventions. It has allowed societies to evolve to be more just and fair for all citizens. Abstract thinking is also behind great works of art and literature.
Unfortunately, abstract thinking also has its limitations. For the scientist, their great powers of abstraction often occur in a world that simply doesn’t exist. In order to take that thought and make it materialize into something that is useful requires coming back down to Earth and dealing with the concrete.
For some individuals, the ability to think abstractly is also related to their tendency to think catastrophically. Instead of having realistic expectations about what may occur in the future, some people are trapped in a preoccupation of the negative; they can only imagine the worst possible outcome.
Although there are pros and cons with everything, abstract thinking has probably resulted in far greater benefits than tragedies.
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