What is Thinking in Psychology? 7 Different Types of Thinking

The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines thinking as “cognitive behaviour in which ideas, images, mental representations and other such hypothetical elements of thought are experienced or manipulated.” Thinking is both a covert and a symbolic process that allows us to form psychological associations and create models to understand the world. It is considered a covert process seeing as our thoughts, and the processes behind their formation are not directly observable. It is understood as symbolic because thinking operates using mental symbols and representation (“APA Dictionary of Psychology”, n.d.).

What is Thinking and Types of Thinking in Psychology

The three primary elements of thought are – concepts, signs/symbols, and brain functions. Concepts are ideas and notions that arise in the mind when we are presented with objects or information. For example, if we were to hear the word “dog”, we would not only think of the animal but also the concepts that the animal represents (loyalty, protection, etc.). Signs and symbols also represent and often substitute actual objects or ideas. A red traffic signal, a danger sign, songs, flags, etc. act as signs/symbols that convey information to our brains. Lastly, and most importantly, the brain is the organ that performs the act of thinking. Objects, language, signs and symbols in our environment, once registered by our sensory organs, are interpreted in the brain to create thoughts.

The ability to think and the reason is what separates the human race from other species, including higher animals. As a species, human beings have an innate need to utilise the information in their environment in order to combat the complex challenges that we face. The way that an individual approaches these problems and seeks solutions depends largely upon the manner in which their brain processes the information that it has been presented with. The various ways in which our brain converts this information into thoughts can be understood as Types of Thinking.

Types of Thinking

Perceptual or Concrete Thinking

Perceptual thinking is the simplest form of thinking that primarily utilities our perception – interpretation of the information absorbed by our senses – to create thoughts. It is also alternatively known as concrete thinking because our thoughts reflect our perception of concrete objects, exact interpretations or the literal meaning of language rather than applying other concepts or ideas to decipher the same information.

Young children first begin to view the world as concrete thinkers. They form thoughts about objects only when the objects are present and not after they have been removed from the toddler’s environment. For example, if a child were playing with a toy, they form thoughts about the size of the toy, perhaps even the sound that it makes. When the toy is taken away from the child, they may cry at first, but immediately stop thinking about the toy once they find another object that grabs their attention.

Conceptual or Abstract Thinking

Conceptual or Abstract thinking refers to an individual’s ability to form thoughts about the information presented to them using complex concepts and ideas. Abstract thinking is a critical aspect of social interactions and communication as it allows individuals to study non-verbal cues, comprehend humour, analogies and other symbolic representations. The ability to think in this manner usually develops in late childhood and adolescence. Abstract thinkers also perform well on standardised intelligence tests.

Abstract thinkers are able to form complex thoughts about theories, emotions and language. Storytelling is a comprehensive example of abstract thinking. It makes use of emotion, rhetoric, suspense, and humour in order to relay information.

Thinking does not exist in a binary i.e., concrete and abstract thinking are not the only ways in which our brains process information. There are several other ways to decode the inputs from our environment, some of which are discussed below.

Reflective Thinking

Reflective thinking is utilised when we are trying to solve complex problems. In order to do so, our brain reorganises all of our experiences pertinent to a specific situation in an attempt to relate experiences and ideas to find viable solutions to the challenges we face. Reflective thinking may therefore be understood as an introspective cognitive process.

In reflective thinking, we reflect upon past experiences and learn from them. For example, if an individual left their house at 9 am to go catch a bus but missed their bus, they would perhaps consider leaving home five or ten minutes earlier the next time.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is one of the most complex thinking processes that requires higher cognitive skills and abilities such as reflection and reconstruction of thoughts and experiences so that we may interpret, analyse, evaluate and make inferences in a purposefully self-regulatory manner that is unbiased. Critical thinkers need to separate themselves from their inherent prejudices and belief systems in order to arrive at the truth of a problem.

In the age of social media, when consuming online information, it is imperative that we think critically. When presented with information, we must be wary of the source of the information, its objectivity and its potential impact on readers/viewers, before we form an opinion on the matter. If we were to place blind faith in all of the information coming our way, without questioning its authenticity and intention, we would fail to be critical thinkers and instead become victims of confirmation bias.

Also Read: How to Think Critically 

Creative Thinking

American psychologist B.F. Skinner defined creative thinking as the ability of an individual to draw new, original, ingenious and unusual inferences from and predictions about their environment. It allows individuals to interpret their surroundings in novel ways and arrive at innovative solutions for the challenges posed by their environment. It is considered to be one of the most important components of one’s cognitive behaviour because it is an entirely internal mental process. Creative Thinking is an integral element in the professional world, especially in the fields of art and science. The ability to think creatively is displayed in all aspects of life, specifically in situations where one needs to think unconventionally in order to solve a problem. Inventors, for example, are the ideal representation of creative thinkers. Inventing something new requires imagination and originality. Conceiving the idea of a washing machine that allowed people to reduce the labour and time consumed in washing clothes manually, is an example of creative thinking.

Divergent and Convergent Thinking

Divergent and convergent thinking are both considered to be types of creative thinking which involve finding solutions to problems by exploring a vast array of ideas and possibilities.

Divergent thinking is a process during which a thinker studies infinite solutions to a problem, in order to develop an innovative answer that is a product of a free-flowing, flexible cognitive process that creates connections between these infinite solutions. For instance, when designing intervention models for social/political/psychological problems, we study the various models already in place, the merits and limitations of such models and their feasibility, and then come up with an intervention model that borrows from these existing elements in order to create something applicable to our environment.

Conversely, convergent thinking is a more focused process that analyses a set of solutions and selects from them a solution to the proposed problem. For example, while solving a multiple-choice questionnaire, we study the options available to us and choose the one that we think best answers the question posed. Convergent thinking is a more analytical process that concentrates on finding the best answer, as opposed to divergent thinking that encourages individuals to take creative risks that may or may not have the desired outcome.

Linear and Non-Linear Thinking

Linear thinking is a type of thinking in which information is processed sequentially; in order. It is necessary when solving problems that require a step-by-step approach wherein there is a clear starting and ending point. Such type of thinking is most utilised in analytical professions. Mathematicians and physicists use linear thinking when deriving or developing new theories or equations about the universe.

On the other hand, non-linear thinking is a type of abstract thinking that does not follow a single line progression and instead connects ideas and concepts from multiple sources to approach a problem.

Thinking is fundamental to the processes of problem-solving and learning. Individuals must acquire relevant knowledge and experiences in order to develop the various types of thinking mentioned in this article.

The development of thinking requires that individuals be presented with adequate opportunities to participate in healthy and stimulating environments that foster creative, analytical and critical thought. Freedom of thought is imperative to the development of abstract and creative thinking. Such thinking is otherwise stunted in the presence of narrow and unnecessary restrictions. Furthermore, the understanding of language and the concepts that it represents is central to the development of thinking processes. Language is highly symbolic, much like thinking itself. Therefore, we cannot develop complex thoughts if we are unable to decipher symbols and images. It is critical that we ensure language development from a young age because, in the absence of an understanding of language, we are at risk of developing defective thinking patterns that can prove to be detrimental.

The ability to think constructively and creatively is greatly valued in any vocation. It is in light of this knowledge that we must work towards being better thinkers and hone our skills through practice and by seeking opportunities that challenge us to be more innovative, critical and reflective in our thoughts.


American Psychological Association. (n.d.). APA Dictionary of Psychology. American Psychological Association. https://dictionary.apa.org

Thomas, J. (2018, February 18). The Difference Between Concrete Vs. Abstract Thinking. BetterHelp. https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/self-esteem

S, R. (2016, August 17). Types, Development and Tools: Psychology. Psychology Discussion – Discuss Anything About Psychology. https://www.psychologydiscussion/types-development-and-tools-psychology/2058.

Mitrovic, S. (2021, May 4). 7 Of The Most Common Types and How to Identify Yours. Mindvalley Blog. https://blog.mindvalley.com/types#headline6.

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Pragati is an undergraduate student currently pursuing her BA/BSc in Psychology at Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, Pune. She displays a keen interest in the social sciences and is passionate about writing. She wishes to apply her education in the domain of social work in the future. Reading, swimming and travelling are some activities that keep her going.