The 7 Types of Thinking (And Why You Need Them)

The essence of today’s times is to achieve a level of coolness simply by virtue of owning stuff. It doesn’t really matter what you’re doing with the stuff you own. It only matters how much stuff you have.

But it doesn’t stop with what you have. You think you need more to stay ahead of the game. And the reason you think this way is because you stopped thinking at some point.

When people talk about what’s wrong with the modern world. With social media. With the consumption of news and stuff. You’ll often hear things like greed, surveillance, capitalism – surveillance capitalism? – and probably environmental pollution.

But what’s really wrong with the modern world is a lack of thinking.

Big tech companies are working hard to reduce friction. Making ordering a cab a breeze. Paying seamless. Sharing goofy memes almost automatic.

Though there are certainly benefits from some of these innovations.

There’s also a nasty side effect.

What happened in unison with all the reduced friction is reduced thinking.

We don’t think that we need to think. We’ve turned into submissive holders of smartphones whose sole job is to click buttons.

Click. Buy. Share. Repeat.

In exchange for small pleasures in a form of a glowing icon with a number on it (notifications). We have given away the only thing that distinguishes us from the fellow animals – our ability to think.

  • You don’t think about the road. You use a GPS.
  • You don’t actively think about solving the problem you are facing. You google for solutions.
  • You don’t engage in the sometimes frustrating, but needed, experience of analyzing your shortcomings. You dive deep into the social media rabbit hole hoping to forget your issues.

How can we restore this?

How we can gain back our ability to think and invite good things to think about?

Is there anything that can be done to reverse the damage our brains has accrued since they had been exposed to so much reduced thinking?

Yes.

We should practice our ability to think more frequently.

And to help you achieve that. In this post, I’m presenting the main types of thinking that can help you react better to unfamiliar situations and do less stupid stuff.

What’s the Nature of Thinking?

We think all the time.

At this very moment. Waves of thoughts are clashing in your worried head. Processing what’s written on this page while also trying to figure out what you’ll cook for dinner and why Jenny at the office said that your hair looks funny today. What did she mean? Funny in a good way? In a bad way?

Thinking is a fundamental function of our brain and is also unique to us as a species.

The main two components of thinking are: analysis and manipulation of information.1

For example, when you are looking at a painting. You are less focused on the colors and the strokes. Rather, you are looking at the painting as a whole and constructing your own meaning based on your prior knowledge.

If a child is looking at a painting of a castle, it won’t mean much to him if he still doesn’t know what a castle is. So, the brain will tie the concept to the closest related object based on the existing knowledge – probably say that it’s a funny-looking house.

You first analyze and you then manipulate the information. And this internal manipulation happens through reasoning, imagination, problem-solving, and decision-making.

And lastly, on the topic of the nature of thinking…

Thinking is always goal-directed.

There’s always some sort of goal in our day-to-day actions. Our desire to reach that goal will influence our thinking.

If we are facing a familiar situation, we will reach for our bag of things we did in the past – our habits- and we will pull out the most suitable strategy. If we find ourselves in an unfamiliar situation. We’ll adjust an already existing concept to the new situation.

Why Do We Need To Think About Thinking?

Thinking about thinking in a world where everyone wants you to cease this activity is getting more important by the day.

More and more we rely on outside technology, not on the existing technology in our brains.

A simple example from my daily life is the following: When we’re going outside of town with my family – say we’re going on a well-deserved vacation. I type the destination on my phone and place it in the holder right next to my steering wheel. Even if I know the way. I still do it.

You could say I do it to see the traffic on the road, estimate how long it will take me to get to where we are headed, and find the perfect route.

And while I do think my app helps with finding the best course. I also do it to not think about the road.

When I’m using my GPS, I’m outsourcing this part of the driving process. I no longer have to think about the route. I simply have to follow the instructions on the screen.

This is bad for at least two reasons:

  • You rely on something without the ability to reason.
  • You reduce your hippocampus.

I once just entered my desired location and I stepped on the gas. Thirty minutes later, I found myself on some secondary road. The GPS calculated the best possible route, but it wasn’t the best possible road. It was tight and riddled with holes.

This first part can be adjusted. I simply started looking at the suggested route more closely before I started driving.

The second part is a bit more scientific – and important.

When we learn to navigate around our environment – drive without looking at the GPS. The internal pathways the brain creates (called spatial mapping) lead to strangely bigger hippocampi.

That’s why London taxi drivers have bigger brains.2 They don’t rely on GPS to drive people around the streets of London. To earn their credentials, black cab taxi drivers have to undertake the stiffest geographical test – memorize every street in the big city. Or in their words, “You learn something like 25,000 streets.” And it takes around 4 years to complete The Knowledge – the formal name of the prospectus to become a London taxi driver.

While you might not need to know every street in your city. Having a bigger hippocampus greatly helps with memory and your ability to learn faster.

Why Do We Need Different Types of Thinking?

And lastly, before I finally reveal the types of thinking.

Let’s considered this for a moment: Why do you need different types of thinking?

The simplest answer is the best answer:

It improves your decision-making skills.

In an ever-changing world. We’re constantly facing new obstacles. Even if we’re doing OK now. If we have a secure job. A fair amount of money stashed in the bank account. Chances are, that things will take a dramatic turn at some point.

And when they do, we have to deal with the agonizing concept of dealing with uncertainty.

Your ability to find the best possible outcome in a given situation is never easy. Especially when parts of valuable information are not revealed.

That’s why juggling different types of thinking can be so beneficial.

You can update your current thinking by combining different concepts and also don’t completely rely on the existing mental models in your head.

While what you know can help in certain situations. It can hurt you in others.3

For instance, people operating local shops know how to do business locally. But when COVID exploded, their knowledge quickly evaporated. To keep the inflow of money, they had to update their prior knowledge in relation to making money.

We never know when the next big crisis will hit.4 But one thing is certain. Your ability to think is undoubtedly needed when it does hit.

Here are the main types of thinking you can use to find the best solution to incoming problems:

7 Main Types of Thinking:

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is your ability to analyze a piece of information from different perspectives while recognizing your own biases. Plus, realize that in our world, a single action rarely has a single cause. There are always multiple consequences.

For example, if we are considering purchasing a new car. You can start your analysis with the most simple question: Do I really need a new car? Followed by: Why do I think I need a new car? And then: How my expenses will change based on the maintenance of the new car?

Challenging your initial thoughts is the best way to find the truth.

By digging for answers. You might realize that you think you need a new car because the act of purchasing will lead to positive sensations. People will praise you and you’ll feel better. But are these valid reasons to spend weeks deciding what type of car to get and also spent a large sum of money?

The main power of critical thinking comes from challenging every thought and not believing your instinctive responses.

We automatically direct towards the easiest solution, but rarely the easiest solution is the best solution.

Since we don’t have all the answers. We need to re-think our initial idea to find the best idea. That all happens through critical thinking plus overcoming the barriers to critical thinking.

Useful questions to ignite critical thinking:

  • What’s another way to look at this issue?
  • Who would be affected by this?
  • What is the real problem I am trying to solve?

Concrete Thinking

This is the basic form of thinking. Concrete thinking is also called literal thinking. Or my preferred, thinking inside the box.

Unlike critical thinking, you are making conclusions based on your first associations without giving much thought to what might happen or what is the greater meaning.

For instance, if someone is to invite you to a party that’s an hour away from where you live and starts in a few hours. If you apply concrete thinking you’ll most probably imagine things like: music, drinks, dance – i.e., fun. While all of these sound nice, it excludes thinking about the consequences: logistics – how to get to the party and get back home?; exhaustion – how you’ll feel the next day?; indifference – what does your partner thinks about going out?

Infants are another good example. Kids, babies, people who have yet to develop a more robust way of thinking don’t think about consequences and take everything at face value. Cover a toy with a blanket and an infant will think it has disappeared. Tell your kids that Santa ate all the cookies, and he’ll believe you.

Or, as you can sense, it’s not a preferred way of thinking.

Useful questions to avoid concrete thinking:

  • Is it true?
  • What is the evidence that supports the claim?
  • What is the evidence that doesn’t support the claim?

Abstract Thinking

Abstract thinking is your ability to understand the greater meaning. You no longer see only objects. You make associations. You make conclusions while taking into consideration your feelings and emotions – a car is not just a car, it’s your car. Also, abstract thinking grants you the power to form ideas that might not necessarily exist in the known world.

With abstract thinking, you can create hypothetical situations. Make associations and analogies. Use metaphors and even rotate an object in your head – e.g., imagine how the insides of a spaceship might look.

No wonder why creative people are considered abstract thinkers.

It takes a wild imagination to paint something or write about something that doesn’t exist in the known world. For instance, people who write fiction create worlds with characters that are not real. How are they doing it?

Most commonly, they take one simple idea and expand it.

A lot of writers create characters based on someone they know. They take their main characteristics as a base and then exaggerate certain aspects to make an interesting persona.

Questions to ignite abstract thinking:

  • How this idea relates to the bigger picture?
  • Can I make this simpler?
  • How can I make this more interesting?

Reflective Thinking

The base of reflective thinking is quite simple: You reflect on an idea, concept, a plan, to improve it in some way.

Reflective thinking is essential for finding solutions to problems and overcoming obstacles.

You take all relevant facts, so you can find a better solution to the problem.

This type of thinking is also valuable to:

  • Identify areas for change and improvement.
  • Respond adequately to new challenges.
  • Use existing solutions applied to different domains to solve problems.

Reflective thinking also allows you to create an unbiased analysis of your current situation – the skills you have. And figure out where exactly you need to further develop.

Good questions to summon reflective thinking:

  • What can I do with what I know?
  • What did I learn from the event that I did not know before?
  • Based on what I have learned, how should I act in the future?

Creative Thinking

Creative thinking is the skill to construct something new, original, unusually good, and even bizarrely strange.

When thinking creatively, you allow concepts from different domains to enter the scene and alter your views. You are proactively trying to connect pieces that initially might seem that they don’t fit, but you try to see what will happen.

As said, the goal is to come up with fresh ideas.

An important part of creative thinking is to let your mind wander. Write down even the strangest idea. No matter how absurd it might sound. Take note of what your brain produces.

People commonly fail at creative thinking because they judge their ideas too soon. Never allowing them to fully develop.

The reality is that good ideas emerge after a handful of bad ideas.

To start the process of creative thinking, imagine things that normally wouldn’t be possible. Then, try to make each idea more improbable than the last. And finally, don’t let critics – including yourself – disturb you.

Questions to ignite creative thinking:

  • If I have all the LEGOs in the world, what would I build?
  • What do I hope will be invented in 100 years?
  • How would I approach building it today?

Non-Directed Thinking

There are situations when we don’t think about anything particular. Our mind is just… empty? Or, simply drifting through random ideas based on the most recent posts we saw online.

This type of careless mind-wandering is a great way to escape from the demands of the real world and reduce potential stress coming from a job or a relationship. However, if you’re mainly involved in non-directed thinking, it usually means that you don’t have any particular goal in life. You just respond to the world around you. Not creating your own world.

Non-directed thinking, also called associate thinking, can be approached in two ways.

The first one, as noted, is when people aimlessly wander. They don’t direct their thoughts to a goal of some sort because they don’t have such.

The other way is to purposefully let your mind bounce around. You do this to disengage for a while and allow the random thoughts that emerge to give you fresh ideas to solve your problems.

Questions to give yourself some sort of direction when applying associative thinking:

  • What ignited the current chain of thoughts – a feeling, an event?
  • Should I keep pursuing the concepts or steer my mind to another concept?
  • Can I apply the thoughts I had to my ongoing problems?

Divergent Thinking

Divergent thinking is an ability to find creative solutions to problems by summoning several answers and thinking about alternative scenarios.

The application of divergent thinking is rather simple: You write the problem – or the goal – on the top of the page. Then, you list all possible solutions that come to mind.

The problem with divergent thinking is that you are limited by your own thinking.

If you’re not inherently smart, it will be hard to come up with new ideas.

That’s where brainstorming sessions can help.

When you’re facing a problem. Or you are unsure if your idea is going to work. You can ask for help.

Gather people and together think about the possible solutions.

And while this type of thinking might seem pretty similar to critical thinking. It’s not. Critical thinking is best used to find errors in your judgment while divergent – also known as lateral thinking – is more focused on moving from one known idea to new ideas.

If you don’t have the staff to summon a brainstorming session, consider the following questions to ignite divergent thinking:

  • Choose a random word from the dictionary – say pencil. How do the characteristics of the pencil apply to your problem? For instance, a pencil has an eraser. What do I need to erase to move forward?
  • Create a list of provocative claims. How can I use the most outlandish ones to move my thinking forward?
  • Ask why as many times as you can: Why does this exist? Why it was done the way it is?

Additional Types of Thinking:

When you mix the above thinking types together, you can move away from your ordinary thinking and find better solutions to handle your daily challenges.

Additionally, you’ll escape the concepts’ society and all major tech companies are trying to force upon you. In particular, you’ll focus less on what others are sharing online and more on your own wants and needs.

Besides the above though, there are five extra thinking types I found in big books that I’ll only briefly explore:

  1. Fast thinking: Fast thinking is basically reacting quickly to a situation. If you are good in a certain area, your fast reaction will be efficient. Conversely, if you’re not so skilled in a particular domain, your fast reaction will probably be inadequate. Good fast-thinking develops with experience. For example, if you are an experienced mechanic, you will notice a problem with the car just by hearing the engine.
  2. Slow thinking: Slow thinking is effortful and requires focusing your attention on a particular problem/task. The more you pay attention to a problem. The more you increase the likelihood of solving the problem in an intelligent way. Sadly, we tend to avoid slow thinking as it cost a great deal of time.5
  3. Adaptive thinking: Adaptive thinking is basically making corrections to your initial plan because the conditions changed. It’s a great way to deal with unexpected situations.6
  4. Thinking in bets: Developed by the famous poker player – Annie Duke. Bets thinking is an interesting way to flex your brain. You approach decisions as bets to better predict how the future will look. Thus, develop the appropriate strategy to move forward.
  5. Systems thinking: In the world of systems thinking, everything is related. It’s a great way to understand complex ideas and find the perfect spot to interfere to make a positive contribution. I’ve written a couple of posts on the topic here, here, and here. But they are all based on the ideas from the following book: Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows.

Some Closing Thoughts

Nobody is born with a perfect set of thinking skills. We don’t come out of the womb knowing how to respond to a situation in the most decent way. Hell, we don’t know how to respond to situations in an adequate way even till our deathbed. And furthermore, no one ever teaches us how to think better.

We simply try our best.

But if we don’t improve the way we think. Our best way of thinking surely won’t be the best possible way of thinking.

Improving your ability to think starts with recognizing the need to make improvements.

If you end up here, congratulations.

You understand the value of improving your cognitive skills.

You can probably spot mistakes in your ability to reason and the way you make judgments. Plus, realize the need to expand your skill set.

Now, besides beginning to apply the mentioned thinking types. Consider taking notes of your decisions. Create a decision journal. And also, start taking notes in general.

One of the best ways to think is to think on paper.

Get into a flow of writing and don’t worry about where your mind is leading you. Just write and see where the concept takes you.

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Footnotes:

  1. I found these insights from the following pdf document: Thinking: Nature And Types Of Thinking. Note: Clicking on the link will start downloading the PDF.
  2. Here’s an interesting article on the subject: The Bigger Brains of London Taxi Drivers
  3. You can see here, the big list of our cognitive biases and how they are negatively affecting our thinking.
  4. Not that the current war in Ukraine is not a crisis.
  5. Both fast and slow thinking are explored in the beautiful psychology book called: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.
  6. I found this thinking strategy in the book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by K. Anders Ericsson.
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