The 15 Main Thought Processes and How to Improve Them

| Podcast, Thinking

the 15 main thought processes and how to improve them feature imageWelcome to the ultimate list of thought processes.

A definitive resource you can bookmark and refer to whenever you want to sharpen your thinking.

I created this list because I taught an advanced critical thinking course for years at a university.

And I personally practice many types of thought as I continue to absorb many philosophical traditions from around the globe.

So if you want multiple thought process examples that will help you improve your mind, today you’re going to get them.

Even better:

I’ve included several sure fire ways you can rapidly improve your thinking.

Ready? Let’s dig in!

What Are Thought Processes?

According to researchers, a thought process can be both conscious and unconscious. In fact, your mind can be processing more than one thought at the same time.

For this reason, the exact definition of a thought process is simple:

It is being engaged with the stuff of thought.

What’s is this “stuff” exactly?

It’s a combination of semantic facts you hold in your memory and physical things you know how to do that are held in your procedural memory.

Then, you have the material that is held in your subconscious and your unconscious mind. This is important to understand.

That’s because the fact that so many of your thoughts are outside of your awareness means you don’t have free will quite the way you think you do. Although many positive types of thought process stimulate our creativity and problem-solving capacities, Daniel Kahneman’s work has shown us to be at the mercy of many cognitive biases.

Cognitive bias is any of a wide number of thought processes that cause us to take shortcuts. We distort reality and make irrational decisions as a result.

For this reason, it’s a very good idea to become familiar with as many thought processes as possible.

Types of Thought Processes (with Examples)

As an exercise, don’t just read the following list passively. Try to think of a time you’ve either thought these ways yourself, or observed others involved in these thinking processes.

For best results, write your personal examples and observations down.

Also, reflect on whether or not each thought process is positive, negative, neutral or more than one of these options at the same time.

One: Associative Thinking

Being able to see how one thing connects to another is an important skill. In healthy children, the ability to think in terms of association begins early. Most of us get better at it as we age because more life experiences creates pattern recognition.

For example, we often relate things we see in life to mythological patterns. You might associate someone with King Midas if they’re greedy, or say that a Pandora’s box has been opened. These are kinds of associative thinking stimulated by pattern recognition.

pandora box

It doesn’t have to be Greek myths either. Since 1999, it’s been very common for people to respond to certain events in the age of the Internet by saying, “It’s just like in The Matrix.”

Freud famously asked his patients to engaging in free association, leading to many new psychological therapies and procedures, such as the Rorshach test. 

And association is widely used. Creative people frequently allow themselves to follow random trains of thought in order to come up with interesting and unique ideas. Students use mind mapping and association is a key mnemonic strategy.

Two: Abductive Thinking

This form of thinking involves drawing conclusions based on observations. It is also called inferential reasoning and Sherlock Holmes provides the most well-known examples. Real life detectives use it as well.

A simple way to think about this thought process is that you’re arriving at a conclusion without having the full picture. If you arrive at a crime scene and find a knife covered in blood, you can reasonably conclude that it is the murder weapon. But you don’t actually know – you’re inducing the conclusion.

Note that many people mistake this kind of reasoning with deductive thinking. So let’s look at that next.

Three: Deductive Thinking

Deductive thinking is often formulaic. It usually involves an “if this then that” structure. For example, you can deduce that if you don’t get on the freeway before rush hour, it will take you longer to get home.

Unlike induction where you are drawing a conclusion from an incomplete picture, you do have a complete picture of how traffic works on the highway.

how traffic works on the highway

Deductive reasoning is typically easier to test when there is an abundance of evidence. There are three main types to master:

  • Syllogisms
  • Modus ponens
  • Modus tollens

To help yourself further, check out these critical thinking book recommendations.

Combined, inductive and deductive thinking form what we tend to think of as logical or rational thinking.

Four: Social Thinking

We tend to think of ourselves as individuals.

Nothing could be further from the truth!

Humans share a variety of languages, and when you think about it, none of the words or phrases belong to any individual. Rather, we collaborate on the continuous evolution of this communication tool.

We’re increasingly using the Internet to communicate using our languages as well. Students use it to study together, which means thinking together to help one another achieve goals.

We can also think about transpersonal thinking in this regard. When we realize that the role of the individual isn’t all that it’s made out to be, we’re able to transcend the ego and resolve ourselves into the great river of life.

Sound abstract? Never fear. We’ll be tackling that kind of thinking next.

Five: Abstract Thinking

To think abstractly is to literally pull away from an idea or concept. 

a woman is thinking of her ideas

We just did that by thinking about how language is not owned by any individual person, even if it is experienced in personal ways.

This is an “abstract” thought precisely because we’re pulling back from the individual and looking at the entire species.

This is a nuanced thought process, so you can read more about abstract thinking with other examples if you’re interested.

Six: Concrete Thinking

Concrete thinking involves ideas that are directly related to material reality. For example, you might think about how things feel and make comparisons and contrasts in your mind.

An orange and an apple feel more similar to one another than an orange and the handle of a shovel, for example.

Talking about rain “pounding” is another example. 

Seven: Analogical Thinking

Analogical thinking involves making comparisons and assuming that when something is true for one thing, it is also true for the other.

We can use them well, such as when we say that an argument is going in circles. If the same points keep coming up again and again, they really do feel like they are on a loop.

But analogies often fall apart because things are rarely as similar as they seem. Watch out anytime you hear someone saying, “it’s like x.” Although the comparison they are about to make sense on the surface, all too often the connection winds up being facile.

Eight: Analytical Thinking

Analysis literally involves taking things apart.

For example, when a Magnetic Memory Method Masterclass participant comes to me with a problem they’re trying to solve, I analyze what they’re saying by looking for the individual components.

That’s not to say I don’t also take the problem as a “whole.” Rather, analytical thinking takes as a basic premise that everything is built from parts.

In philosophy, the notion of deconstruction is an analytical process that reveals how many of our most cherished truths were built over time. It is an innovation on what Nietzsche called genealogical thinking.

white t shirt woman thinking and reading

A simple way to get better at this form of thinking is to practice observation and questioning literally everything.

Nine: Linear Thinking

Linear thinking is all about structure and following a particular process.

But that doesn’t make it boring. 

In fact, Triz is one of the most interesting collection of tools for linear thinking on the planet. It’s also incredibly inventive.

Nonlinear thinkers are sometimes thought to use fewer structures, or purposefully introduce randomness.

For example, the German band Einstürzende Neubauten create new songs by drawing ideas and roles from a hat. Although the singer might not be a world class drummer, if he selects a slip that requires him to play percussion while composing a new song, he will.

Although this form of creativity looks like it is nonlinear and “outside the box,” it’s also procedural and linear in its own way. If we “deconstruct” the notion of linear thinking by using analytical thinking, we might find that there really is no such thing as nonlinear thinking at the end of the day.

Ten: Reflective Thinking

Making time to contemplate is incredibly important.

It’s simple and easy to practice and there are many powerful reflective thinkers you can draw inspiration from.

Simply put, find a place to sit, pour your thoughts out onto paper and use analytical thinking to sort, sift and screen through the material of your mind.
a girl is thinking and writing notes

It’s perfect for helping yourself make better decisions and expand your mind.

Eleven: Counterfactual Thinking

We often think of alternative histories as the stuff of fiction. Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is a common example.

However, it’s very useful to think about what could have happened in our everyday lives.

For example, sometimes when I’m feeling down, I create a “counterfactual” image of what my life would be like if I’d never completed my Ph.d.

I happen to know a few people who didn’t finish. The thought of working at an ice cream parlor like one failed PhD I know makes me grateful for everything in my life – especially because the accomplishment led to me writing this blog.

Let’s look at the opposite of this kind of thinking next. It’s also very useful.

Twelve: Speculative Thinking

If counterfactual thinking involves imagining alternative scenarios in the past, speculative thinking involves running through two or more possible future outcomes.

One simple exercise for thinking through your future is Dan Sullivan’s “dangers, opportunities, strengths” routine.

By asking yourself questions around these three core areas, you can imagine a practical path forward for your future.

You can also use the journaling exercise I share in this video about how to think correctly about the path to mastering your memory:

Thirteen: Decisive Thinking

When it comes to the future, you’ll never get there without being able to make decisions.

One of my favorite problem solving models is found in Decisive by Dan and Chip Heath. It’s called the W.R.A.P. technique:

  • Widen your options
  • Reality test
  • Attain distance
  • Prepare to fail

Using step-by-step decision processes like this can always be considered “heuristic thinking,” because you’re making using the tool a rule of thumb.

I’ve connected this technique with a much older tool called ars combinatoria that you might want to become acquainted with on your quest to master multiple thought processes.

Fourteen: Metacognition

Ever heard of Zen?

It’s a fairly radical philosophy that helps you realize that the present moment is all we really have – and since it’s slipping by so quickly, the notion that we have it at all is an illusion.

In order to realize this fact and hold onto the realization so that you can experience lasting mental peace, the great masters of meditation use metacognition.

To become a master yourself, you just need to cultivate an awareness of the operation of your own thoughts and a meta-level awareness of how the thoughts about your thoughts operate too.

I’m a big fan of this form of thinking and wrote about a powerful process in my book, The Victorious Mind

You could also call this form of thinking, “mindfulness thinking.”

Fifteen: Skeptical Thinking

I’ve saved the most important form of thinking for the end. And I want you to use it on everything I’ve just said.

a girl is thinking for herself


Because one of the most powerful things you can do is to question the validity of the claims people make.

Think for yourself.

Do your own research.


If you don’t, you risk being naive.

Of course, you don’t want to go overboard. It’s also useful to be curious and allow certain things the benefit of the doubt from time to time.

This is where you want to use your discernment, which is where practicing all of the skills on this page will really come in handy over time.

How to Improve Your Thinking

The best way to experience significant gains in your thinking abilities is to complete critical thinking exercises.

On top of that, you’ll want to improve your: 

But above all, you want to set aside time for studying great thinkers and time for practicing thinking.

It just takes commitment and consistency. 

And the best part?

You now have new ways to think about how you might increase your commitment and consistency by using tools like analytical thinking and speculative thinking to become the architect of your future.

Even better, you can memorize all of the above thought processes by grabbing my free memory improvement kit:

Free Memory Improvement Course

It will help you not only remember these types of thought, but also help you remember to engage in the activities need to improve each of them.

So what do you say?

Are you ready to enjoy multiple types of thought?

Dive in!


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