The characteristics of thinking become clearer if we compare the thinking process in children with those of adults. The thought processes of children are generally vague, unclear and are essentially centered around sensory images and characteristics. But, as the child grows older, this type of thinking gives way to more organised thoughts going beyond and cutting across sensory impressions and images.
Elements in the thought process are more differentiated at the adult level. Inner tendencies and the emergence of a schema are found to be operative much more prominently in the adult than in the child. It is customary to refer to childhood thought process as primary. Such primary thinking tends to be vague and global with the thought process being undifferentiated and the element of focusing , being relatively absent.
A few other characteristics which form part of childhood thought are given below:
Children very often tend to look upon external objects as being animated. Everything around them has a life or life similar to theirs. Trees, stones, doors all have a life. Here, one may see that this type of thinking is also found among people of certain simpler societies even today.
A great deal of mythology is based on such animism or animistic thinking. Thus, in Indian mythology, mountains like the Himalayas, rivers like the Ganga and the Godavari are not only personified but raised to superhuman status. The point has been emphasised by Piaget, a leading psychologist.
A second characteristic of childhood thinking described is what is known as egocentricism. Egocentricism means a tendency to interpret events and experiences in terms of one’s own inner conditions and needs. Piaget cites an interesting example: a young child was asked why the sun sets? Pat came the answer, “because Johnny must go to sleep.”
The child finds it difficult to differentiate between ego experiences and phenomena on the one hand and external objects and phenomena on the other. Yet another characteristic associated with childhood thinking or primary thinking is autism. In a way, autism is an extension of egocentricism.
Whereas egocentricism shows a tendency to impose inner logic and experiences on the outer objects and experiences, autism is a little more primitive. Autism or autistic thinking reflects a total failure to distinguish between oneself and reality. The autistic child is one whose thought process shows a total absence of any distinction between the ego and the environment.
The whole world is one world with no boundaries between what is oneself and what is not. Yet another characteristic type of thinking is at times directed more by personal wishes than by objective or rational factors. This is called wishful thinking. The reader must have heard the popular story of Cinderella.
Secondary thinking or adult thinking, on the other hand, involves a clear distinction between the ego and the object. Not only this, even the thought processes relating to one’s own self and the external world show clear differentiations and distinctions. But these different elements are organised and integrated within the frame of a schematic structure. It may, therefore, be seen that the processes of thinking develop gradually and change from primary thinking to secondary thinking and adult thinking does not appear overnight.