Ditta Oliker

Ditta M. Oliker Ph.D.

The Long Reach of Childhood

"All Men Are Brutes"

A way to uncover hidden beliefs

Posted Jun 20, 2013

The answer is found in how we establish basic truths from the environments of our childhood, truths that continue to influence how we exist as adults. To understand how this occurs, we borrow a concept from Formal Logic called a syllogism or deductive reasoning. When used correctly, a syllogism acts as a formula for being able to draw valid conclusions from known facts. It is made up of two statements, or premises, both assumed to be true. It is the relationship of the first premise (the basic premise) to the second one that determines whether the derived conclusion is correct. The formula for being able to reach a valid conclusion is:

                                        a = b (basic premise)

                                        c = a (premise #2)

                                        Therefore: c = b (valid conclusion)

The syllogism that you may have learned in school goes:

                                        All men (a) are mortal (b) (a = b)

                                        Socrates (c) is a man (a) (c = a)

                                        Therefore: Socrates (c) is mortal (b) (c = b)

This is a valid conclusion since all men are mortal (with the term "all" being defined as "every member or individual component of") -- Socrates is a man - it necessarily follows that he is mortal.

If I had written that:

                                        All men (a) are mortal (b) (a=b)

                                        Socrates (c) is mortal (b) (c=b)

                                        Socrates (c) is a man (a) (c=a)

You would be correct in saying that this is an invalid conclusion since many other creatures are mortal, i.e. Socrates could be a cat.

Remember that both premises are presumed to be true and are established through observation. Because we can observe that all men who have ever lived have died, we can conclude that all men are mortal. This is called inductive reasoning. We gather information about our individual worlds and establish basic premises through inductive reasoning. Once a premise is set, we behave as if it were true. The validity of a conclusion may be questioned, but the truth of the basic premise is rarely challenged.

Now let’s go back to our title, All Men Are Brutes, and how it had become an internalized and hidden basic premise of one of my patients. Rose began therapy because of a series of unhappy and unsuccessful relationships with men, several of whom she originally had hoped to marry. After several months of exploring her family history and her childhood environment, a theme began to emerge —a theme of her basic distrust of men. Included in her history were a number of episodes of real or imagined abuse. Rose’s mother often complained about the treatment she had received as a child at the hands of her father, including discipline with a wide, leather strap. Rose’s father had had major issues with his mother as a child and Rose believed he had played out his old resentments by strongly favoring his sons and ignoring and/or humiliating his daughter.

One of Rose’s brothers was a prankster and often made Rose the object of his pranks. Family members usually thought they were funny but to Rose, they were a form of bullying. Other members of the extended family, i.e. aunts and uncles seemed to follow a similar pattern, with male children decidedly getting better treatment. Rose was particularly aware that no male brother (she had three) or male cousins ever came to her defense.

Now let’s set up the syllogism that Rose internalized as a child. Through her observations, she induced a basic premise that “all men are unfair, take advantage, bully—are basically brutes.” This now becomes a basic truth of her life. Without conscious awareness of this hidden basic premise, she reasons that:

                                         All men are brutes

                                         John (my boyfriend) is a man

                                         Therefore John must be a brute.

Given the findings of brain research and how we overtly and covertly communicate with each other, it’s not difficult to understand why Rose has trouble establishing a relationship with a man. If the basic premise was changed to “Some men are brutes” she could not necessarily conclude that John is in that group of men who are brutes. But children think in absolutes – all or none – and this basic belief was internalized when Rose was a child.

You also established basic premises when you were a child and as you explore these premises, keep in mind the power of internalized childhood beliefs as well as how children think. The syllogisms for these would be:

  All childhood basic premises have the power to affect one's adulthood

  I once was a child

  Therefore my childhood basic premises would have affected me as an adult.

 And

All children think in absolutes

I once was a child

Therefore I must have thought in absolutes.

In re-evaluating how you have existed in the world as an adult, first question the truths of your basic premises and whether they represent your thinking as a child in absolutes. Then put your beliefs into the form of a syllogism to analyze the validity of your conclusions. You may discover false premises that still influence your feelings and behaviors. You may also learn that conclusions based on the truths of your childhood are no longer valid.

This blog will continue to expand on The Long Reach of Childhood: How Early Experiences Shape You Forever and will include strategies that can play an important part in the process of breaking free. I hope you’ll continue to join me on this journey. And hope that your syllogisms are reflective of true and valid basic premises as well as valid conclusions.