The Psychology of A Broken Q-Tip
On July 4, 2016 we placed some of our deceased son’s ashes under an oval head-stone at his favorite place on our wooded family property in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We chose the place where he and his children and friends (other family members too) l0ved to sit by the fire at night, listen to music, look at the bright stars and enjoy the woods and each other.
Many of our extended family, including his three precious teenage children, had a little service there with prayers. It was a sad, but deeply grateful celebration of our wonderful son, father and friend to many.
His stone is adorned with his name, Sean Mawhinney, and his favorite saying: “It’s All Good”. There is a dancing bear one one corner of the stone and a block lettered N.D. on the other corner. These signifying his favorite musical groups (The Grateful Dead) and his beloved football team, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Some time ago, I wrote the following remembrance about our early years of parenting Sean, who was then just a toddler. It is a story about the psychology of love and a minor trauma…transformed by events in time into a precious and instructive sweet memory.
I hope you will enjoy it and learn something useful.
As many people do, when we use Q-Tips we have disguarded them in a little trash basket in our bathroom.
Again, I am reminded of our dear son, Sean, who died suddenly at 46 yrs. of age.
When Sean was an adventuresome little toddler he entered our bathroom, “fished” a Q-Tip from the trash, put it in his ear and then slipped and fell puncturing his ear drum. I was caring for him alone at the time and was greatly horrified by this event. He cried so hard and there was blood coming from his ear. With a Doctor’s care, his ear drum healed with little consequence.
However, I never forgot the sights, sounds, and my upset from that event.
Now, for the Psychology of A Broken Q-Tip!
Sean’s putting the Q-tip in his ear, was and example of normal imitative behavior. He had often observed Mom and Dad doing the same thing (contrary to published warnings; just as millions of people regularly do). He simply did what he saw us do.
Imitation is a massively important form of social learning in all developing children and adults. A great deal of what we all learn throughout our lives is based upon numerous psychological principles of modeling and imitation.
After this happened I compulsively broke the Q-Tips I used in-half before disposing of them. This may seem odd, but right after the accident, breaking them in-half made another such accident less likely. As a consequence, doing this relived me of the anxiety that I felt about disposing them whole, as I once did.
Technically speaking, breaking the Q-Tip allowed my escape of an aversive condition, commonly known as anxiety. Psychologists call this a contingency of negative reinforcement. In other-words, if someone does something that removes, or reduces anxiety, this consequence can reinforce the particular behavior pattern that reduced the anxiety. Therefore, that behavior is more likely to happen again in the future.
I will digress briefly.
While, my own peculiar actions towards Q-Tips have remained focused exclusively upon them, sometimes actions that reduce fear or anxiety can begin to morph into many different shapes, forms and applications.
For many Individuals who have suffered chronic trauma and anxiety states, the following two psychological principles can create a bewildering array of different, but related, emotional and behavioral problems.
Many other stimuli not directly associated with trauma can simultaneously acquire aversive properties through the psychological principle of Stimulus Generalization (i.e., similar responding to similar, but different, stimuli). Individuals may begin to fear and escape, or avoid, harmless situations that only slightly resemble those associated with the stimulus conditions involved within the original traumatic learning experience. For example, a child bitten by a dog may come to fear cats; or, a woman abused by a man may feel anxiety around all men, etc..
Also, Response Generalization can occur when the reinforcing effects of anxiety reduction produced by the original behavior spread to other responses that have some similarity. For example, people may come to use a variety of ways to escape or avoid anxiety-evoking circumstances, such as making excuses to leave a situation, acting ill to avoid an event, or consuming inebriates in order to relax, etc..
Also, just so you know, these principles can apply to the learning of more positive stimuli and actions.
But now, back to the Psychology of A Broken Q-Tip!
As you now know, my breaking the Q-tips, is an example of a behavior pattern that avoids a future aversive event (i.e., it reduces the probability of my little boy harming himself with a Q-Tip in the future). Psychologist have demonstrated that avoidance behavior is very common in all animals, and especially among us human animals.
You now know why I started to break Q-Tips in half, about 44 years ago.
But the question remains, why am I now still breaking Q-Tips!?
What could account for the fact that, after over four decades since that traumatic event, I still break each and every Q-Tip I use in-half before discarding them?
Some might consider this behavior pattern to be a form of psychopathology named Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. But for a behavior or emotional condition to be called a “disorder”, it must significantly interfere with effectively managing the normal demands of life, or it must hurt ones-self or others. You can be sure that my behavior is idiosyncratic, but I’m happy to say that it cannot be classified as a psychological disorder.
Someone could label my “aggression against Q-Tips” anyway we want. But, they would still have some trouble explaining why I am still breaking my used Q-Tips after all of this time. To the observer, the behavior now makes no sense because the real trauma and danger has been gone for over 40 years!
Of we could call it a habit, but this explains very little.
The best explanation of what I, personally, am doing to Q-Tips can only be found in something that I will call Behavioral Introspection. By this, I mean a personal unobservable (thoughts, perceptions and emotions) accounts of how some behavior pattern has come to start, continue, or change according to well-researched and well-documented elementary principles of behavior. True behavioral introspection is only likely to be useful when conducted, or interpreted, by an individual well-versed in the science and technology of psychological behavior principles.
Among the years that have ensued since the original Q-Tip trauma, my recollections of it have been associated thousands of times with highly positively reinforcing (enjoyable) recollections of my precious times parenting, teaching, learning from and playing with my son. When very powerful reinforcing events (stimuli) are associated with a historically aversive event (or the object associated with that event), both the event, the object and my action of breaking that object can actually acquire new learned properties. These are the properties of a conditioned positive reinforcer.
In simple terms, the act breaking Q-Tips, perhaps even thinking about breaking Q-Tips can now acquire rewarding properties. Additionally, a Q-Tip, under the conditions I have described, can become a discriminative stimulus; one that stimulates me to think about breaking it and actually do so.
This is about enough of the technical stuff, at least for now!
There are some wonderful words given to us at the time of our son’s passing.
I hope your increased psychological understanding combined with the stone’s artful common language will provide a deeper understanding of even more than The Psychology of A Broken Q-Tip!
The small plaque had the following message etched upon it:
“When someone you love becomes a history of memories, th0se memories become a treasure chest”.
V. Thomas Mawhinney, Ph.D., 7/5/16
P.S., From a technical perspective, more psychological principles could be added to my little story. However, I hope that my simplified technical explanation and the example of my own “thin slice of behavior” will advance your understanding of scientific psychology to some rewarding degree.