Posts Tagged ‘Elementary Principles of Behavior’

The Psychology of A Broken Q-Tip

July 5, 2016

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.




Operant Behavior and Cultural Evolution

April 8, 2016

Operant Behavior and Cultural Evolution

B. F. Skinner is often credited with being the greatest psychologist of the 20th Century.

In my judgment, and that of countless others, Skinner deserves this special honor  because his prodigious research and writings gave birth to the psychological science of Behavior Analysis. Furthermore, his work also led to the development of the science and technology of Applied Behavior Analysis. Skinner’s efforts and that of his legions of followers has culminated in, and continues to yield, the world’s most powerful and practical applications of psychology to ameliorate human behavior problems. But, even better, the wise use of this behavior technology could lead to the prevention of human behavior problems!

One old saying is: “An Ounce Of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure”. This rule  could be one important the key to sociocultural longevity, if humans can be helped to care for such future outcomes.

Societies that do not teach their children and young adults about science-based findings about the environmental forces that shape human behavior patterns, as well as an effective moral code to their populations, fail to do so at their own great peril. The dramatically increasing behavior problems in America’s society, and others, provide stark support for this conclusion.

Some of B. F. Skinner’s prophetic words were published in 1971 in his powerful little book,  Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Please read the following samples of his writing with care and you may begin to understand one great source of America’s citizen’s behavior problems.

Then get the entire book and learn some essential information that relatively few citizens know.

Sample 1.

Twenty-five hundred years ago it might have been said that man understood himself as well as any other part of his world. Today he is the thing he understands least (Kindle Loc. 64).

In other words, as we have advanced our understanding in all other areas of science and technology, we have remained woefully ignorant of the psychological science and technology that shapes our own behavior patterns. Skinner also wrote about the fact that the health and longevity of all cultures rest upon the understanding and benevolent use of this science and technology of human behavior.

Sample 2.

In trying to solve the terrifying problems that face us in the world today, we naturally turn to the things we do best. We play from strength, and our strength is science and technology. To contain a population explosion we look for better methods of birth control. Threatened by a nuclear holocaust, we build bigger deterrent forces and anti-ballistic-missile systems. We try to stave off world famine with new foods and better ways of growing them. Improved sanitation and medicine will, we hope, control disease, better housing and transportation will solve the problems of the ghettos, and new ways of reducing or disposing of waste will stop the pollution of the environment. We can point to remarkable achievements in all these fields, and it is not surprising that we should try to extend them. But things grow steadily worse, and it is disheartening to find that technology itself is increasingly at fault. Sanitation and medicine have made the problems of population more acute, war has acquired a new horror with the invention of nuclear weapons, and the affluent pursuit of happiness is largely responsible for pollution. As Darlington has said, ‘Every new source from which man has increased his power on the earth has been used to diminish the prospects of his successors. All his progress has been made at the expense of damage to his environment which he cannot repair and could not foresee’.

Whether or not he could have foreseen the damage, man must repair it or all is lost. And he can do so if he will recognize the nature of the difficulty. The application of the physical and biological sciences alone will not solve our problems because the solutions lie in another field. Better contraceptives will control population only if people use them. New weapons may offset new defenses and vice versa, but a nuclear holocaust can be prevented only if the conditions under which nations make war can be changed. New methods of agriculture and medicine will not help if they are not practiced, and housing is a matter not only of buildings and cities but of how people live. Overcrowding can be corrected only by inducing people not to crowd, and the environment will continue to deteriorate until polluting practices are abandoned.

In short, we need to make vast changes in human behavior, and we cannot make them with the help of nothing more than physics or biology, no matter how hard we try (Kindle Loc. 31-50).

The powerful truth that B. F. Skinner has tried to explain to us is that our most enduring and damaging problems are a result of the ignorant management of our own individual and collective behavior. Furthermore, our ignorance can be remediated only if we will study the right available information and convert this knowledge into practice.

I have taught my psychological subject matter as a professor for 36 years and also taught and applied it within my a private practice for a similar duration. Over this time I have watched as America has all but destroyed itself, largely through the gross misapplication of these very elemental psychological principles.

I believe that certain sociopolitical and economic philosophies are compatible with, and naturally catalytic to, the societal integration of these elementary principles of psychology…and that is why they have consistently succeed.

It is clear to me that other sociopolitical and economic philosophies are naturally antithetical to these elementary principles of psychology and this is why they have consistently failed.

In my judgement, many important elementary principles of psychology are inherent in  conservative political and economic philosophies and practices. Although the resulting behavioral and cultural outcomes are never perfect, history demonstrates conservative principles are superior to those of other sociocultural designs. I judge that B. F. Skinner would not have agreed with many of my political/economic conclusions on this last matter and I am certain many of his followers do not.

On the other hand, the natural elemental principles of psychology, as implemented by progressive/socialist political and economic philosophies consistently damage motivation and most often lead to increased rates of maladaptive and self-destructive behavior among its citizens and leaders. These tragedies are are illustrated by the fact that socialist leaders normally gather the lions-share of power and material gains, at the great expense of their citizens….including the imprisonment and even death of over one hundred of million of them by starvation and execution. The arrested development, if not the horrific decline, of entire socialist/communist societies is clearly documented by history.

V. Thomas Mawhinney, Ph.D., 4/8/18

Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Indiana University South Bend

President and Clinical Director, Behavioral Psychological Family Services



I Wonder If I Am A Libertarian # 2

May 30, 2013

I Wonder If I Am A Libertarian # 2

Key Concepts of Libertarianism


David Boaz

January 1, 1999

The key concepts of libertarianism have developed over many centuries. The first inklings of them can be found in ancient China, Greece, and Israel; they began to be developed into something resembling modern libertarian philosophy in the work of such seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thinkers as John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine.

What follows is first a quote by the author and then an analysis of the components of that quote, by me.


Individualism. Libertarians see the individual as the basic unit of social analysis. Only individuals make choices and are responsible for their actions. Libertarian thought emphasizes the dignity of each individual, which entails both rights and responsibility. The progressive extension of dignity to more people — to women, to people of different religions and different races — is one of the great libertarian triumphs of the Western world.

End of Quote.


The individual as the basic unit of social analysis.

I am persuaded that the individual us useful as a basic unit of social analysis.That is the basis of analysis for a great deal of the science of behavioral psychology, from which the principles of behavior that influence that thoughts, emotions and actions of humans have been discovered. These principles also produce similar outcomes when applied to groups of people, making their intelligent use essential to any socioculture that wishes to live very long and well.

Only individuals make choices and are responsible for their actions.

An individual is capable of making many “choices” ,among options available, at any given moment (eat, sleep, go to work, drink alcohol, take drugs, go to church, etc.) What they actually do under a circumstance is heavily influenced by the behavior principles experienced in their up-bringing, education, and acculturation processes.

While the individual can be free from certain governmental controls, they are never free from the influences of their biology or their history of learning (or lack of learning) involving these principles of behavior.

Holding an individual responsible for their behaviors is normally a simple matter of good teaching. The consequences of a childs behavior (rewards or punishment, or no effects) influence whether that child will (“choose” to) repeat that behavior more or less often in the future.

However, in the teaching of all of us, as children, our parents and teachers had to judge at what stage of development it was appropriate to began to finally ”hold us responsible” for our actions (I.e., the baby soils its diaper, the two-year old spills the milk; vs. the seven-year old hits his sister or the 16 year-old comes in late for curfew).  Smart parents and teachers do not try to teach with consequences, that which cannot yet be learned.

In adult life, it is clear that failing to “hold people responsible” for their own behavior (even if it is the result of a history of bad teaching in their family or subculture) is an irresponsible sociocultural thing to do. This is so because protecting people from the consequences of their bad behavior actually teaches them to do irresponsible and self-defeating behaviors that damage them, those close to them and the socioculture.

Libertarian thought emphasizes the dignity of each individual

I take the word “dignity” to mean the worth of each individual. I agree with Albert Ellis, that the great worth of any individual is inestimable, and that worth has nothing to do with any worldly measure of health, intelligence, material possessions, or stations in life. All people are worthy of respectful and kindly treatment. Therefore, all people should be accorded the right to do as they have learned to do and are capable of doing, so long as their actions do not damage, physically injure, abuse, or coerce other adults to do things against their will by penalty of law.

Within this framework, the special rights of children to be taught the many skills needed for a normal adult life and not to be neglected or abused must also be protected by penalty of law.

Please stay tuned for more!

V. Thomas Mawhinney, Ph.D., 5/29/13

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