What is a token economy?
A token economy is a behavior-management system in which targeted behavior is reinforced with tokens (secondary reinforcers) and later exchanged for rewards (primary reinforcers). The method is based on operant conditioning and is widely used in elementary classrooms1.
A good token economy system has five major components:2
- Tokens – many things can be used as tokens. They are usually physical objects such as tickets or poker chips. But they can also be figurative tokens such as bonus points, stamps, or tally marks. In operant conditioning, a token is a neutral stimulus
- Target behaviors – the behavior to reinforce
- Rules – how tokens are earned or lost
- Backup reward – tangible rewards that a designated number of tokens can exchange for. They are reinforcers that the participants value.
- Method of exchanging tokens for backup rewards
In a token system, the neutral stimulus (token) can be exchanged for a primary reinforcer (backup reward) such as toys, snacks, money, privileges, or other incentives. The token becomes the secondary reinforcer encouraging the target behavior. Good behavior is reinforced by repeatedly presenting tokens with the desired behaviors.
Types of token economy
In token economies, tokens can be added or removed. Different variations of token economies are possible in the real world due to this flexibility3.
These are the different forms of exchangeable token systems.
In a reinforcement system, tokens are given when target behavior appears. Using positive reinforcement, this form of token system is commonly used to encourage social behavior.
In a response cost system, tokens are taken away when an inappropriate behavior appears. The token loss is the cost of that behavior. A response cost system is generally used to suppress challenging behavior.
Researchers find that when reinforcement and response cost are combined, the target behavior increases more than when reinforcement is used alone.
However, despite the benefits, there are two major drawbacks.
First, teachers are more negative with the students when response cost is used in the classroom4.
Second, a management system solely based on punishment is less likely to encourage positive behaviors in participants5.
Lottery-based systems add another element to the exchange period.
This type of token system rewards the target behavior with tokens, and at the end of the reward period, a lottery determines who gets the backup reward.
By choosing to exchange fewer tokens or tickets, a lottery system can minimize the number of back-up reinforcers needed.
Individual vs whole class
The advantage of using whole class or group-oriented reward systems is that it’s easier to track the tokens and give out rewards while reducing undesirable behavior6.
A level system is a variation of the token method.
Each level corresponds to a different degree of participant behavior. Based on participants’ behavior, they move from one level to another, resulting in reinforcement.
Examples of token economy
Behavior modification using token economies has been popular for decades. This operant conditioning strategy replaces punitive disciplinary measures that were once the main method of teaching children how to behave.
Token economy examples include:
- Gold stars on a chore checklist to earn allowance at home
- Check marks on a behavior chart to earn privileges at home
- Clips on a clip chart in an elementary classroom
- Token tickets won at the carnival to exchange for toys
Even though the token economy is a useful tool in many situations, they raise concerns and questions among researchers.
Let’s explore the pros and cons of using discipline strategies based on this basic principle.
One significant advantage of token use is that it works in a variety of behaviors and settings. It has been successfully used across a wide range of settings and target responses, including education7, residential psychiatric hospitals, group homes for rehabilitation8, vocational settings9, and college classes10.
It is easy to implement with minimal effort. The design and implementation of token programs are relatively straightforward.
The use of positive reinforcement to change a child’s behavior is well tested. In the short term, it is an effective way to obtain quick results.
Various parties can collaborate on implementation. For example, teachers may not have reinforcing contingencies in the classroom for children with severe disruptive behavior. Parents or guardians can be involved to dispense the consequences at home for behavior occurring in school11.
Not effective for some groups
There are some populations that do not respond well or at all to the procedure. Older children or chronic psychiatric patients, for example, are generally not affected by it12.
Unintentionally incentivize the wrong behavior
It may incentivize unethical behavior such as stealing tokens or sabotage by participants. Trustees for the New York City schools removed the reward system in the 1830s since cunning behavior rather than meritorious behavior was rewarded.
Participants become dependent on it. Withdrawal of tokens may result in decreased desirable behavior or increased bad behavior.
Philosophical opposition to token reinforcement as it constitutes bribery (reinforcement) or blackmail (response cost)13.
Issues with ethical and legal concerns to patient rights when their rights of mental patients are withheld and used as reinforcers14.
Undermining intrinsic motivation
In educational settings token economy raises the question of whether it undermines intrinsic motivation as a result of the overjustification effect.
How to use it most effectively to improve your kid’s behavior
Children who are not responsive to tokens usually fail to respond to the set of contingencies that are standard across all kids. Improvements in the system can be made by taking the following measures.
- Value increase – Reward more tokens or exchange tokens for larger rewards.
- Reinforcer sampling – By allowing kids to see or experience a portion of the backup reinforcers without contingency, they will be more likely to want to earn tokens to buy it15.
- Backup selection – Allow participants to choose their preferred items for which they are willing to engage in the target behavior to earn.
- Increase the frequency of reward delivery during the early phase of the implementation so that participants can be quickly reinforced.
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- 1.Kazdin AE. Principles of Operant Conditioning. The Token Economy. Published online 1977:1-18. doi:10.1007/978-1-4613-4121-5_1
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