What is a Token Economy?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 31 May 2020
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A token economy is a technique which is designed to modify behavior through the use of positive reinforcement. It is based upon the principle of operant conditioning, in which the frequency of good behavior can be reinforced, and the frequency of bad behavior can be reduced, with the eventual goal of extinguishing bad behavior altogether. Token economies are commonly used in institutional settings such as prisons, schools, and residential treatment facilities, and they can also be used at home by parents who understand how to apply a token economy.

In a token economy, people earn tokens when they exhibit good behavior. The tokens themselves are not a reinforcement, but people can save their tokens up and trade them for things they want, which is a form of reinforcement. For example, people might collect tickets for exhibiting behaviors deemed desirable, and at the end of the day, they could trade their tickets for candy, outside privileges, and other things they might want.

Several characteristics have to be present for a token economy to be effective. In the first place, “good behavior” must be clearly defined, with people understanding what they need to do in order to earn a token. The value of tokens must also be defined, so that people understand how many tokens they need to earn to redeem rewards of their choice. For people who are highly visual, tokens are sometimes awarded on punch cards or grids so that they can see how many tokens they have earned, and how close they are to a reward.

A token economy also cannot involve deprivation and neglect. People cannot trade tokens for basic needs such as food, bedding, access to the bathroom, and so forth, because these needs must be met regardless of good behavior. It is important that the things people receive in trade for tokens be rewards, and that they be appropriate to the person and setting. Token economies must also be consistently applied; if Johnny earns a token for sitting quietly in circle for 10 minutes, so does Susie.

When a token economy is first introduced, people usually earn tokens quickly. The idea is to familiarize people with the system and to show them how good behavior results in rewards. Over time, people must exhibit behavior more consistently and for longer periods in order to earn tokens. For example, a teacher who is trying to get a child to calm down for nap time might at first give the child a token for every 30 seconds that the child can lie still. Over time, the intervals would increase to a minute, two minutes, and so forth, until the child might be receiving a token for five or 10 minutes of good behavior in contrast with the 30 seconds at the start.

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Post 3

@fBoyle-- Yes and no. I think that the token economy has the potential to succeed or fail in every environment because there are many factors involved. It may work in one case but not in another, we can't generalize.

I personally think that the token economy succeeds when the token economy rewards are something extra. For example, if you take inmates' recreational activities away and then offer it as a privilege in return for tokens, I don't think that's going to work too well. But if you offer extra recreational time, in addition to what they have normally, then it will probably work.

I read that a US prison allows inmates to buy and play video games as reward for good conduct and it is working extremely well. There has been less conflict in that prison since they started enforcing this. It's a great example.

Post 2

Do the token economy behavior modification methods really work in prisons? What kind of rewards do inmates usually receive?

Post 1

I have two nephews who had behavioral problems and my brother and sister-in-law really struggled with them. When they realized that they won't be able to discipline them on their own, they asked for help from an expert on child behavior. She taught them the token economy and how it can be used to discipline children. I think more than changing kids' behavior, the token economy also teaches adults and parents how to act with kids. My nephews were problematic mainly because my brother and sister in law did not act correctly with them.

After they put the token economy in place at home, everything changed. My nephews are well behaved, they listen to their parents and follow rules. It's quite amazing how effective this system is.

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