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Token Economy: a treatment based upon the principles of Operant Conditioning
How' Token Economy' came to be
- The very first development of token economy was conceived by Ayllon and Haughton (A& H) in 1962 at
Anne State Hospital, Illinois; later refined by Ayllon and Azrin (A & A) in 1968. At the hospital, it was reported
that the staff found it difficult to get withdrawn schizophrenics to eat on a regular basis. A & H first noted that
the staff were only making the situation worse by persuading and sometimes even force feeding them to
eat, which A & H thought only reinforced their uncooperativeness and thus decided that the hospital rules
should be changed.
- For example, one of the rules was that if patients did not arrive at the dining hall with 30 minutes of being
called, they were locked out. Furthermore, staff was no longer permitted to interact with patients during
dinner time. As a result, their uncooperative behaviour was no longer being reinforced and slowly began
changing their eating habits.
- Then the patients were made to pay one penny before being allowed to enter the dining hall. These
pennies could be earned by displaying socially appropriate target behaviour. Not only did they begin to
change their eating habits, but their behaviour changed also.
- A & H's idea was later refined by A & A (1968) in the form of a token economy system. In this, the patients
are given tokens for displaying desirable behaviour. The therapist, firstly, figures out what the patient likes
(such as watching television or smoking). When a productive activity occurs (e.g. making a bed or being
polite to other patients), the patient is then given tokens that can be exchanged for `privileges'. Therefore the
tokens become conditioned reinforces that elicit the desirable behaviour.
Applying the principles of Operant Conditioning
- `Token Economy' is one of the three therapies within the Learning Approach and uses the principles of
Operant Conditioning to increase the likelihood of a desired behaviour being repeated by the subject. It is
most likely to be used in institutional places like mental hospitals, prisons, schools etc.
- Once the subject has displayed a desired behaviour agreed upon, the subject would then be awarded a
token (object or symbol), the tokens act as a positive reinforcement, as a result of repeating the desired
behaviour the subject will receive more tokens which can then be later exchanged for an item the subject
- The tokens also act as secondary reinforcers because they are associated with primary reinforcers
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E.g. in a prison setting
Prisoner has no tokens and no access to any privileges Display desired behaviour (not getting into fights)
receive token for desired behaviour exchange for some television time.
The cycle then repeats itself so that the person in question can gain more tokens and earn their `privileges'
all over again. As a result, they learn that if they behave correctly they will gain something pleasurable.…read more
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Token economies are usually used in closed institutions such as prisons and so their results
cannot be generalised to wider society as such desirable behaviours may not be immediately
rewarded when the offender is released and so the offender may not be encouraged to act
in a positive manner.…read more