Token Economies: Introduction

The group home at which Joe was to reside was employing what is termed a "token economy." This example is based on a well-researched program known as the "teaching-family model" or "Achievement Place" (e.g., Phillips, 1968; Philips, Philips, Fixsen, & Wolf, 1971). It is a very successful program, one that has grown from six children in one group home in 1967 to 1,500 children in 250 group homes in 1993 (Fixsen & Blase, 1993).

To more fully appreciate the reasoning behind a token economy, a review of a few behavioral concepts is in order. A reinforcer is a stimulus or event that increases the frequency of a behavior because it was presented as a consequence of that behavior. Some stimuli and events are naturally reinforcing, and we call them unconditioned reinforcers. Chips and pop probably function as unconditioned reinforcers for Joe's behaviors. Other stimuli and events lack this natural ability; however, they can acquire it by being reliably paired with established reinforcers. We call them conditioned reinforcers. Tokens are conditioned reinforcers that can be accumulated and exchanged for other reinforcers. The points on Joe's index card would be considered tokens. Conditioned reinforcers such as praise or the sight of a loved one are not tokens because they are not tangible objects that can be stored and ultimately redeemed. The reinforcers for which tokens are exchanged are called backup reinforcers. The opportunity to watch TV would be a backup reinforcer at Joe's group home, given that he could redeem his points for this privilege. A program applied to a group of individuals in which tokens are earned (and sometimes lost) for various behaviors with the intent of improving those behaviors is called a token economy.

Token economies are widespread. Martin & Pear (1998) note:

"Token economies have been used on psychiatric wards, in institutions and classrooms for developmentally disabled persons, in classrooms for children and teenagers with attention-deficit disorder (ADHD), in normal classroom settings ranging from preschool to college and university classes, in homes for predelinquents (i.e., juveniles who have engaged in antisocial behaviors), in prisons, in the military, on wards for the treatment of drug addicts and alcoholics, in nursing homes, in convalescent centers, in normal family homes to control children's behavior and to treat marital discord, and in various work settings to increase safety behavior, decrease absenteeism and to enhance on-the-job performance... Although developed primarily in institutional settings, the techniques used in token economies have been extended to various community settings to decrease littering, increase recycling of wastes, increase energy conservation, increase the use of mass transportation, decrease noise pollution, increase racial integration, increase behaviors involved in gaining employment, and increase self-help behaviors in people who are disadvantaged by the present economic system." (pp. 296-297; see also Kazdin, 1977)

Kazdin (1985) notes that "there is probably is no other psychosocial intervention that has been applied as broadly to diverse populations and settings and at the same time has generated as much empirical research as the token economy" (p. 234). He concludes from his extensive review that "the token economy is extremely effective in producing change in specific target behaviors while the program is in effect" (p. 234). In addition, he cites a number of reports indicating that: (1) these changes are often accompanied by improvements in non-targeted behaviors; (2) the effects of participation in a token economy can maintain up to a few years after the program has ended; and (3) cost analyses are favorable for token economies when compared to standard care for populations such as psychiatric patients and juvenile offenders.

What is the prognosis for Joe? During his stay at Achievement Place, his delinquent behavior and social skills will likely improve relative to his peers in group homes using other approaches to prevent delinquency. However, these differences will not maintain in the year following his release. Both Joe and the comparison youths will exhibit less delinquent behavior after treatment than before, but their level of offending will still remain well above national norms (Kirigin, Braukmann, Atwater, & Wolf, 1982; see also Wolf, Braukmann, & Ramp, 1987). (The issue of promoting generality will be discussed later.)