The token economy technique to improve behavior

The token economy programs are based on the principles of operant conditioning (reinforcement, punishment, extinction and control stimuli) introduced by his predecessor B.F. Skinner (1904-1990). Operant techniques are highly effective and currently used in behavioral therapies to maintain, increase or decrease behaviors.

Thus, we understand it as operant behavior to the extent that influences the environment, strengthen or weaken depending on the consequences following the behavior, ie the contingency or chance in the history of the behavior and its consequences.

Token economy program

A token economy is a combination of reinforcement and punishment procedures. It consists mainly of giving a generalized reinforcer (tab) when issued a desirable response and / or withdrawn when the target behavior is inappropriate. The record in this case has a value as a reinforcer, since the subject can redeem for various reinforcers, hence the name of economy. The card is like your “money”. Thus what we do not need to be constantly giving the reinforcer after a desirable behavior because they are already previously agreed by the record-prize. If the subject does well a particular task will automatically know that “X” chips.

Program components token economy

  • List of behaviors that you want to modify. For example: pay attention in class, clear the table, sit, punctuality, etc.
  • Indicate the number of chips that can be earned for every good behavior. It can give you a certain higher or lower value depending on the degree of importance of behavior.
  • List the specific reinforcers for the exchange of tokens or points earned. For example: extend the playing time, to see a movie, go down to the park, to buy some little thing (trading cards, magazines, books). Always try the reinforcer is something educational, we will not give reinforce that even if the person creates positive is really bad for him.
  • Exposing the game. Normally you could put a kind of board in a conspicuous place or establish some kind of “contract” between parties where explain. the time where the chips will be delivered is specified, its value and when they can be changed by reinforcers. You have to choose either this we will no longer be allowed to park down a small child if it is too late. If you have written rules will understand and will not protest: it is a game and games love especially children. We also need to expose the duration of the program and achieving an ultimate goal, if necessary.
Ejemplo gráfico
Click to enlarge

The tokens

The tabs may be submitted whenever a desired behavior (positive reinforcement) is made to increase it, or deliver the total chips at the beginning of the program to irlas contingently removing a behavior problem to try to reduce it (response cost).

Response cost

Yes, surely some will sound this method to eliminate problem behaviors. The points driving license which has been used in Spain for some years, has a lot of psychology. This system is based on the token economy. You start with 12 points card and depending on the type of offense that you have are reduced to the possible total loss of the card. Also, if you’re good and you have no violations in two years, the DGT you “rewards” with increased points on your license to 15. The reinforcer in this case is the tranquility of that cushion of points, not expect that the DGT will let out a little recess. Although it would not hurt to reward excellence in driving with some sort of reduction in the license renewal fees or something like that, but this I think he likes less to the state administration;)

The program type token economy for response cost are typically used when there is a high possibility that the offense (damned hidden speed cameras in areas safely with the sudden limit sign 50 km / h on a country road occur … ). Deliver all the chips at the beginning acts as a great enhancer, nobody wants to lose what you already have, and inspires confidence in the person as you allow control spending of the chips according to their own behaviors.

Suggestions and recommendations to implement the token economy

To achieve the greatest possible success for the duration of the program have to take into account these points for efficient operation:

  • Select well reinforcers. There must be variety of reinforcers and that at least one like it. Imagine that you apply in your family with two children, one man’s booster for the other not so much. One just wants the cards of the Paw Patrol and other prefers down to play football with his friends. We will have a list of reinforcers that can go polishing, increasing or decreasing, between the subjects of the program and the person who applies it.
  • Good management of delay of reinforcement. To start the program that records should be delivered more frequently and that can be changed more reinforcers to motivate the dynamics of the program and not fall into despair impossible to get chips. However, we want to make this more tangible motivation (extrinsic) in a more symbolic (intrinsic) so the accumulating chips will benefit in this regard and will have a symbolic value. To achieve this, we can put in advance in the rules of the game that will be modified in light of progress acquired in the program.
  • Remember that the goal of the program is to increase or decrease the target behavior without chips, intrinsically. Therefore, the program will be phased out so that the value enhancer chips to the value of conducting themselves as self-reinforcing behaviors and social reinforcement that generates the performance of good behavior is transferred. For example, you feel good socially say you have 15 points card, right? You will fight not to lose them to brag about them in the social gatherings;)

If we are not careful with these points we can fall into the disadvantage that the behavior only occurs for the duration of the program and that is not the objective.

Advantages of token economy programs

  • The strengthening is delivered immediately, but without interrupting the activity. When you see the spark of flash and you know your economy surely license points down, but keep driving. Or if a child has picked up the table and know you have tabs therefore it has been strengthened but need not lose recess right after eating. It’s like money, no need to spend it all as cobras payroll.
  • As is quantifiable you can be put on scales depending on whether the task or behavior has done better or worse, so valuable. If for example, you give 2 records by setting the table but one day you forget to put the vessels, as we could assess the intention and give a point. Surely the next day puts the glasses.
    Avoid satiating effect to exchange the chips for various reinforcers. If every day we bought candy, we end up getting tired of them, but with those points can buy different things, my motivation will increase.
  • Secondary reinforcers that follow present when the tangible enhancer associated tab is removed. In the example of setting the table, probably while setting the table the child is in the company of someone who reinforce socially (symbolic reinforcement) because you will be paying attention or talking about other things, or catch good side habits, like having dishes well then ordered to place better. In the case of penalty points, going more slowly reduce the consumption of the car and obviously the risk of accident, which although mostly seems a secondary reinforcer should be the main objective of the program.

Remember that for the correct application of these techniques ideally you consult with a psychologist or specialist to adapt the techniques to your needs.


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Iván Pico

Director y creador de Psicólogo Colegiado G-5480 entre otras cosas. Diplomado en Ciencias Empresariales y Máster en Orientación Profesional. Máster en Psicología del Trabajo y Organizaciones. Posgrado en Psicología del Deporte entre otras cosas. Visita la sección "Sobre mí" para saber más. ¿Quieres una consulta personalizada? ¡Escríbeme!

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