BF Skinner and Token Economy Systems
A Brief History of Behaviorism, Part 2
If you could travel back in time about 60 years and walk through a typical school, you might be surprised to find something missing. You wouldn’t see behavior charts or “star student” award posters. You wouldn’t see teachers handing out “cougar bucks” to children walking quietly in hallways or kids being promised pizza if they worked hard during math time. Token economy systems like these hadn’t yet been invented. Have you ever wondered, where did these systems come from?
While writing Tackling the Motivation Crisis: How to Activate Student Learning Without Behavior Charts, Pizza Parties, or Other Hard-to-Quit Incentive Systems, I researched behaviorism, the branch of psychology that birthed these systems. What I learned was fascinating, and it helped me better understand where these incentives systems that are so common (and damaging, by the way) came from. I’m excited to share some of what I learned in this series of blog posts. Enjoy!
BF Skinner and Token Economy Systems
Burrhus Frederic Skinner was a bit of a rock star in his heyday. He was named one of Esquire’s 100 most influential people in 1970, and in 1971, he was on the cover of Time magazine, and he and his work were featured on many TV shows including The Phil Donohue Show (citation: The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think, by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods).
B. F. Skinner led the behaviorism movement for decades. He built on the work of Pavlov, Watson, and others while making an important adjustment. Instead of using external stimuli (such as shining a light, ringing a bell, or striking a metal rod), he used the behavior of the animal itself as the stimuli. If you told the dog to sit, and it did, you rewarded it with a treat. He discovered he could train animals to do all kinds of interesting things. Rats would run mazes and pigeons would push buttons when rewarded with food, for example. He called this technique operant conditioning, because the animal operated on the environment to get the reward.
Token Economy System
Like other behaviorists, Skinner believed that psychology should focus solely on behavior—not goals, purposes, or thoughts. In fact, in his New York Times bestselling book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, he asserts that people’s belief in free will and moral autonomy hinder society’s ability to be more just and better organized. Like Watson, he also believed that all people are controlled by their environment. More specifically, behavior is shaped by its consequences. If you receive rewards for certain behaviors, you will continue these behaviors. This basic principle led Skinner to the develop token economy systems which allowed him to transfer his work with lab rats and pigeons to people.
The basic idea of this strategy is that instead of rewarding someone with an actual treat in the moment, you given them some kind of token that can be traded for a treat later. Usually, tokens can be accumulated to trade in for rewards of greater value. This was a simple but important shift, and it allowed a much greater versatility of the use of rewards to condition behaviors.
The Conviction of an Evangelist
As I researched B. F. Skinner and his work and watched several video interviews with him, and I found myself with mixed feelings. There’s a seriousness and earnestness with which Skinner talks about his work which is quite endearing. He doesn’t just see behaviorism in terms of controlling children—he sees it as a universal truth and speaks with the certainty and conviction of an evangelist. He says that he himself lives a completely controlled life—that his own behavior is entirely a function of his genetic endowments and the evolution of the species, his past history (family, religion, government, and schooling), and his present physical environment. (Here’s that interview from 1972!) Yet he can also be cold, aloof, and calculating. He once said that “he would rather burn his children than his books because ‘his contribution to the future would be greater through his work than through his genes’” (citation: The Genius of Dogs, p. 227).
His methods were revolutionary at the time and perhaps helped propel child rearing away from the ideology of “spare the rod and spoil the child,” for he was a strong advocate against punishment. He found that even in experiments with rats, punishments only resulted in short term changes in behavior. The same, he said, was true with children. Hitting children, for example, only produced short-term changes, but parents reported that misconduct reappeared later on. Skinner also didn’t like the side-effects of punishment. A child punished at school, for example, would fear consequences and become averse to learning (citation: Theories of Development, p. 193-194).
Not Designed for "Typical" Children
By the late 1960s and 1970s, Skinner’s techniques had gained a foothold in many institutions, including mental hospitals, juvenile detention centers, and prisons. Notice that these are institutions that typically work with children and adults who often need intense support, and Skinner himself was clear about this. Although he saw the principles he worked with as universal, he believed that most people respond to natural incentives and stimuli and don’t need lots of intervention. His techniques were not designed with typical children in mind.
A Success Story
In a 1976 film produced by UCLA, we can see Skinner’s techniques at work. The film follows Jimmy, an out-of-control 11-year-old boy. His parents are at their wits end. Jimmy’s behavior is explosive and destructive. He has attacked siblings with a hammer and screwdriver and even jumped out of cars. His parents explain that they’ve tried the “normal stuff” (punishments, whippings, and beatings) and nothing is working. They’ve brought him to a children’s psychiatric hospital because they’re ready to “eliminate him from the family.” (It’s easy to judge these parents harshly, especially through the lens of today’s child-rearing practices where “whippings and beatings” are strongly discouraged and the sentiment “eliminate him from the family” sounds horrible. At the same time, I’m glad no one sat down and interviewed me during my darkest hours as a parent. It’s important to have empathy for a family that’s spinning out of control.)
The film follows Jimmy as he experiences the techniques advocated by B. F. Skinner. Jimmy earns tokens for meeting behavior goals. If he doesn’t throw a temper tantrum for a designated amount of time, for example, he earns tokens which can be later traded in for privileges. The transformation of Jimmy’s behavior over the course of the film is remarkable, and he is eventually able to rejoin his family in their home. It’s a compelling success story, and I’m reminded of why this technique can be so attractive and why it’s so often advocated for in schools.
There's More to Skinner's System Than Tokens
I’m also surprised at the number of other elements and components the film shows that so often seem to be lost as Skinner’s techniques are implemented. The adults working with Jimmy share power and control with him. They help him articulate his goal to stop having temper tantrums, and Jimmy gets to set his token clock. He also gets to choose what to spend his tokens on, and choices aren’t about candy or trinkets; they’re about getting to play with tinker toys and visiting his family. There are all kinds of other positive shifts in the interventions Jimmy gets to support his behavior. He’s given clear and firm limits, and he receives consequences which aren’t physical punishments when he falls short. He experiences responsibility as he’s given time to support the play of a younger child. His parents are also given extensive training in parenting techniques before he moves back into the home.
In short, the token economy system that Skinner is so famous for appears to play a limited role in the overall intervention program highlighted in the film. Given how prominent a role token economy systems seem to play in programs for individual children as well as in classroom-wide and school-wide management systems, don’t you find this surprising? I know I did.
It’s easy to see why Skinner and his techniques became so popular.
As behaviorism gained steam however, it also developed critics.
To read on, check out the next post in this series: What If There's More to Behavior than Behaviors?
Here is an easy go-to list of all of the posts in this series:
Part 1: Drooling Dogs and the Birth of Behaviorism
Part 2: BF Skinner and Token Economy Systems
Part 3: What If There’s More to Behavior than Behaviors?
Part 4: The Factory Model of Schooling
Are you interested in learning more about how to move away from incentives? Here are three resources to check out.
This free LiveBinder is packed with practical resources: articles, videos, research studies, and more!
In this online course for K-12 educators, I offer many practical ideas and strategies for fostering students’ self-motivation in the classroom.
You might also check out my book, Tackling the Motivation Crisis!