This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 05 table of contents.

Secondary Reinforcement Using Tokens

Secondary reinforcers, you may recall, are learned or symbolic reinforcers. Money is a secondary reinforcer, because you cannot eat or drink money or get any other primary reinforcement directly from it. However, you can trade money for primary reinforcers such as food and drink. Secondary reinforcers get their reinforcing properties from their association with primary reinforcers. Grades are an example. They are worthless in themselves, but they can lead to primary reinforcers like pride, attention, and the fruits of employment after graduation.

How are secondary reinforcers used in token economies?

One well-known application of secondary reinforcement is in token economies. Token economies are like miniature economic systems, using plastic poker chips or similar tokens instead of money. Originally they were used in mental hospitals, but more recently they have been found useful in institutions serving learning-disabled individuals. One student writes:

Everyone has a need and a want for food, sleep, and love. These are just a few examples of what is known as primary reinforcements. Sometimes reinforcements are earned to buy or attain primary reinforcements. This kind of reinforcement is known as secondary reinforcement.

My sister is mentally retarded, and I can tell when she has been positively reinforced for something she has done, especially at school. She attends Gordon County Training Center. The teachers there have set up a system based on tokens. If the students at GCTC do their work well or get along with the other students, they receive a certain amount of tokens. At the end of each week, the students can go to the "store" in the school and spend their tokens on something that they want. My sister always comes home telling us how many tokens she earned and what she spent them on.

She really enjoys getting tokens or any other kind of secondary reinforcement, such as trophies or ribbons, for her achievements. The secondary reinforcements show her that she is doing something good and acceptable in the eyes of others. [Author's files]

Why are tokens useful in institutional settings?

Tokens are useful in group settings like a training center for several reasons. (1) the same reinforcer can be given to everybody, and (2) reinforcement can be given immediately after a behavior. In a treatment facility, candy might be an effective reinforcer with some people...but not everybody, and different people like different types of candy. With tokens, you do not need to worry about having the right type of reinforcer on hand; you can give reinforcements immediately (in tokens) and the patient can "spend" the tokens later at a store in the hospital.

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