Phenomenological Psychology

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Token Economies and Cultural Nihilism

June 9th, 2009 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

One of the most serious problems with behaviorism is that it has a distinctly 1960s “Great Society” feel to it.  An example is Skinner’s concept of a “token economy” and the way it was applied to classroom organization and management.  The basic concept was that children should be rewarded for appropriate behaviors and school achievement (though not necessarily punished for misbehavior or inattention).  Students were presented with a “token” (e.g. a plastic chip) for suitable behavior or for the completion of some task or responsibility, which then could be traded for reinforcers of good behavior. 

In a televised interview Skinner himself spoke of an innovative teacher who each week acquired and would display in the classroom an inexpensive reward such as a transistor radio.  Each time a student completed a homework assignment on time she/he was entered into a lottery that would be conducted at the end of the week, and the winner got the prize; each student’s chances of winning increased with her/his number of entries.

If a teacher tried doing this today she/he would be laughed out of the classroom.  The issue is not so much the reward value of the token.  Rather there is no context in which the concept of tokens itself makes sense.  Tokens and token economies depend on basic sociocultural concepts such as “exchange” and “infrastructure.”  For most students, especially those with lower SES background, the whole framework is unintelligible.  While empirical research is necessary I hypothesize that one of the reasons for this is the pervasive influence of media that promotes pop cultural notions of transience, impermanence and disposability.  Another is the disintegration of family, community and other support mechanisms.  These and other factors introduce an attitude of indifference that best can be characterized as a kind of “cultural nihilism,” which make Skinner and the token economy irrelevant (irrespective of other objections to behaviorism as a theory).