Warden French at the maximum security federal prison decided that he needed a better motivational system for the inmates. After doing some reading on the topic, he decided to implement a token economy to get the inmates to engage in more desirable behaviors on a daily basis. He defined a number of desirable target behaviors related to rehabilitation and a number of undesirable behaviors that were interfering with rehabilitation. All of the inmates received a list of the behaviors that were expected of them. The warden instituted a high-tech system in which each inmate carried an electronic device that could be used to receive points as tokens. Each guard carried an electronic device that could be used to deliver points. Whenever the inmate engaged in one of the target behaviors, the guard used his scanner to read the code from the inmate’s device and deliver points electronically (much as the scanner used at a supermarket reads the price of items being purchased). Whenever the inmate engaged in problem behaviors, the guard used the scanner to subtract points. The warden identified the number of points for each target behavior and the exchange rate for backup reinforcers. The warden wanted backup reinforcers that would be powerful reinforcers for the inmates so that the token system would produce beneficial changes in the inmates’ behavior. The warden decided that the inmates had to have a specified number of tokens to enter the cafeteria at each mealtime. He set the number of tokens at a reasonable level so that the inmates could earn the tokens needed for each meal with a reasonable level of appropriate behavior. He wanted the inmates to be successful, especially at the beginning of the program. If they did not have the specified number of tokens at a mealtime, they could not eat and had to earn enough tokens by the next mealtime. The warden reasoned that food is always a reinforcer and that there were four opportunities for reinforcement each day: three meals and evening snack. He also reasoned that inmates who missed a meal or two would be even more motivated to earn tokens toward the next meal. In addition, the inmates could eat all that they wanted and, therefore, they could make up for any nutrition that they lost by missing a previous meal.
What is wrong with this use of a token economy?