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Token Economies Essay

A token economy is a behaviour modification program based on operant conditioning principles. Token economies are sometimes successfully used in institutional settings, such as schools and psychiatric hospitals. People receive tokens for desirable behaviours such as getting out of bed, washing and cooperating. These tokens can be exchanged for rewards such as going for leave on hospital grounds, TV-watching time or exchange in the hospital shop for cigarettes or snacks. In a study carried out by Burchard and Barrera (1972) using a token economy system designed for the rehabilitation of mildly mentally ill young boys who displayed a high frequency of anti-social behaviour.

Tokens were mostly earned through achievement in the workshop and were exchanged for a variety of rewards, such as meals, recreational trips, clothes or purchases. A time-out procedure was also adopted where boys had to sit on a bench behind a partition, hence having time out from being able to receive reinforcers; also a response cost procedure was employed during which reinforcers were removed, thus tokens were removed. Time out and deprivation of tokens occurred following swearing, personal assault, property damage or other undesirable behaviour, it was found that these things repressed the boy’s bad behaviour, but in some boys one technique might be more effective than another. Behaviour modification is being applied to a whole variety of what are traditionally considered disturbed behaviours with good results.

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The main practical difficulties are being able to find suitable reinforcers and to apply the techniques constantly. Some critics have suggested that behaviour modification may succeed in changing behaviours but not the processes that underlie them, and also that it could be used to teach that behaviour which best fits the demands of the institution rather than that which is in the individual’s best interest. Using a Token economy system within an institution presents many difficulties, as staff have to ensure that reinforcement and removal of tokens must be consistent and done constantly.

All staff, be it day or night have to be fully involved, they also have to carry out their roles fully for such a programme to work. It only requires one staff member to fail at their task for the effectiveness of the programme to fail. Organising and carrying out such a scheme requires time and effective planning, it is an expensive and time consuming way to change behaviour, if some staff are not committed to the programme then it is likely fail. There is also no attempt to address the cause behind why the children are trouble makers, and what might be a more dignified way of helping them.

Who decides what is or is not acceptable behaviour, the staff within the institution not the individual children themselves. Such a scheme could be open to unlimited abuse. It is no coincidence that in some closed environments of hospitals and homes some staff members have been caught physically and mentally abusing defenceless people, a perfect example is that of Winterbourne hospital run by the Castlebeck group which featured on BBC’s Panorama programme 31 May 2011 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20070437) a reporter went undercover and filmed shocking abuse carried out on the residents of the home. Following the investigation a number of staff have been charged and arrested for the abuse of vulnerable clients whilst in their care.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing:

A fairly new therapy is Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), developed by Francine Shapiro in 1987, is a method that some therapists use to treat problems such as post traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks and more recently phobia’s. This treatment is a type of exposure therapy in which clients move their eyes back and forth while recalling memories that are to be desensitized. Many critics of EMDR claim that the treatment is no different from a standard exposure treatment and that the eye movements do not add to the effectiveness of the procedure. The treatment is fairly complex and includes elements from several different schools of therapy.

The most unusual part of the treatment involves the therapist waving his or her fingers back and forth in front of the client’s eyes, and the client tracking the movements while focusing on a traumatic event. The act of tracking while concentrating seems to allow a different level of processing to occur. The client is often able to review the event more calmly or more completely than before.

Strengths of the Behaviour Approach:

The major strength of the behavioural approach is that some disorders especially phobias do seem to be a result of ‘faulty learning’. The behavioural approach is better than the biological approach at explaining some disorders such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is an anxiety disorder that occurs in response to an extreme psychological or physical experience. At least some sufferers show anxiety reactions to stimuli which were present at the time of the trauma. A main strength of the behaviourist perspective has been the development of useful applications. One strength of the behaviourist approach is that it has successfully applied classical and operant conditioning to its theories.

Systematic desensitisation is based on classical conditioning and is useful for treating phobias. Another strength of the behaviourist approach is that it uses scientific methods of research, which are objective, measurable and observable, such as Bandura’s bobo doll study of aggression. The behavioural approach offers very practical ways of changing behaviour from for example therapies through to advertising. However at the same time this does raise an ethical issue as if the behaviourist perspective is able to control behaviour who decides which behaviour should be controlled or changed.

Weaknesses of the Behaviour Approach:

The behaviourist approach to understanding abnormality is very reductionist as it reduces explanations for behaviour to simple reward and punishment. While some behaviour’s such as the acquisition of phobias, may be explained this way, there are many abnormal behaviours that seem to be passed on genetically, for example alcoholism, autism and schizophrenia and so it is difficult to explain them solely in terms of classical or operant conditioning. Similarly there are many disorders, for example depression, that seem to feature abnormal levels of neurotransmitters and so a biological explanation may be more sensible than a simple behaviourist one.

Behaviourism can explain the role of the media in the acquisition of certain abnormal behaviours. Anorexia has long been linked with the ‘perfect’ body image as portrayed in the media. People may learn to be anorexic through social learning by observing models and actresses, reading about the diets they are on, and copying the behaviour they see. The majority of research into classical and operant conditioning has been conducted on animals. Aside from the possible ethical implications of animal research, there is also the issue of generalising findings from one species and applying them to another.

Assumptions have to be made that at least some human physiology and psychology is the same as animal physiology and psychology, but clearly humans are different to animals. The behaviourist approach is extremely determinist because it states that a behaviour that has been reinforced will be carried out, and one that has been punished will not be carried out. However, humans clearly have a degree of free will and are able to decide when to carry out some behaviours and when to resist them. Cognitive theories of behaviour try to account for free will and decision making, and so it may be better to combine behaviourist and cognitive approaches when trying to explain abnormal behaviour.

A further problem with the behavioural perspective is that many of the practical uses of the approach such as aversion therapy and token economy systems when used as a way of changing behaviour do tend to be short lived. That is, they do change behaviour but often only for a limited time. The behaviourist model also struggles to explain why we acquire phobias for some objects or events quicker than others. In a modern world, fast cars, wintery conditions and using a mobile whilst crossing the road are far more threatening than spiders and snakes but we don’t develop car phobia.

The Biological Model:

The biological model aims to explain all behaviour and experience in terms of physical bodily processes. For example, when you feel stressed this usually involves a sensation of your heart pounding, your palms being sweaty and so on. These are physical symptoms created by activation of the nervous system. Your experience of stress is caused by the biological processes involved. The nervous system is divided into the central nervous system (CNS) and the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which is further subdivided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches. The central nervous system comprises the brain and spinal cord, containing about 12 billion nerve cells or neurons.

It explains behaviour in terms of the following assumptions:

1. Different areas of the brain are specialised for certain functions, the cerebral cortex covers the surface of the brain and is responsible for higher cognitive functions. The cerebral cortex is divided into four lobes with the most important being the frontal cortex or lobe, responsible for ï¬ne motor movement and thinking. Other lobes include the occipital lobe, which is associated with vision. Underneath the cortex there are various sub cortical structures such as the hypothalamus which integrates the autonomic nervous system and plays a part in stress and emotion.

2. Neurons are electrically excitable cells that form the basis of the nervous system. The ï¬exibility of the nervous system is enhanced by having many branches at the end of each neuron called dendrites, so that each neuron connects with many others. One neuron communicates with another neuron at a synapse, where the message is relayed by chemical messengers or neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters are released from presynaptic vesicles in one neuron, and will either stimulate or inhibit receptors in the other neuron. The synaptic cleft or gap is about 20 nanometres wide. Some common neurotransmitters are dopamine which is associated with rewards and also schizophrenia, serotonin associated with sleep and arousal, adrenaline associated arousal and gamma-amino-butyric acid (GABA) which decreases anxiety.

3. Hormones are biochemical substances that are produced in one part of the body (endocrine glands such as the pituitary and adrenal glands) and circulate in the blood, having an effect on target organ(s). They are produced in large quantities but disappear very quickly. Their effects are slow in comparison with the nervous system, but very powerful. Examples of hormones include testosterone (a male hormone) and oestrogen (female hormone). Some hormones such as adrenaline are also neurotransmitters.

The biological approach has become the most widely used form of treating mental illness since the 1960’s. The biological model takes the same approach as it does for physical ailments, and assumes that psychological problems have a physical cause such as genetics where the patient may have inherited the illness from his parents or run in the family, possibly through a rouge or bad gene. The model takes the approach as with other illnesses that physical intervention will be required be it chemotherapy (drug therapy), ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) and previously surgery to treat psychological issues. Although the biological model focuses on internal, biological processes, it does not ignore the possibility that the environment can have a role to play in abnormality.

Biological Therapies:

Biomedical therapies include chemotherapy (drug therapy), electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and psychosurgery. Chemotherapy (drug treatment): The most widely used form of treatment available under biological therapies is chemotherapy (drugs) with almost 25% of NHS prescriptions being for drugs to treat mental disorders in the United Kingdom. It aims to treat psychological disorders with medications and is usually combined with other kinds of psychotherapy. The main categories of drugs used to treat psychological disorders are antianxiety drugs, antidepressants, and antipsychotics.

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