Among the most significant theoretical advances in the study of behavior over the past few decades has been the integration of economic and psychological perspectives-what has come to be called behavioral economics. A chief insight of behavioral economics is that behavior is always subject to constraints-restricted income, limited options, incomplete and uncertain information about the world-and that our theories need to take such factors into account. Behavioral economics, broadly construed, is an approach to understanding how these constraints impact behavior. It has also been fruitfully applied in recent years to a wide range of health- related problems, including addictions, gambling, and obesity, to name just a few. Behavioral economics is thus of practical as well as theoretical importance.
The aim of the present research is to develop a laboratory-based system for examining behavior from an economic perspective. The centerpiece of the proposed research is a token-economic system, in which tokens are earned, accumulated, and exchanged for other commodities. Such behavior is readily viewed in economic terms: the production of tokens is akin to a wage, exchange rate to the price of a good, the production of exchange opportunities to procurement costs, accumulation of tokens to savings, and exchange of tokens for other goods to expenditures. As such, token systems provide a controlled and analytically tractable environment in which to explore interactions between behavior and economic variables. Such systems enable detailed measurement of economic behavior (e.g., labor, consumption, preference, savings) on multiple levels of analysis and in relation to a wide range of economic variables (e.g., prices, wages, interest, inflation). A token system, in short, provides an experimental test bed for fundamental concepts in behavioral economics. Building on an extensive body of animal research, the present research uses pigeons as workers in a miniature and self-contained economy. This maximizes experimental control, and permits systematic manipulation of variables useful in an economic analysis. At the same time, the token system is modeled after monetary-based economic systems. This brings within reach a wide range of economic variables never before studied in the laboratory, and with it, exciting new possibilities for an experimental analysis of economic behavior.
Behavioral-economic concepts have been fruitfully applied in recent years to addictions, gambling and other types of risky choice, finance, obesity, self-control, and health policy, to name just a few. Indeed, behavioral economics has begun to change the way problem behavior is conceptualized and treated. A better understanding of economic systems is thus of practical as well as theoretical importance.
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