Token economy system

Token Economy System 873
Photo by: Sean Gladwell


A token economy is a form of behavior modification designed to increase desirable behavior and decrease undesirable behavior with the use of tokens. Individuals receive tokens immediately after displaying desirable behavior. The tokens are collected and later exchanged for a meaningful object or privilege.


The primary goal of a token economy is to increase desirable behavior and decrease undesirable behavior. Often token economies are used in institutional settings (such as psychiatric hospitals or correctional facilities) to manage the behavior of individuals who may be aggressive or unpredictable. However, the larger goal of token economies is to teach appropriate behavior and social skills that can be used in one's natural environment. Special education (for children with developmental or learning disabilities, hyperactivity, attention deficit, or behavioral disorders), regular education, colleges, various types of group homes , military divisions, nursing homes, addiction treatment programs, occupational settings, family homes (for marital or parenting difficulties), and hospitals may also use token economies. Token economies can be used individually or in groups.


Several elements are necessary in every token economy:

  • Tokens: Anything that is visible and countable can be used as a token. Tokens should preferably be attractive, easy to carry and dispense, and difficult to counterfeit. Commonly used items include poker chips, stickers, point tallies, or play money. When an individual displays desirable behavior, he or she is immediately given a designated number of tokens. Tokens have no value of their own. They are collected and later exchanged for meaningful objects, privileges or activities. Individuals can also lose tokens (response cost) for displaying undesirable behavior.
  • A clearly defined target behavior: Individuals participating in a token economy need to know exactly what they must do in order to receive tokens. Desirable and undesirable behavior is explained ahead of time in simple, specific terms. The number of tokens awarded or lost for each particular behavior is also specified.
  • Back-up reinforcers: Back-up reinforcers are the meaningful objects, privileges, or activities that individuals receive in exchange for their tokens. Examples include food items, toys, extra free time, or outings. The success of a token economy depends on the appeal of the back-up reinforcers. Individuals will only be motivated to earn tokens if they anticipate the future reward represented by the tokens. A well-designed token economy will use back-up reinforcers chosen by individuals in treatment rather than by staff.
  • A system for exchanging tokens: A time and place for purchasing back-up reinforcers is necessary. The token value of each back-up reinforcer is pre-determined based on monetary value, demand, or therapeutic value. For example, if the reinforcer is expensive or highly attractive, the token value should be higher. If possession of or participation in the reinforcer would aid in the individual's acquisition of skills, the token value should be lower. If the token value is set too low, individuals will be less motivated to earn tokens. Conversely, if the value is set too high, individuals may become easily discouraged. It is important that each individual can earn at least some tokens.
  • A system for recording data: Before treatment begins, information (baseline data) is gathered about each individual's current behavior. Changes in behavior are then recorded on daily data sheets. This information is used to measure individual progress, as well as the effectiveness of the token economy. Information regarding the exchange of tokens also needs to be recorded.
  • Consistent implementation of the token economy by staff: In order for a token economy to succeed, all involved staff members must reward the same behaviors, use the appropriate amount of tokens, avoid dispensing back-up reinforcers for free, and prevent tokens from being counterfeited, stolen, or otherwise unjustly obtained. Staff responsibilities and the rules of the token economy should be described in a written manual. Staff members should also be evaluated periodically and given the opportunity to raise questions or concerns.

Initially tokens are awarded frequently and in higher amounts, but as individuals learn the desirable behavior, opportunities to earn tokens decrease. (The amount and frequency of token dispensing is called a reinforcement schedule.) For example, in a classroom, each student may earn 25 to 75 tokens the first day, so that they quickly learn the value of the tokens. Later, students may earn 15 to 30 tokens per day. By gradually decreasing the availability of tokens (fading), students should learn to display the desirable behavior independently, without the unnatural use of tokens. Reinforcers that individuals would normally encounter in society, such as verbal praise, should accompany the awarding of tokens to aid in the fading process.

Advantages of token economies are that behaviors can be rewarded immediately, rewards are the same for all members of a group, use of punishment (response cost) is less restrictive than other forms of punishment, and individuals can learn skills related to planning for the future. Disadvantages include considerable cost, effort, and extensive staff training and management. Some professionals find token economies to be time-consuming and impractical.


Risks involved in token economies are similar to those in other forms of behavior modification. Staff members implementing the therapy may intentionally or unintentionally neglect the rights of individuals receiving treatment. Token economies should never deprive individuals of their basic needs, such as sufficient food, comfortable bedding, or reasonable opportunities for leisure. If staff members are inadequately trained or there is a shortage of staff, desirable behaviors may not be rewarded or undesirable behaviors may be inadvertently rewarded, resulting in an increase of negative behavior. Controversy exists regarding placing individuals in treatment against their will (such as in a psychiatric hospital), and deciding which behaviors should be considered desirable and which should be considered undesirable.

Normal results

Ideally, individuals will use the skills learned in a token economy in their everyday surroundings. They will display the undesirable behavior less frequently or not at all. They will also engage in positive, adaptive behaviors more often.

Abnormal results

If the token economy was ineffective, or time spent in the token economy was limited, individuals may show no changes or increases in the undesirable behavior.



Ayllon, Teodoro. How to Use Token Economy and Point Systems. 2nd ed. Austin, Texas: Pro-Ed, 1999.

Higgins, Stephen T. and Kenneth Silverman. Motivating Change Among Illicit Drug Abusers: Research on Contingency Management Interventions. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1999.

Martin, Garry. Behavior Modification: What It Is and How to Do It. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1999.

Miltenberger, Raymond G. Behavior Modification: Principles and Procedures. 2nd ed. Belmont, California: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2001.


Moore, James W., Daniel H. Tingstrom, R. Anthony Doggett, and William D. Carlyon. "Restructuring an Existing Token Economy in a Psychiatric Facility for Children." Child & Family Behavior Therapy 23, no. 3 (2001): 53–59.


Association for Behavioral Analysis. 213 West Hall, Western Michigan University, 1903 W. Michigan Avenue, Kalamazoo, Michigan 49008-5301. (616) 387-8341;(616) 384-8342. <> .

Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies. 336 Baker Avenue, Concord, Massachusetts 01742-2107. (978) 369-2227. <> .

Sandra L. Friedrich, M.A.

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