Token system

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Token system (from the English token economy, translated as coin exchange or coin amplification system) is a behavior therapy method based on concepts of operant conditioning . The aim of a token system is to develop desired behavior through the use of systematic incentives. The term reward plan is sometimes used synonymously .

Since natural amplifiers (activities or things that are valued or desired by the person concerned, e.g. an audio CD, a conversation with the therapist) are often not immediately available in practice when the desired behavior has been shown, in a token system, so-called "tokens" ("coins") are used to reinforce target behavior over time. Tokens are used to bridge the time lag between the desired behavior and the "actual" (primary) reinforcement.

Similar to money, a token is a so-called generalized amplifier, ie a (conditioned) secondary amplifier that can be effective for a whole class of needs. A token is thus comparable to a real medium of exchange for obtaining the primary amplifier, but only works in its system (hence the name). Can be used as tokens z. B. Chips, points, smileys, marbles, credit in a credit card system, checkbook system etc. These tokens can later be exchanged for the (coveted) primary amplifier according to a predetermined plan.

The principle of positive reinforcement is mainly used. However, it is also possible to withdraw available amplifiers when undesirable behavior occurs ( response cost ). Here, however, you should pay attention to a sensible balance between gain and loss.

History and forms

Token systems were initially introduced in closed institutions , such as homes or some psychiatric clinics , where the aim was to motivate patients or young people to engage in certain activities or desirable behavior. Ayllon and Azrin (1965) were the first to try to set up a token program for an entire ward with long-term chronic schizophrenic patients .

Amplifier systems with tokens are also of particular importance in the treatment of children with ADHD (attention and hyperactivity disorders). Positive behaviors are discussed with the children or adolescents, which should occur more frequently and which are reinforced by tokens. This is then practiced step by step in the form of daily or weekly plans and thus transferred to the daily routine. Small stones from the craft supplies are often used as tokens.

Similar methods are used e.g. B. in smoking cessation ; For example: For every day without a cigarette, you put a marble in a clearly visible vessel; one day with a cigarette one takes two again. When 10 marbles have been collected, you treat yourself to a visit to the cinema. Of course, the system only works if you don't just go to the cinema without 10 marbles. A token system only works if the desired primary amplifier cannot be obtained by the patient otherwise. It is therefore necessary to adapt and comply with the daily routine and the applicable rules so that the system remains effective. If tokens are used that can be obtained cheaply in stores (e.g. gemstones or marbles from handicrafts), care must also be taken that the patient himself cannot obtain large numbers. Statistics can be kept by the supervisor for control in open homes.

Therapy with token systems

A token system differs significantly from a real money system , among other things in that the allocation of the tokens must be individually adapted to each individual participant, as everyone has different goals and requirements or is at different levels in behavioral therapy. A behavioral performance that is rewarding for one patient can belong to the (no longer rewarding) repertoire for another patient. The redemption of the tokens can also be controlled individually, because everyone has their own wishes and needs that they wish to satisfy. A general reward that is not specifically targeted to the patient's individual needs often fails to work.

Therapy steps

The therapy steps can be as follows:

  1. The target behavior must be defined precisely and understandably (transparency).
  2. As many effective enhancers as possible need to be identified.
  3. It is determined
    • what a token is,
    • the maximum number of tokens that can be earned in realizing the target behavior,
    • how they are allocated
    • how the token earnings change in the course of the behavioral approximation and
    • how many tokens will be received upon reaching the target behavior.
  4. It must be specified exactly how many tokens are necessary in order to receive the reinforcing objects already mentioned above or to be allowed to carry out certain activities (reward). The earnings and the issuance of the tokens must be in a balanced relationship to one another, since only a reorganization of reinforcement in terms of behavior is to be achieved.
  5. Once the target behavior has been established, the token program must be faded out .

While this transition does not usually cause any problems for individual clients, quite a few group token programs have failed in this last step.

Characteristics of the tokens

  • Tokens are generally low-value small objects that receive their exchange value exclusively in the system, and only there the (previously agreed) amplifiers can be obtained.
  • Tokens can be used flexibly within the system.
  • Their effectiveness relates to a wide variety of needs , and this can prevent satiety .
  • The assignment can be made directly on the behavior in terms of time (important prerequisite for operant conditioning ).
  • The amplifier is independent of the issuing person (e.g. the teacher at school, the therapist in therapy ) (in extreme cases, it can even be output by a machine); Amplifiers that cannot be executed immediately in terms of time can also be used.

Advantages of token systems

Token systems have many advantages over money systems:

  • The preparation points described above can also make more complex situations clear to the client.
  • The allocation of tokens has informational value in that it directs the focus on the desired behavior.
  • Due to the precise definitions, teachers, educators and nursing staff often have very precise instructions on how to react to the behavior of clients.

There is also a danger in this last point: Much of the effectiveness of a token program can be traced back to the fact that the social environment consistently adheres to rules. Inconsistent behavior is also one point that can doom such a program to failure.

Disadvantages of token systems

10–20% of clients do not respond to token programs. It is seldom possible to select patients in such a way that homogeneous treatable groups are created. Furthermore, the spatial equipment and above all the staff are mostly inadequate.

Personnel: In practice it has been shown that even a single carer who does not stand behind the program and treats the instructions with negligence, e.g. B. to gain a higher reputation with the patient, undermine the whole program and cause it to fail. Since a group of nursing staff trained in operant methods and motivated to work together is necessary (which should also remain constant over a certain period of time), many token programs fail because of the staff.

Responsible psychologists: The responsible psychologists can make the mistake of initially training staff with great vigor and dedication and setting up the organization of the token system, but then withdrawing and looking after the station more like a manager . In the everyday routine, the enthusiasm of the nursing staff evaporates quickly when the psychologist withdraws directly from the project after a phase of direct reinforcement and support without gradually fading out.

Institution: If other units of the institution that are jointly responsible for the patients (e.g. doctors or workshop managers) oppose the token program or at least make patients and, above all, the nursing staff insecure and behave counterproductively with their statements and behavior, many fail Programs at this point too.

Outside world: Another possible source of interference lies in the behavior of friends and relatives of the patients, who often bring things with them to the ward (a DVD or sweets as a reward for perseverance) and thus undermine the ward currency and thus deprive the tokens of their reinforcing properties. The tokens lose their value quickly, especially if they often give away pocket money.

Individual evidence

  1. Theodore Ayllon, Andrew Cole: Münzverstärkung . 2008, p. 240
  2. Fliegel et al .: Standard behavior therapy methods . 1998, p. 37 ff.
  3. T. Ayllon, NH Azrin: The measurement and reinforcement of behavior of psychotics . Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 8 (6), 1965, pp. 357-383.


  • Theodore Ayllon, Andrew Cole: Coin Reinforcement . In: Michael Linden, Martin Hautzinger: Behavioral Therapy Manual . 6th edition. Springer, Heidelberg, 2008, ISBN 3-540-75739-2 , pp. 240-243.
  • Steffen Fliegel, Wolfgang Groeger, Rainer Künzel, Dietmar Schulte, Hardo Sorgatz: Standard methods of behavior therapy. An exercise book . 4th edition. Beltz Psychologie Verlags Union, Weinheim, 1998, ISBN 3-621-27208-9 , Chapter 3: Operant methods, pp. 35–54.