If you ask any marketing maven, they’ll tell you that the power of perception is more powerful than reality. This is due in part to the way we human beings assign a perceived value to things in a way that matters strongly to us. Yet might not carry the same perceived value for others. It’s a fundamental component of the human psyche that runs deep throughout our species.

So, it only makes sense that a science-based discipline like Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) would find a way to tap into psychological constructs in the form of something called a “Token Economy.”
Right about now you’re probably asking yourself “What is a token economy and how can it be used to modify behavior?”

What Is a Token Economy?

In the realm of ABA therapy a token economy is a contingency-based therapy aid to help adjust maladaptive behaviors while simultaneously increasing desired behaviors through the deliverance of a tangible conditioned reinforcer. This “Conditioned Reinforcer” is typically something that the individual prizes. It might be something tangible or even consumable like time with a favorite toy, or a tasty candy. It could also be access to a favorite activity such as swimming, or taking a trip to the playground. For some individuals, the conditioned reinforcer might be access to advanced privileges, such as being able to stay up 10 minutes later on a school night or getting extra time to play a video game. Any one of these tangible or perceived functions can serve as a reinforcer for the teacher/therapist to provide that the student/patient can purchase with the tokens they’ve earned. Though for them to earn the tokens, they first need to avoid the maladaptive behavior and choose a clearly defined positive one.

The Advantages of Conditioned Reinforcers

Conditioned reinforcers applied to the token economy concept are often used by ABA therapists to help children with Autism Spectrum Disorder modify their behavior. Though it can easily be applied in a classroom setting, or anywhere that a person needs help ceasing a maladaptive behavior in place of a more positive one. This comes with several advantages such as:

  • Helping to reduce the gap between the target behavior and the reinforcement.
  • Providing easy access to reinforcement at any time.
  • Encouraging the maintenance of skill over longer periods.
  • Encouraging skill maintenance even if the reinforcer isn’t immediately available.
  • Facilitating a sequence of behaviors to be reinforced without disruption of a task.
  • Helping to maintain the value of the backup reinforcers even in times of deprivation.
  • Reducing susceptibility to the effects of satiation.
  • Providing opportunities for additional reinforcement beyond a single primary reinforcer.

Long-Term Advantages of Tangible Conditioned Reinforcers

  • Tangible reinforcers such as tokens that can be saved up or food items that can be kept without having to be used immediately can also come with some additional long-term benefits.
  • The number of tokens the student/patient can earn can coordinate directly with the level of reinforcement they’re provided. This can be applied to a variety of other reinforcement methods.
  • A token can be brought to many different places and the student/patient does not need to earn them all in one place.
  • There’s no pre-assigned maximum number of tokens a learner can accumulate based on the program description or expectations.
  • The therapy approach can even be set up so that tokens can be used in conjunction with a specific device such as a candy dispenser, or vending machine.
  • At the same time, tokens provide a visual representation of reinforcement while the student/patient is waiting for the backup reinforcer.
  • A unique token economy can be created specifically for the particular student/patient or for a group/classroom.
  • Tokens help teach the value of delayed gratification.

Steps for Developing a Token Economy

Installing an effective token economy requires several key steps. Each of which can be customized to the patient/student.

Step One: Identify Target Behaviors

Identifying maladaptive target behaviors and the more desirable outcome in a way that can be clearly defined for both the therapist/teacher and the patient/student makes it easy to track the change. This critical first step ensures the responses are defined explicitly in descriptive terms, so reinforcement is provided for specific responses without any misunderstanding.

Step Two: Identify Reinforcers

Identifying the interests and things of high perceived value to the student/patient facilitates the exchange. It also ensures that they are receptive to the token economy and the positive behavioral adaptations you ask of them. It also helps to identify back-up reinforcers, so that you’re essentially offering a comprehensive menu of options that can grow as the patient/student progresses. This often requires feedback from the family, teachers, and other caregivers who are a part of the individual’s support team.

Step Three: Establish Tokens as Reinforcers

The specifics on how to establish the tokens as primary and secondary reinforcers can vary depending on a multitude of factors such as age, setting, and developmental or intellectual functioning level of the patient/student. Any one of the factors might impact communication modalities and the rate of acquisition for the student/patient. For some, simple instructions might be sufficient. Especially when paired with the rapid delivery of tokens when the desired behaviors are displayed. Though for others, it might take time for the student/patient to truly understand the flow of information. This might even require a more systematic approach will be required.

Step Four: Consistency in Approach

Consistency helps the student/patient quickly learn the benefits of compliance with the token economy. This helps them understand that improved behaviors are important at every level, and not simply when they’re in the clinical or classroom setting. It might even be possible to set up the same token economy at home to provide the student/patient with a seamless experience.


A token economy is just one therapeutic approach within the broad menu of options available through applied behavior analysis therapy. It can be incorporated into many settings including classrooms, the clinical setting, and even at home.
ABA therapy has proven itself to be the gold standard in helping individuals with autism spectrum disorder to meet new milestones at every step in life. Token economy tends to be a highly effective tool in early learners, especially those who are struggling with maladaptive behaviors at home, in the classroom, or in social settings.