Historians' Corner

Welcome to the Historians' Corner

Have you ever seen a token from the token economy where it all started? I had not until Keith Miller of the University of Kansas showed me this one. It is about 1 inch (25 mm) in diameter and is the same on obverse and reverse sides (the photograph image is approximately actual size). It is made of metal and has the substantial feel of a US quarter-dollar coin.

The token economy started with the work of Allyon and Azrin (1965) at Anna State Hospital in Anna, Illinois. It was described by them as “a motivational system for therapy and rehabilitation.” The first use was with chronically hospitalized psychiatric patients in an era when most of these kinds of patients were simply “warehoused,” with little treatment and less to do with their days and nights. Patients were given responsibilities and opportunities to earn tokens like the one shown in the accompanying photograph. The tokens could be exchanged for goods (e.g., snacks) and services (e.g., seeing a movie). Hence the token economy was indeed an economy with tokens as the medium of exchange.

From these closed psychiatric hospital settings, the token economy emerged and exploded onto the behavior-analytic world. Token economies quickly became a standard method of establishing and maintaining reinforcement systems not only in hospitals, but also in prisons, schools, half way houses, and anywhere else where behavior management and teaching was a part of the mission. Today, some 52 years after their use first was reported in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, token economies continue to be widely used by behavior analysts, teachers, rehabilitation counselors, and others who are concerned with therapy and rehabilitation.

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