Token Effects

Token Effects Definition

Token EffectsA token is the only person of his or her category, or one of very few persons, in an otherwise homogeneous group. A sole female in a group of males is an example of a token individual, as is the only Latino in a group of Caucasians. Being numerically distinctive produces effects on one’s thoughts and capabilities. When an individual is a token (or solo) in a group, he or she generally becomes preoccupied with evaluative or self-presentational concerns, such as “What do they think of me? How am I coming across?” Frequently, the attention diverted to these concerns interferes with the token’s ability to concentrate on the central group activity, yielding diminished performance. This phenomenon is called the token deficit effect. There are instances, however, when the priming of self-presentation concern is concordant with the group task. In these instances, numerical distinctiveness facilitates performance, resulting in the token surfeit effect.

Research Findings

Past research has shown that individuals’ memory for group interaction and their problem-solving skills are impaired when they are the numerical token in the group. In parallel, tokens’ memory for their own performance, and for that of others, during a group session is actually enhanced. In short, they are so worried about how they are being evaluated and about how well they are performing relative to others that they fail to perform; instead, they focus on tracking how well they are doing and how well everyone else is doing and are consequently able to report very accurately on this dimension.

Token deficit effects have been demonstrated with different types of tasks (memory, problem solving) and with different types of tokens. Early work showed that gender tokens evinced deficits; later work demonstrated the same pattern with ethnic/racial tokens. Note that the token deficit effect is not limited to one sex or ethnic/racial minority group—both males and females, and Whites and minorities show similar deficits when they are numerically distinctive. Moreover, members of categories that are not visibly distinctive but socially meaningful show similar results. For example, being the only one from a particular school in a group of persons from a rival school also produces deficits, even when the token looks no different from the other group members.

The latest work in this area indicates that tokens might not always be at a disadvantage. In fact, there is evidence for a token surfeit effect, wherein tokens outperform their nontoken counterparts. How can this be the case? In fact, because tokens are compelled to focus on evaluation in the group, they are especially attentive to information that relates to interpersonal evaluation, requires taking the perspective of others, or both. When they are assigned tasks that draw on these inclinations, they show superior performance to nontokens. Group tasks that rely on memory for evaluative words (trait ratings of self and others) and those that depend on being able to take different perspec-tives (coming up with solutions when two or more parties are at odds) are compatible with the token mindset. Accordingly, when faced with these tasks, tokens do very well.

Numerical distinctiveness as manifested in tokens can yield deficits and surfeits. Being one-of-a-kind can produce benefits as well as disadvantages.


  1. Lord, C. G., & Saenz, D. S. (1985). Memory deficits and memory surfeits: The differential cognitive consequences of tokenism for tokens and observers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 918-926.
  2. Saenz, D. S. (1994). Token status and problem-solving deficits: Detrimental effects of distinctiveness and performance monitoring. Social Cognition, 12, 60-74.
  3. Saenz, D. S., & Lord, C. G. (1989). Reversing roles: A cognitive strategy for undoing memory deficits associated with tokenism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 698-708.