Reference groups refer to groups of people whose norms and behaviors we want to either emulate (a positive reference) or avoid (a negative reference).
This concept was traditionally used in sociology (see: reference groups in sociology) to explore how people’s behaviors are influenced by the groups they either admire or find distasteful (McDonald & Crandall, 2015).
However, it’s perhaps more commonly explored today in media, advertising, and communications, where brands attempt to associate their brand with an aspirational reference group. For example, a brand will sponsor a sports star to wear a certain brand of shoes with the hope that a young person will buy those shoes in order to emulate the behaviors of that influencer within their reference group.
We can break reference groups down into three categories:
- Membership Reference Groups: Groups that a person is currently a member of, and whom they share common behavioral norms that they try to adhere to in order to ‘fit in’. For example, a religious person may continue to practice the rituals of their religion in order to fit into their group norms.
- Aspirational Reference Groups: Groups that a person is not yet a member of, but who they want to aspire toward, and therefore, whose behaviors they try to emulate. For example, your people often aspire to be professional sports stars and try to emulate their favorite sports personalities.
- Dissociative Reference Groups: Groups that a person wants to ensure they are not associated with. A person will consciously avoid engaging in behaviors that are associated with that group. For example, you might choose not to wear the colors of a gang that operates in your area in order to avoid a sense that you’re also a member of that gang (Berkowitz, 2021).
Below, I present 55 examples of reference groups. At the end of each example, I’ll categorize it into its correct type.
Reference Group Examples
- Successful Entrepreneurs: Individuals who aspire to start their own businesses often look up to successful entrepreneurs as their reference group, seeking to emulate their success and entrepreneurial spirit (Aspirational).
- Professional Athletes: Aspiring athletes often view professional athletes as a reference group, aiming to achieve similar physical prowess, discipline, and success in their chosen sport (Aspirational).
- Oscar-winning Actors and Actresses: Individuals aspiring to a career in acting may idolize Oscar-winning actors and actresses, seeking to reach similar levels of critical acclaim and success (Aspirational).
- Renowned Chefs: Aspiring chefs may view renowned chefs, particularly those with Michelin stars or TV shows, as their reference group, hoping to attain similar culinary skill and recognition (Aspirational).
- Successful Authors: For aspiring writers, successful authors who have sold millions of copies or won prestigious awards could serve as an aspirational reference group (Aspirational).
- Ivy League Students: High-achieving students may aspire to join the ranks of Ivy League students, striving for academic excellence and prestigious university admission (Aspirational).
- NASA Astronauts: Individuals interested in space exploration and science may look up to NASA astronauts as their reference group, aspiring to reach the stars literally and figuratively (Aspirational).
- Tech Innovators: Aspiring tech professionals may view tech innovators, such as the founders of leading tech companies, as their reference group, striving to create groundbreaking technologies (Aspirational).
- Philanthropists: Individuals who value social work and humanitarian causes may aspire to become philanthropists, making philanthropists their aspirational reference group (Aspirational).
- Environmental Activists: For those passionate about environmental conservation, well-known environmental activists serve as a reference group they aspire to join (Aspirational).
- Renowned Scientists: Aspiring scientists may idolize renowned scientists, aiming to contribute significantly to their field of interest (Aspirational).
- Eminent Professors: Those in academia may aspire to become eminent professors at leading universities, making these professors their aspirational reference group (Aspirational).
- Celebrated Musicians: Individuals dreaming of a career in music may view celebrated musicians and composers as their reference group, striving to achieve similar musical talent and recognition (Aspirational).
- World Leaders: Individuals with political ambitions may aspire to become world leaders, viewing current and past leaders as their aspirational reference group (Aspirational).
- Successful Investors: Aspiring investors may look up to successful investors, aiming to achieve similar financial acumen and success (Aspirational).
- Best-selling Artists: Aspiring artists may view best-selling artists as their reference group, hoping to create artworks that are both critically acclaimed and commercially successful (Aspirational).
- Award-winning Designers: Aspiring designers may aspire to become award-winning designers, making these individuals their aspirational reference group (Aspirational).
- Highly-followed Social Media Influencers: Individuals seeking fame and influence on social media platforms may aspire to join the ranks of highly-followed social media influencers (Aspirational).
- Successful Film Directors: Aspiring film directors may look up to successful directors, hoping to create films that captivate audiences and win awards (Aspirational).
- Nobel Prize Winners: Individuals who aim to make significant contributions in their fields may aspire to become Nobel Prize winners, making these laureates their aspirates their aspirational reference group (Aspirational).
- Community Clubs: Individuals part of local community clubs, like a gardening club or a book club, belong to a membership reference group that influences their hobbies and pastime activities (Membership Reference Group).
- Fitness Groups: People who are members of a fitness group or gym share common fitness goals and influence each other’s health and wellness habits (Membership Reference Group).
- School Alumni Associations: Alumni associations form a membership reference group, where the shared experiences and connection with a particular institution influence the attitudes and behaviors of its members (Membership Reference Group).
- Coworkers: An individual’s coworkers form a membership reference group that influences professional behavior and attitudes towards workplace norms (Membership Reference Group).
- Parent-Teacher Associations: Parents who are part of a school’s Parent-Teacher Association form a membership reference group that influences attitudes and decisions about their children’s education (Membership Reference Group).
- Church Congregation: Members of a church congregation share common religious beliefs and values, shaping their moral and ethical behavior (Membership Reference Group).
- Online Gaming Communities: Players part of an online gaming community form a membership reference group that influences gaming preferences and behaviors (Membership Reference Group).
- Professional Associations: Members of professional associations, like the American Medical Association or American Bar Association, form a reference group influencing professional conduct and attitudes (Membership Reference Group).
- University Departments: Academic professionals within a university department form a membership reference group, shaping research interests and teaching approaches (Membership Reference Group).
- Musical Bands: Members of a musical band form a reference group that influences their music style and performance practices (Membership Reference Group).
- Volunteer Organizations: People who are part of volunteer organizations share a common goal of serving their community, influencing their views on social issues and civic responsibility (Membership Reference Group).
- Sports Teams: Being part of a sports team forms a membership reference group, influencing attitudes towards teamwork, discipline, and physical fitness (Membership Reference Group).
- Sororities and Fraternities: College students who are part of a sorority or fraternity belong to a membership reference group that influences social activities, shared rituals, and often academic performance (Membership Reference Group).
- Support Groups: Individuals in support groups, like a grief support group or a substance abuse recovery group, form a membership reference group that influences coping strategies and recovery processes (Membership Reference Group).
- Scouting Groups: Young individuals part of scouting groups like Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts belong to a membership reference group that influences their skills development, sense of responsibility, and values (Membership Reference Group).
- Art Collectors’ Circles: Individuals part of art collectors’ circles form a membership reference group, shaping their taste in art and influencing their purchasing decisions (Membership Reference Group).
- Neighborhood Associations: People living in the same neighborhood and involved in the neighborhood association form a membership reference group that influences community norms and local decisions (Membership Reference Group).
- Toastmasters Clubs: Individuals who are members of a Toastmasters club form a membership reference group that influences their public speaking and leadership skills (Membership Reference Group).
- Cycling Clubs: Members of cycling clubs form a membership reference group that influences their cycling habits, attitudes towards safety, and possibly even environmental views (Membership Reference Group).
- Animal Rights Activist Groups: Individuals part of animal rights activist groups form a membership reference group, shaping their attitudes and behaviors towards animal welfare issues (Membership Reference Group).
- Political Opposition Parties: For people committed to a particular political party, the opposition parties are often seen as dissociative reference groups, representing values and policies they disagree with (Dissociative).
- Competing Sports Teams: For ardent sports fans, teams that compete against their favored team can be considered dissociative reference groups (Dissociative).
- Rival Companies: For employees, the competing firms in the same industry often serve as dissociative reference groups. They differentiate their company’s products, services, and culture from these groups (Dissociative).
- Opposing Ideological Groups: For someone with strong ideological beliefs, groups with opposing ideologies, such as political extremists or religious fundamentalists, can be dissociative reference groups (Dissociative).
- Polluting Companies: For environmentally conscious individuals, companies known for heavy pollution or poor environmental policies serve as dissociative reference groups (Dissociative).
- Unethical Business Practitioners: For businesses committed to ethics, those businesses or business practitioners engaged in unethical practices, such as false advertising or exploitation, are dissociative reference groups (Dissociative).
- Discriminatory Groups: For people who advocate for diversity and inclusion, discriminatory groups that promote racism, sexism, or other forms of prejudice are dissociative reference groups (Dissociative).
- Stereotypical Groups: Individuals may distance themselves from groups associated with negative stereotypes about their age, profession, nationality, or any other social category (Dissociative).
- Tabloid Media: For people who value accurate and responsible journalism, the sensationalist tabloid media can be a dissociative reference group (Dissociative).
- Anti-science Groups: For those who value scientific knowledge and rational thinking, groups that deny scientific consensus on issues like climate change or vaccines serve as dissociative reference groups (Dissociative).
Reference Groups in Advertising and Marketing
In advertising and marketing, reference groups marketers utilize the influence of reference groups to strategically position their products and services.
Here’s how reference groups are used in this context:
- Association with Desirable Groups: Marketers often associate their products with a desirable reference group such as celebrities, successful people, or experts (Berkowitz, 2021; Fernandes & Panda, 2019). This is designed to make consumers feel that by purchasing the product, they will gain the approval of the associated group. For example, a skincare brand might use a well-known celebrity to endorse their product, implying that consumers who use their product will be emulating that celebrity.
- Depiction of Ideal Lifestyle: Advertisements often portray an ideal lifestyle that consumers might aspire to achieve. This might involve associating the product with an aspirational reference group such as successful business people, high-fashion models, or professional athletes. This convinces consumers that using the product will move them closer to the lifestyle of the aspirational group.
- Use of Social Proof: By showcasing how popular their product is with certain groups (membership reference groups), marketers can leverage the power of social proof to persuade potential customers (Fernandes & Panda, 2019). For instance, showing a group of friends enjoying a product could motivate others to purchase the product to fit in with their own social group.
- Leveraging Dissociative Reference Groups: Marketers may also use dissociative reference groups to position their product as distinct from those used by “undesirable” groups. By doing so, they tap into consumers’ desire to distinguish themselves from certain groups. An example would be an advertisement for a luxury car brand emphasizing that their cars aren’t for the average consumer but for the exclusive elite (Fernandes & Panda, 2019).
Overall, reference groups are essential in advertising and marketing as they significantly influence consumers’ perception of products, and thereby, their purchasing decisions.
Reference Groups in Sociology
In sociology, the concept of reference groups tends to be used to explain how people form identities, in-groups, and out-groups (Berkowitz, 2021).
It can help reveal insights into how intergroup conflicts occur, how group identities form, and how cultural norms emerge.
The first scholar to write about reference groups in a sociological context was Herbert Hyman in 1941.
His research focused on reference groups as anchoring points where people can source their norms and values (Borkowski & Meese, 2021).
Following Hyman, Robert K. Merton explored social groups not just as in-group influences to aspire toward, but also out-group influences who will influence us to avoid certain behaviors, for fear of being associated with undesirable groups of people (Singer, 2017).
Here, Merton proposed the no well-known concepts of in-groups and out-groups. In-groups would be the groups to which a person feels they belong, and to which they will aspire to emulate. People who aspire to join a group will start embodying their behaviors, beliefs, and values in a process Merton called anticipatory socialization.
But out-groups would be the groups of people who a person reference as explicitly not part of your identity (Lawler, 2015). As a result, you would aim to avoid behaving like them. For example, a during the Trump era, I stopped wearing my favorite red baseball cap for fear of looking like I were a MAGA person, because red caps became synonymous with his supporters!
reference groups offer a lens through which we can view and understand human behavior. From the nurturing influence of primary reference groups to the aspirational pull of successful icons, the multifaceted interactions we have with these groups shape our identity, our decisions, and ultimately, our place in the world. Whether we strive to fit in, stand out, or forge our path, we do so under the subtle but significant influence of our reference groups.
Borkowski, N., & Meese, K. A. (2021). Organizational behavior, theory, and design in health care. New York: Jones & Bartlett Learning.
Berkowitz, E. N. (2021). Essentials of health care marketing. New York: Jones & Bartlett Learning.
Fernandes, S., & Panda, R. (2019). Influence of social reference groups on consumer buying behavior: A review. Journal of management research, 19(2), 131-142.
Lawler, S. (2015). Identity: sociological perspectives. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
McDonald, R. I., & Crandall, C. S. (2015). Social norms and social influence. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 3, 147-151. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2015.04.006
Singer, E. (2017). Reference groups and social evaluations. Social psychology, 66-93.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]