A reference group is a group of people whose norms influence a person’s behaviors. We use the group as a ‘frame of reference’ to make behavioral decisions.
Traditionally, we would refer to a reference group as the social group (and its norms) that we wish to belong to, and therefore, we use its norms as a reference for idealized behaviors.
However, Robert K Metron also notes that we also look at groups that we don’t want to belong to and use them as a frame of reference as well, aspiring to avoid the behaviors of the reference groups we want to avoid association with (Singer, 2017).
This theory was traditionally used in sociology to explain social behavior, but is now also used extensively in marketing and communications fields to explore how advertisements and branding can compel people to purchase certain products that can help them to fit into a reference group. For example, when all your favorite basketball stars wear Nike sheos, you’ll want to wear them as well to feel like you fit into the ‘cool’ basketballer reference group (Fernandes & Panda, 2019).
Definition of Reference Groups
A reference group is a social group that an individual uses as a standard of comparison or point of reference in making evaluations and decisions.
The concept of reference groups gives us a lens through which we can understand how norms and values are transmitted within in-groups and out-groups, and how they influence our behaviors.
In simple terms, we tend to want to aspire toward the behaviors of the reference groups we identify with (our ‘in groups’), and avoid behaviors of the reference groups with which we do not identify (our ‘out groups’).
For some scholarly definitions, consult below:
“A reference group is a group that influences an individual’s thoughts or behaviors” (Berkowitz, 2021)
“…a group that an individual uses as a point of reference in determining their judgments, preferences, and behaviors.” (Borkowski & Meese, 2021)
Reference groups was a term first introduced by American sociologist Herbert Hyman in 1941.
His research focused on reference groups as anchoring points where people can source their norms and values.
For example, a child’s family is their first point of reference for learning normative behaviors that will be rewarded, and which behaviors are not ‘for us’ (Lawler, 2015).
Later, Robert K. Merton extended the concept of reference groups by distinguishing between “in-groups” (groups an individual belongs to, or aspires toward) and “out-groups” (groups an individual does not belong to, or identifies as undesirable).
For Merton, a reference group may be a group an individual already belongs to (membership reference group), aspires to join (aspirational reference group), or even a group that an individual wishes to avoid (dissociative reference group).
The concept of reference groups helps us to better understand motivations behind human behavior (Fernandes & Panda, 2019). The notion reminds us that individuals are socialized into thinking and behaving in ways that are consistent with the reference groups with which they identify.
Types of Reference Groups
1. Membership Reference Groups
Membership reference groups are groups that an individual is currently a part of or identifies with. (Berkowitz, 2021)
The individual has a direct interaction and shared experiences with these groups. The connection can be either formal (like a registered club or society) or informal (like a group of friends or colleagues).
Because individuals are part of these groups, they often conform to the norms, behaviors, and attitudes of the group.
This influence can be quite strong, especially if the group’s social cohesion is high. The impact of these groups extends across various facets of life, from lifestyle choices to professional conduct.
Examples of Membership Reference Groups
- Sports Teams: An individual who is a part of a local soccer team, for example, may adopt certain behaviors, such as regular exercise, diet habits, and team-oriented mindsets.
- Religious Communities: If a person is a part of a church, mosque, temple, or other religious community, they may adopt specific values, behaviors, and attitudes consistent with that community.
- Professional Associations: Being a member of professional associations or labor unions can influence an individual’s work ethic, professional standards, and attitudes toward workplace issues.
For 50 more examples, see my full article: Examples of Reference Groups
2. Aspirational Reference Groups
Aspirational reference groups consist of individuals or groups that a person aspires to join or be associated with (Berkowitz, 2021).
These groups represent the ideals and attributes that the person admires and hopes to emulate. They serve as a model or benchmark for personal goals and ambitions.
While the individual may not have direct interaction or a personal relationship with these groups, they can still exert considerable influence.
The individual may modify their behavior, attitudes, and preferences in a manner that aligns with the perceived norms of the aspirational reference group in order to try to gain closer proximity to the group and its values. This change in behavior prior to admittance to the group was defined by Merton as anticipatory socialization.
Examples of Aspirational Reference Groups
- Celebrities and Public Figures: Many people aspire to have the lifestyle, success, or qualities of certain celebrities, athletes, or public figures. This admiration can influence their fashion, lifestyle choices, and even career aspirations.
- Successful Professionals or Academics: Students or young professionals may look up to successful people in their field, seeing them as role models and aspiring to reach similar levels of success.
- High-status Social Groups: Some people aspire to join high-status social groups, such as exclusive clubs or societies. The desire to join these groups can influence an individual’s behavior, tastes, and lifestyle choices.
3. Dissociative Reference Groups
Dissociative reference groups are social groups that an individual does not want to associate with, due to various reasons such as differing values, social status, or behavioral patterns (Berkowitz, 2021).
They represent what the individual does not want to be. The person deliberately distances themselves from these groups and often acts in ways to intentionally fit outside of the group’s norms and behaviors.
Just as individuals are influenced by who they aspire to be like, they are also impacted by who they do not want to be like.
As a result, dissociative reference groups play a crucial role in self-identity and behavior, helping to define what an individual is not or does not wish to be, and this can be a powerful motivator for behavior change.
While having a negative connotation, dissociative reference groups can contribute positively to an individual’s self-concept and behavior by providing clear examples of what they wish to avoid.
Examples of Dissociative Reference Groups
- Criminal Groups: For most law-abiding individuals, groups involved in illegal activities such as organized crime syndicates or gangs serve as dissociative reference groups. People often make conscious efforts to distinguish themselves from such groups and avoid behaviors associated with them.
- Political or Ideological Groups: If an individual strongly disagrees with the beliefs or actions of a particular political party or ideological group, they may consider that group as a dissociative reference group. They may actively oppose or reject the norms and values of that group.
- Stereotypical Groups: Stereotypes often create dissociative reference groups. For example, someone might work hard to avoid being associated with negative stereotypes about their age, profession, nationality, or any other social category.
Primary vs Secondary Reference Groups
We can also divide reference groups into two types: primary and secondary. This distinction demonstrates two spheres of influence – one close, intimate, and highly influential, and the other more distant but nonetheless secondarily influential. Each is explained below.
1. Primary Reference Groups
Primary reference groups consist of small, intimate, and enduring social groups that individuals are directly a part of.
This group significantly impacts an individual’s behavior, identity, and core values because of the strong emotional ties, face-to-face interaction, and high degree of influence that characterize it (Lawler, 2015).
The relationships within primary reference groups are typically long-lasting and intrinsically valuable.
They are not just a means to an end, but valuable for their own sake. These groups play an essential role in the socialization process, influencing the development of self-concepts, attitudes, and behaviors.
Examples of Primary Reference Groups
- Family: The family unit is one of the most influential primary reference groups. The norms, values, and behaviors learned in the family setting strongly shape an individual’s character and perspectives.
- Close Friends: Close friendship groups are a primary reference group because of the strong emotional bonds that exist within them. They often influence an individual’s behaviors, attitudes, and choices, especially among younger people.
- Work Teams or Colleagues: People spend a significant part of their day at work, and colleagues often serve as a primary reference group. They shape how an individual behaves in a professional setting and can influence attitudes towards work ethic, corporate culture, and more.
2. Secondary Reference Groups
Secondary reference groups are larger, more formal, and impersonal groups that individuals may or may not be directly a part of.
The relationships in these groups are usually more temporary, limited, and instrumental compared to primary reference groups (Lawler, 2015).
Despite being less intimate, these groups still exert influence on individuals’ attitudes and behavior.
Interaction within secondary reference groups often revolves around a specific goal or activity, and the relationships may dissolve once the shared objective is achieved.
They are typically less emotionally engaging but provide a broader social network for individuals, serving as a crucial source of social comparison and competition.
Examples of Secondary Reference Groups
- Professional Associations: Organizations like the American Medical Association or the National Education Association, for example, serve as secondary reference groups for doctors and teachers, respectively. The norms and standards of these groups influence professional behavior and attitudes.
- Schools and Universities: These institutions serve as a secondary reference group for students. They influence students’ behaviors and attitudes towards learning, peer interaction, and a wide array of other aspects.
- Social Media Communities: In the digital age, virtual communities on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn have emerged as powerful secondary reference groups. They influence individuals’ perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors, despite the lack of face-to-face interaction.
Two ways Reference Groups Influence Behavior
Reference groups exert a significant influence over an individual’s behavior, beliefs, and attitudes.
According to social influence theory, this influence can primarily be categorized into two types: normative influence and informational influence.
1. Normative Influence
Normative social influence is the pressure exerted by a reference group to conform to the group’s accepted norms and behaviors.
It is typically driven by an individual’s desire to fit in with the group and gain acceptance and approval, or avoid disapproval (McDonald & Crandall, 2015).
This is the sort of social influence that compels people to follow trends, dress in socially desirable ways, and follow cultural norms that may not have clear logic underpinning them, except that they give people social status as a member of an in-group.
Examples of Normative Influence
- Fashion and Trends: Reference groups heavily influence our choices in fashion and lifestyle trends. For instance, teenagers may adopt specific clothing styles or slang to fit in with their peers.
- Professional Conduct: In a workplace, new employees often adapt their behaviors to match the existing norms and standards of the organization or their team, even when these behaviors are not explicitly stated.
- Social Norms: In society, individuals often conform to unwritten social rules or norms, such as queuing in a line, to gain social acceptance and avoid conflict. These social norms are often influenced by reference groups.
2. Informational Influence
This influence is typically driven by the belief that the group possesses accurate knowledge or expertise (McDonald & Crandall, 2015).
Its essential difference from normative social influence is that a person makes their decision based on a rational assessment that the group holds the most accurate and valuable information for making decisions, rather than simply to cohere to norms to ‘fit in’.
It is nevertheless still highly influential, because if a person has come to a rational decision that their reference group (e.g. a religion, pseudoscience, pseudo-psychology, or political ideology) holds the bests answers to an issue, then you’ll follow its guidance.
Examples of Informational Influence
- Product Reviews: In the realm of consumer behavior, people often rely on reviews and ratings from others (a form of reference group) before deciding to purchase a product or service.
- Expert Opinions: In healthcare, for instance, patients often rely on the informational influence of doctors and other medical professionals when making health decisions.
- Career Choices: People may look to successful professionals in their field (an aspirational reference group) for information and guidance when making career-related decisions, such as which skills to develop or what job opportunities to pursue.
The role of reference groups in sociology and social psychology is integral to our understanding of human behavior and social dynamics.
By influencing our aspirations, shaping our identities, and defining societal norms, these groups guide the trajectory of our lives. Understanding the impact of primary, secondary, aspirational, and dissociative reference groups can enhance our understanding of ourselves and the society we live in.
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]