What Is a Reference Group?

By Charlotte Nickerson, published Feb 18, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


  • A reference group is the collectivity to which individuals or groups refer when making comparisons about their lives. They may be positive or negative, encompassing respective behavior which is aspired to and behavior which is rejected as inappropriate.
  • The reference groups that someone has can also change over time, as attitudes and beliefs evolve. Anthropologists and sociologists have identified several different types of reference groups.
  • The first of these differentiations is between normative and comparative reference groups. Normative reference groups are the source of an individual's norms and values, while comparative reference groups are those that an individual compares themselves to.
  • Other sociologists have differentiated between negative and positive reference groups. Positive reference groups — ones that individuals wish to emulate — can be classified as either contractual or aspirational, depending on whether or not an individual has contact with that group. Meanwhile, negative reference groups can be categorized as disclamant or avoidant in the same way.
  • Reference groups exist to provide a point of comparison that assists an individual in integrating with their social environment. Marketers can evoke reference groups as a way of predicting and guiding consumer behavior. These evoked reference groups can be either familiar or aspirational.

Definitions, Functions, and Examples

The term reference group, first coined by the sociologist Hebert Hyman (1942), refers to any group that someone uses as a point of comparison in the process of their self-appraisal.

Reference groups could be set up as models of behavior or as representing goals or attainment. People can have many different reference groups in different spheres of their lives, friends, peers, and family.

Someone could look at the norms, attitudes, or values of the reference group members. For example, someone who joins a new workplace may look at more senior employees at the company for cues as to how to dress, speak, and behave in a way that is accepted by the social reference group of their office. To do so, an individual may choose from several existing social groups (Barkan, 2011). 

People can look up to several reference groups at once for behavioral cues, and these reference groups have neither a set size nor require an individual to identify with that group explicitly. 

Typically, reference groups are informal, meaning that they are unstructured and do not work towards achieving specific goals. Instead, group membership is based on shared interests and values. Conversely, there are formal reference groups where the members of a collective have certain goals and a rigid structure and hierarchy. These can include, for example, labor unions and religious groups. 

Reference groups have several functions:

  • They can provide people with a basis for reference so that they can evaluate their attitudes and beliefs;
  • Settle a benchmark of measure that allows people to determine their self-identity and conduct in a social environment;
  • Act as a source of inspiration or aspirations for people to live up to or work towards; shape values in terms of what someone thinks is right or wrong by allowing someone to decide which values they want to emulate and which ones to reject;
  • Allow people to immerse themselves in a new environment by providing them with a standard to follow so that they can integrate better (Barkan, 2011).

Muzafer Sherif (1953) suggested that humans are unique in how they display reference group behavior by modifying their conduct based on what they learn from their social environment. This can either be done by assimilating the values of other individuals or groups or by acting in opposition to the social standards of other individuals or groups.

For instance, a teenager may actively reject becoming like his parents by partaking in behaviors his parents do not display, such as heavy drinking and staying out late. 

This process of behavioral adaptation means that reference groups become sources of an individual's understanding of self-identity, cognition, and perception. They also allow people to evaluate their conduct and performance in a social or professional situation.

Finally, studying reference group behavior can provide a key to understanding social relationships and attitudes. 

Types of Reference Groups 

Harold Kelley (1952) determined that there are two distinct types of reference groups based on the functions that they perform. These are Normative and Comparative reference groups.

Normative reference groups serve as a source of an individual's norms, values, and attitudes. People look up to these groups in order to understand how to conduct themself in an environment. For example, a child at a new school may look up to their older peers to understand acceptable ways to dress and behave within cliques.

Comparative reference groups, meanwhile, are those that people can use as a standard against which they compare themselves during self-appraisal. For example, in the same school scenario, a student may compare themselves to those who achieve high grades and test scores to judge their skill and performance.

The American social psychologist Theadore Newcomb (1953) created two further categories of reference groups based on the nature of comparison between them. These are positive and negative reference groups.

Types of Positive Reference Groups: Contractual and Aspirational

Positive reference groups are ones in which people aspire to become members. Typically, individuals admire the socialization and behavioral patterns and attitudes of a group and wish to emulate them.

For example, a tech worker may adopt otherwise unusual habits such as waking up extraordinarily early or drinking Soylent as a way of emulating tech billionaires. 

There are two types of positive reference groups: Contractual and aspirational. A contractional group is a positive reference group with whom someone has face to face contacts and whose ideology they approve of.

For example, someone may consider certain mentor figures at their office to have positive values and behavior, and seek to emulate them as a result (Merton, 1968).

Meanwhile, aspirational reference groups are those that one does not have contact with, but nonetheless inspires someone to take up their norms. For example, a young athlete may look up to the habits of professional basketball players, even if they have never met them. 

Types of Negative Reference Groups: Disclamant and Avoidant

Negative reference groups are ones that individuals disapprove of and use their patterns of behavior and opinions and attitudes as a standard to avoid.

For example, someone may avoid dressing or speaking in a way similar to a group associated with a low criminal status (Merton, 1968). 

A disclaimant group is a negative reference group that someone has face to face contact with, but disapproves of their group ideology. This stands in contrast to avoidance groups, which people do not have in-person contact with (Barkan, 2011). 

For example, consider a political canvasser. The canvaseer may consider members of the local chapter of the opposing political party to have values and behaviors that they disdain and do not wish to emulate. They may also come in contact with members of this reference group on a regular basis within the community. These political party members can be considered to be part of a disclaimant group.

Meanwhile, this canvasser may resent the group of people who lead a political party. Although they may disdain the higher-ups of a party for similar reasons to why they dislike members of the disclaimant group, they likely have no contact with them. In that case, the political higher-ups are an avoidance group (Barkan, 2011). 

Characteristics of Reference Groups

Reference groups have several important characteristics (Barkan, 2011):

  1. They set ideals of behavior and attitudes, values, and ideologies for those who reference them;

  2. They are not groups or people who consciously or deliberately organized to represent specific social values. They are conceptual groups that one often cannot join formally;

  3. Becoming a member of a reference group involves adopting the lifestyle and values of a group. For example, an immigrant to France may need to learn to incorporate French culture into their own lifestyle as a way of cultivating a sense of acceptance and belonging. They may be tested on this integration formally or informally;

  4. Finally, someone's reference group is in a near-constant state of flux. As people enter new social environments and phases of life, they look up to reference groups as ways to carry out self-appraisal. Someone who aspired to join the "cool kids," as a teenager may aspire to lead lifestyles like those they see on their friends' social media as an adult. 

Application in Marketing

The concept of reference groups is important for understanding socialization, conformity, and how people perceive and evaluate themselves (Newcomb, 1953). 

Reference groups can be used to promote goods or services. One category of reference groups used by marketers is that of consumer relevant groups. Some groups, such as family and friends, can exert a great influence on  consumer behavior through exercising pressure on an individual to comply with group norms. 

This idea of consumer relevant groups has been used in advertising through appealing to groups with whom an audience can relate. The individual can be inspired to behave like the individuals in the group, taking on their consumer behavior.

Often, this form of marketing can take on the shape of testimonials and endorsements. Alternatively, marketers can evoke an aspirational figure — such as a celebrity — in order to appeal to the values that a consumer wants to emulate (Newcomb, 1953).

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, Feb 18). What Is a Reference Group?. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/reference-group.html


Barkan, S. E. (2011). Sociology: Understanding and changing the social world. Flat World Knowledge, Incorporated.

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Kuhn, M. H. (1964). The reference group reconsidered. The Sociological Quarterly, 5(1), 5-21. Merton, R. (1968). Social Theory and Social Structure. The Free Press.

Newcomb, T. M. (1953). An approach to the study of communicative acts. Psychological review, 60(6), 393.

Sherif, M. (1953). The Concept of reference Groups in Human relations.