A reference group is any group that people use as a point of comparison to form their own attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviors. For example, new college students may use older (and presumably wiser) college students as a reference group to form their attitudes about politics, what clothes to wear, how much alcohol to drink, what music to listen to, what restaurants to frequent, and so on. In one classic study, college women attending Bennington College in Vermont between 1935 and 1939 reported their political attitudes. These women came from politically conservative, wealthy families who could afford to send their daughters to a private college during the Great Depression. At Bennington, these women encountered faculty members and older students who were much more politically liberal than their parents were. The new students used these faculty and older students (rather than their parents) as a reference group for their own political attitudes. The students in the study consistently voted against their families’ political ideology, even 50 years later.
People also use reference groups to evaluate other people. For example, a student might find a professor to be unintelligent. That judgment is not made in comparison with the entire population (relative to which that professor may be quite smart) but, rather, in comparison with other professors (relative to whom that professor may not be very smart). In evaluating members of stereotyped groups people tend to use members of that group, rather than the population as a whole, as the reference group.
Finally, people use reference groups to evaluate themselves. When people are trying to self-enhance, they tend to compare themselves with others who are less skilled than they are. When people are trying to gain an accurate understanding of their abilities, they tend to compare themselves with others who are more skilled than they are.
Although people use different reference groups for different purposes, they are probably not aware they are doing this. Comparisons with different reference groups occur largely at an unconscious level.
The reference group effect can pose significant problems when researchers design psychological questionnaires. For example, questionnaires designed to measure people’s independence by asking them how independently they feel or behave do not work well across different cultures. This is because behavior that would be considered independent in collectivist societies (e.g., Japan, China), would be considered much less independent in individualist societies (e.g., United States, Western Europe). However, a person filling out a survey asking how much the person agrees with the statement “I tend to act independently” is not thinking about how independent he or she is relative to other people in general, but rather in comparison with other people in their society.
- Heine, S. J., Lehman, D. R., Peng, K., & Greenholtz, J. (2002). What’s wrong with cross-cultural comparisons of subjective Likert scales?: The reference-group effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82(6), 903-918.
- Sherif, M., & Sherif, C. W. (1964), Reference groups: Exploration into conformity and deviation of adolescent. New York: Harper & Row.