Reference Group: Types, Functions, Characteristics, Importance

The term reference group, originally coined by Hebert Hyman in his book The Psychology of Status  (1942), is used to describe any group that an individual uses as a point of comparison in the process of self-appraisal. The points of comparison (or reference) that an individual looks at could be the norms, attitudes, and values of the reference group members. For example, when a child joins a new school, they will look at the other older students of the school for reference so that they know how to dress, speak and behave in a manner accepted by the social group that is their new school. In this case, the older students of the school become the reference group. Thus, individuals get to choose from several existing social groups, which one they look at as a reference group. Therefore, reference groups provide individuals with a framework for social comparison.

It is not necessary that an individual only subscribes to a single reference group at any given point in time. Individuals may look up to several reference groups simultaneously, which can sometimes cause anomalies in their behaviour. Furthermore, reference groups do not have a set size and do not require individuals to identify with that group explicitly.

Most reference groups tend to be informal, i.e., they are unstructured and do not work towards achieving specific goals. Instead, group membership is primarily based on shared interests and values. Families and peer groups are examples of reference groups that are typically informal. Conversely, there are also formal reference groups wherein, unlike informal reference groups, the members of the collective are working towards certain goals and also have a rigid structure and hierarchy in place in order to achieve those goals. For example, labour unions and religious groups.

Functions of Reference Groups

  • Reference groups provide individuals with a basis for reference and evaluation of their attitudes and beliefs.
  • Setting a benchmark of measure allows people to determine their self-identity and their conduct in a social environment.
  • Additionally, they act as a source of inspiration or aspirations for people to live up to and work towards.
  • Reference groups also help shape our values in terms of what we think is right or wrong. This distinction is made when we decide which values we want to emulate and which ones we want to reject.
  • Finally, they allow us to immerse ourselves in a new environment by providing us with a standard to follow so that we may fit in better.

Types of Reference Groups

Harold Kelley (1952) recognised two distinct types of reference groups based on the functions that they perform –

  1. Normative Reference Groups

Normative reference groups serve as a source of an individual’s norms, values and attitudes. These are groups that people look up to so that they may understand how to conduct themselves in any given environment. For example, a new employee in an organisation will look to older employees to understand what the acceptable code of conduct is in that organisation.

  1. Comparative Reference Groups

Comparative reference groups are those which individuals use as a standard against which they compare themselves during the process of self-appraisal. For example, in a football team, junior players may compare themselves to their more experienced counterparts in terms of skill, technique and performance.

American social psychologist Theodore Newcomb further distinguished between two primary types of reference groups based on the nature of comparison –

  1. Positive Reference Groups –

A positive reference group is one of which individuals aspire to become members. Individuals typically admire the socialisation and behaviour patterns and attitudes of this group and wish to emulate them.

  1. Negative Reference Groups –

A negative reference group is one that individuals disapprove of and use their patterns of behaviour and opinions, and attitudes as a standard to avoid.

Characteristics of Reference Groups

  1. Reference groups set ideals of behaviour and attitudes, values and ideologies for those who refer to them.
  2. They are not organised groups of people who consciously or deliberately stand to represent specific social values. Instead, they may be understood as conceptual groups because they are non-membership groups.
  3. In order to become a member of a reference group, individuals must adopt the lifestyle and values of the group. For example, immigrants in Western countries learn to incorporate Western culture into their own lifestyle so that they can cultivate a sense of acceptance and belonging. 
  4. An individual’s reference group is in a constant state of flux. As we enter into novel social environments or new phases of life, we change the reference groups that we look up to for self-appraisal.

Also Read: Primary and Secondary Groups


Eminent social psychologist Muzafer Sherif suggested that human beings are the only species known to display reference group behaviour by modifying their conduct based on learnings from their social environment. This is done either by assimilating values from other individuals or groups or by acting in opposition to the social standards of other individuals or groups.

  • Thus, reference groups become sources of an individual’s understanding of self-identity and cognition and perception.
  • Furthermore, they allow individuals to evaluate their conduct and performance in any given social or professional situation.
  • Reference group behaviour exists in complex societies such as ours that pride themselves in their capitalist and industrialised fabric. In such communities, studying reference group behaviour may be a means to understanding social relationships and attitudes.


  1. Reference groups may give rise to feelings of relative deprivation. For example, suppose an individual chooses to compare himself to a reference group representing a higher socio-economic class. In that case, they may feel inadequate because of unequal opportunity and access to resources.
  2. The theory of reference group behaviour answers the question of why people behave in a particular manner in specific social situations. However, it does not offer any means of controlling or modifying such behaviour.
  3. The reference group theory is also understood only unilaterally, i.e.; It only discusses how reference groups influence the behaviour of individuals who aspire to become members of the group, and not how the membership of the individual impacts the reference group.

As social beings, human beings are innately drawn towards one another and naturally possess the ability to emulate another’s behaviour. This knowledge forms the basis of the reference group theory. The workings of this theory seek to explain and analyse human behaviour in varying social environments and conditions and also understand how human beings evaluate themselves in order to arrive at a deeper understanding of their self-identity.


T, J. (2017, October 7). Sociology unit 13 Ref. Group. Medium.

Williams, Y. (2015). Reference Group in Sociology: Definition, Examples & Types. | Take Online Courses. Earn College Credit. Research Schools, Degrees & Careers. (n.d.). .” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 16 Jun. 2021 .

Reference Groups: Meaning, Types, Primary and Secondary Reference Groups. iEduNote. (2021, June 13).

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2010, February 10). Social group. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Reference Group – IResearchNet. Psychology. (2016, January 31).

negative reference group. Oxford Reference. (n.d.).

positive reference group. Oxford Reference. (n.d.).

Share on:

Pragati is an undergraduate student currently pursuing her BA/BSc in Psychology at Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, Pune. She displays a keen interest in the social sciences and is passionate about writing. She wishes to apply her education in the domain of social work in the future. Reading, swimming and travelling are some activities that keep her going.