Humans are inherently social animals, and individuals greatly influence each other.
A useful framework of analysis of group influence on the individual is the so called reference group—the term comes about because an individual uses a relevant group as a standard of reference against which oneself is compared. Reference groups come in several different forms.
- The aspirational reference group refers to those others against whom one would like to compare oneself. For example, many firms use athletes as spokespeople, and these represent what many people would ideally like to be.
- Associative reference groups include people who more realistically represent the individuals’ current equals or near-equals—e.g., coworkers, neighbors, or members of churches, clubs, and organizations. Paco Underhill, a former anthropologist turned retail consultant and author of the book Why We Buy has performed research suggesting that among many teenagers, the process of clothes buying is a two stage process. In the first stage, the teenagers go on a “reconnaissance” mission with their friends to find out what is available and what is “cool.” This is often a lengthy process. In the later phase, parents—who will need to pay for the purchases—are brought. This stage is typically much briefer.
- Finally, the dissociative reference group includes people that the individual would not like to be like. For example, the store literally named The Gap came about because many younger people wanted to actively dissociate from parents and other older and “uncool” people. The Quality Paperback Book Club specifically suggests in its advertising that its members are “a breed apart” from conventional readers of popular books.
Reference groups come with various degrees of influence. Primary reference groups come with a great deal of influence—e.g., members of a fraternity/sorority. Secondary reference groups tend to have somewhat less influence—e.g., members of a boating club that one encounters only during week-ends are likely to have their influence limited to consumption during that time period.
Another typology divides reference groups into the informational kind (influence is based almost entirely on members’ knowledge), normative (members influence what is perceived to be “right,” “proper,” “responsible,” or “cool”), or identification. The difference between the latter two categories involves the individual’s motivation for compliance. In case of the normative reference group, the individual tends to comply largely for utilitarian reasons—dressing according to company standards is likely to help your career, but there is no real motivation to dress that way outside the job. In contrast, people comply with identification groups’ standards for the sake of belonging—for example, a member of a religious group may wear a symbol even outside the house of worship because the religion is a part of the person’s identity.
Lars Perner, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Clinical Marketing
Department of Marketing
Marshall School of Business
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, CA 90089-0443, USA