Reference group influence

Reference group influence has the potential to be quite strong. This section describes several studies showing is importance in general as well as in a consumer behavior context.

One experiment showing that a group may induce strong pressure on an individual to conform involved groups of seven to nine college students brought together and instructed to judge the lengths of lines drawn on cards. All group members but one – the naïve subject was instructed to give an incorrect response. The naïve subject has answered after most of the group had answered. He thus found his judgment in opposition to that of the rest of the group. The result of the experiments with 123 naïve subjects tested on 12 critical judgments was that 37 per cent of the total number of judgments conformed to the incorrect answers of the remainder of the group in unison.

Other experiments have been conducted with similar goals but with a different technique. Rather than allowing group members to have face to face oral communication with the group as in the situation above, individuals in these experiments were some what removed from each other, communicated only indirectly and were to some degree anonymous. The kind of yielding that occurred and its psychological significance were determined to be the same under both experimental approaches. However, the former situation imposed more powerful group pressure on the individual resulting in a greater average amount of conformity.

Another experiment provided an indication of the strength of the group norms in forcing conformity. Subjects were brought into a dark room and asked to judge the distance and direction of movement of a small point of light. Although the light was actually stationary, it appeared to move because of the auto kinetic that is, an illusion of movement due to small tremors in the eye. Group members arrived at a consensus that tended to be maintained when individual members were asked to give their judgments after the group had dispersed.

Another research studied the influence of group pressure on consumer decision making and the effects of choice restriction by group pressure in the consumer decision making process. Student subjects were instructed to evaluate and choose the best suit among three identical men’s suits. Three group members (all confederates of the researchers) were instructed to select suit B which then put pressure on the naïve subject, who was questioned last, to agree with the group or to differ in his judgment and thus resist the group influence. It was found that individuals tended to conform to the group norm. The implication is that consumers accept information provided by their peer groups, the quality of a product of a style, and so forth which is difficult to evaluate objectively.

In addition, the study sought to determine the extent to which individuals might be controlled in a buying situation. The study’s confederate subjects were instructed to give responses which indicated that they were good guys merely going along with the group consensus. The implication was that the naïve subjects should also go along with the group. They were thus in a position of having to respond to an obvious effort at group pressure. It was found that any attempt to restrict independent choice behavior in the consumer decision making process may be resisted under certain conditions.

How do reference groups act as mediators of reactance processes? Studies have found, for example that one’s immediate group can suppress manifestations of reactance. When there is expected to be no future interaction between the individual and the group, the individual will tend to act contrary to the pressure (creating boomerang effect). However, when future interaction is anticipated subjects tend to conform to the group to the group pressure: that is the salient group apparently holds the reactance response in check.