ln groups provide us not only with a source of identity but also with a point of reference. A reference group is a group that strongly influences a person's behavior and sodal attitudes, regardless of whether that individual is an actual member. When we attempt to evaluate our appearance, ideas, or goals, we automatically refer to the standards of some group. Sometimes, we will refer to our membership groups, such as family or friends. Other times, we will rely on groups to which we do not currently belong but that we might wish to join in the future, such as a social club or a profession. We may also have negative reference groups. For many people, the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi skinheads are examples of negative reference groups because most people's racial attitudes compare favorably with such
groups' blatantly racist behavior.
Reference groups help plain why our behavior and attitudes sometimes differ from those of our membership groups. We may accept the values and norms of a group with which we identify rather than one to which we belong. We may also act more like members of a group we want to join than members of groups to which we already belong. In this case, reference groups are a source of anticipatory socialization. Many people have more than one reference group and often receive conflicting messages from these groups about how they should view themselves. For most of us, our reference-group attachments change many times during our life course, especially when we acquire a new
status in a formal organization.