Referent Power

The Basic Idea

Our world today is like a blown-up version of Times Square. If you look in front, you’ll see a billboard of a popular celebrity advertising the newest version of a Honda Civic. Turn to your right, and a poster of Michael Jordan in the newest Nike shoes stares right back at you. Look down at your phone, and your favorite Instagram influencer has just posted a picture, tagging the chic local business they bought their outfit from. You admire these people. You want to be smart and confident like them. So you consider buying that Honda, spend some time checking out the shoes at a Nike showroom, and click on that tagged Instagram account to peruse their sale section.

Individuals we feel attracted towards and identify with have “referent power.” Referent power is a quality held by an individual one finds admirable. Due to our desire of maintaining identification with them, we behave in ways similar to theirs. Because of their likeability, they have the power to positively influence us and our actions.1 On the other hand, if a celebrity who we absolutely dislike endorses a cosmetics brand, we may purposely avoid shopping from that brand. This is a result of negative referent power: our desire not to identify with an individual.1

Become the kind of leader that people would follow voluntarily; even if you had no title or position.

– Brian Tracy,Motivational public speaker and self-development author of books includingEarn What you’re Really Worth!andNo Excuses!

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Key Terms

Referent Power: when a subject perceives an agent to be admirable and someone to look up to.

Power/Interaction Model of Interpersonal Influence: Developed by Bertram Raven in 1992, this model explains how agents choose the power base through which they want to implement change in a target. Factors such as motivation, goals, and methods that the agent is willing to apply are considered.2

Reward power: refers to when an agent rewards a subject to influence their behavior.1

Coercive power: refers to when a subject may feel threatened by the agent and change their behaviour to avoid a potential punishment.1

Legitimate power: when a subject perceives the legitimacy and credibility of the agent, thus accepting changes that the agent asks for.1

Expert power: the ability of an agent to influence a subject through their expertise or higher level of knowledge compared to the subject.1


Social Psychologists John R.P. French and Bertram H. Raven published a seminal paper in 1959, exploring how social power had the ability to influence change in one’s beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. They identified five “bases of power,” or tools, that a person could use to socially influence a target: expert power, coercive power, legitimate power, referent power, and of course, referent power.2

They also defined the capacity in which each base of power can influence someone. For instance, both reward and coercive power bring about socially dependent change, meaning that change in the subject’s behavior is dependent on the agent’s behavior. If rewards or threats from the agent cease to exist, then the subject’s change in behavior may also stop.2 On the other hand, referent power brings about socially independent change – the target perceives the agent as a model and willfully wants to be like them. In other words, the agent does not have to go out of their way to influence the target. Additionally, referent power does not require surveillance of the subject to ensure change.2 Each base of power elicits different reactions and fosters different relationships between the agent of change and target.

In 1992, Raven proposed the Power/Interaction Model of Interpersonal Influence, which explains some of the factors that determine agents’ choice of power.2 For instance, an agent’s motivation and goal may determine the power base they use. An agent who has an affiliation motivation, or a desire to be liked by others, may use referent or reward power.2 Agents tend to weigh the pros and cons when deciding which type of power to choose. For instance, if an agent is sensitive to how their choice of power is perceived by others, they may refrain from using coercive power since it is often looked down upon. Hence, understanding the other power bases is important in order to understand referent power since all five power bases are always interacting with each other.


Bertram H. Raven

Most well known for his work on the basis of power alongside John R. P. French, Bertram H. Raven was a social psychologist and faculty member at the University of California, Los Angeles. After serving in the infantry during World War II, Raven graduated with his Ph.D. in Social Psychology from the University of Michigan. Starting in 1956, Raven joined the faculty at UCLA, where he worked for most of his life, and also made some of his most influential contributions to social psychology.5

John R. P. French

John R. P. French was a social psychologist and an expert in training social psychologists in experimental psychology, most well-known for his work on the bases of power alongside Raven. A professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, French graduated with his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1940. His dissertation on group cohesion under distressing and dangerous situations is a widely cited article in social psychology even today. French has also been honored with the National Institute for Mental Health’s Research Career Award and a Fulbright Fellowship.6


One of the most common referent power scenarios is supervisor-subordinate or leader-follower relationships. Referent power, along with expert power, is a type of informal power, meaning power stemming from earned respect and a strong relationship. Leadership studies show that referent power has a more lasting effect on employee performance and satisfaction than formal (i.e. work position-dictated) powers.4

A 2001 study by M. Afzalur Rahim and colleagues found that referent power is also associated with a problem-solving style (i.e. employees solving both their company’s and another party’s concerns), but negatively associated with a bargaining style during conflict-handling (i.e. employees weighing the concerns of one party over the other).7 Ultimately, using problem-solving styles results in better performance.7 The researchers also concluded that managers with high referent power possess emotional intelligence, without which the other kinds of powers may not be effective in influencing employees.7 This tells us that building strong relationships with subordinates, supervisors, and colleagues will most likely result in higher employee satisfaction and performance.

Referent power is considered to be an inherent characteristic – unlike the formal powers which can be developed through training. This implies that it is possible for referent power to diminish over time as one’s perception of the agent changes.4 Furthermore, since referent power is merely based on an agent’s likeability and perception, it is possible that the agent may not actually possess the necessary leadership skills. Referent power could cloud one’s judgment and could result in the wrong leader being appointed.8  In our everyday lives, choosing the wrong leader can have detrimental effects; thus, in situations where this may arise, research points us to pick a leader based off what they can bring to the table rather than how many people advocate for them.

While French and Raven’s original paper mainly focused on social influence in supervisor-subordinate relationships, their theory may be expanded to encompass other situations as well, such as buyer-seller relationships. Studies have shown that the more frequently sellers harness the referent power base by establishing similarities with the potential customer, the more likely the customer is to purchase the product.9 The same does not hold true for expert power, singling out referent power as one of the most important power bases to exercise.


Several studies quote charisma as a factor in leadership, specifically in referent power. Other groups of researchers consider it synonymous with referent and expert power.10 However, it is unclear whether charisma is the same as referent power, or if it is an empirical concept on its own. Jeffrey D. Kudisch and colleagues attempted to resolve this controversy in their 1995 study. They concluded that charisma is actually a separate empirical construct that interacts with referent and expert power to produce effects.10 In fact, compared to both referent and expert power, charisma evoked higher levels of supervisor satisfaction, as well as higher levels of commitment to the organization. Hence, it is clear that possessing referent power does not, by default, include being charismatic. Instead, these are two constructs that must be separately exercised by managers and leaders.

Case Studies

Referent Power in Buyer-Seller Relationships

In 1976, Paul Busch and David T. Wilson published a study on how referent power works in buyer-seller relationships. The researchers recruited 187 junior male college students from the College of Business Administration programme at the Pennsylvania State University. These participants were first given a 26-item questionnaire – Survey of Attitudes – measuring their attitudes on a range of topics, including premarital sexual relations. They were then assigned to one of two conditions – the high referent or the low referent condition. Participants in both conditions were then shown the same Survey of Attitudes questionnaire filled by salesmen. In the high referent condition, salesmen’s responses more or less matched the participants’ responses, while in the low referent condition responses were mostly mismatched. Finally, all participants filled out a questionnaire measuring their attitudes towards the salesmen.11

The study highlighted some remarkable results. It seems that referent power is a significant factor in inducing positive attitudes towards sellers. Not only are high referent salesmen perceived as more trustworthy than low referent salesmen, they are also more successful in producing attitude and behavioral changes among buyers.11 In other words, buyers are more willing to meet with high referent salesmen and are also persuaded by them more easily. Additionally, high referent salesmen are able to exert an influence in a wide range of scenarios, meaning that they should be able to sell a wider range of products and services.11

Results of this study may be questionable, considering the limited sample size and the lack of diversity therein. It is important that the experiment be conducted with a wider and more diverse sample size to determine the validity of the results. However, taking into account previous research on leadership, it seems plausible that referent power forms an important aspect of various relationships and scenarios.

Referent Power and Mutual Help in Health-Related Fields

In 2000, Deborah A. Salem and colleagues assessed the role of referent power in mutual help among Schizophrenics Anonymous (SA) – a Michigan-based organization where people with schizophrenia or schizophrenia-related illnesses may seek mutual help and support. The study included 167 participants: 131 were SA members and 36 were SA leaders. All participants were given a survey to measure their referent power.12 The three items on the scale were as follows: “I have experiences in common with other SA members,” “I am a lot like other SA members,” and “I want to become more like other SA members.”12 Participants were also given a questionnaire assessing their perceived helpfulness of the SA organization. Items like knowledge of schizophrenia, feelings of loneliness, friendship, etc. were measured.12

The results showed that SA leaders attributed high referent power to other SA leaders, while SA members did so for other SA members.12 This finding is likely because SA leaders find their experiences to be similar to those of other SA leaders, while members find their experiences mirroring other members’ experiences. Additionally, fellow SA participants are perceived by other participants as having higher referent power than mental health professionals, including therapists.12 Hence, even though leaders may feel as if they have the most in common with other leaders, they still perceive more similarities with SA members than with mental health professionals.

Salem and colleagues also found that referent power seems to interact with expert power with regard to group helpfulness. Participants find groups least helpful when they perceive both low referent and low expert power.12 On the other hand, those individuals who experience both high expert and high referent power benefit from identifying with fellow members, feeling less lonely, and establishing lost-lasting relationships.12 These findings are important in understanding the role played by referent power within mutual-help settings and must be taken into consideration when designing health programs such as Schizophrenics Anonymous.

Related TDL Content

Great Man Theory

In this article, we touched upon how certain bases of power, such as referent power, are considered to be inherent leadership characteristics. The Great Man Theory explores this idea in more depth – are great leaders actually born and not made? What does this mean for organizations that train and make leaders? Read this article for some juicy insights.


  1. French, J. R., Raven, B., & Cartwright, D. (1959). The bases of social power. Classics of organization theory7, 311-320.
  2. Raven, B. H. (2008). The bases of power and the power/interaction model of interpersonal influence. Analyses of social issues and public policy8(1), 1-22.
  3. Raven, B. H. (2001). Power/interaction and interpersonal influence. The use and abuse of power, 217-240.
  4. Vecchio, R. P. (Ed.). (2007). Leadership: Understanding the dynamics of power and influence in organizations. University of Notre Dame Press.
  5. Arbor, A. (1995, October 17). Psychology Prof. emeritus John R. P. French Jr. died Oct. 14. University of Michigan News.
  6. Rahim, M. A., Antonioni, D., & Psenicka, C. (2001). A structural equations model of leader power, subordinate’s style of handling conflict, and job performance. International journal of conflict management.
  7. Kovach, M. (2020). Leader Influence: A Research Review of French & Raven’s (1959) Power Dynamics. The Journal of Values-Based Leadership13(2), 15.
  8. Taylor, J. L., & Woodside, A. G. (1982). Effects on buying behavior of references to expert and referent power. The Journal of Social Psychology117(1), 25-31.
  9. Kudisch, J. D., Poteet, M. L., Dobbins, G. H., Rush, M. C., & Russell, J. E. (1995). Expert power, referent power, and charisma: Toward the resolution of a theoretical debate. Journal of business and psychology10(2), 177-195.
  10. Busch, P., & Wilson, D. T. (1976). An experimental analysis of a salesman’s expert and referent bases of social power in the buyer-seller dyad. Journal of marketing research13(1), 3-11.
  11. Salem, D. A., Reischl, T. M., Gallacher, F., & Randall, K. W. (2000). The role of referent and expert power in mutual help. American Journal of Community Psychology28(3), 303-324

About the Authors

Disha Garg

Disha was a former content creator with a passion for behavioral science. She previously created content for The Decision Lab, and her insights continue to be valuable to our readers.

Adrienne Fu's portrait

Adrienne Fu

Adrienne Fu is a student at McGill University studying Economics, Computer Science, and Psychology. She is passionate about behavioural economics, particularly its intersection with consumer decision-making and UX Design. Outside of the (virtual) office, she enjoys film photography, reading, and taking care of her (many) plants.

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