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.