Academic journal article Journal of Managerial Issues

Psychological Influences on Referent Choice *

Academic journal article Journal of Managerial Issues

Psychological Influences on Referent Choice *

Article excerpt

The nature of contemporary work environments, ones characterized by instability and uncertainty, may create increased needs on the part of individuals for comparative information (Lamertz, 2002). Individuals use social comparisons for managing both uncertainty and environmental change, and for making critical decisions about one's job (van den Bos, 2001). In this article, we investigate one aspect of social comparisons: to whom do individuals compare themselves? We examine personal and situational variables thought to influence the referents individuals choose for fairness judgments. As such, our article is a response to the need for "a greater focus on referent standards [that] may eventually help to explain the mixed results concerning the relation between various justice components (e.g., procedural, interactional) and OCBs [organizational citizenship behaviors]" (Ambrose and Kulik, 1999: 246).

Relatively little research has focused on how individuals choose among available referent standards. Perhaps one reason for the paucity of research is the inherent complexity associated with cognitive choice models. Compared to measuring affective or behavioral outcomes, psychological processes may have been perceived as incomprehensible, unimportant, or difficult to measure. Yet given the likelihood of continued societal instability, changing employee expectations, and shifts in organizational policies, we believe there may be value in attempting to better understand psychological influences underlying individuals' referent choices.

We begin by discussing what is currently known about referent selection. With social comparison theory as the underlying theoretical framework, equity, social cognition, and psychological climate concepts are also proposed as determinants of self- and other-referent choice. We initially concentrate on comparisons that involve self-referents and other-referents and present theoretical arguments to support the role of self-efficacy and equity sensitivity as antecedents to choices involving these individuals. This discussion is followed by an examination of the effects of psychological climate perceptions on self- and other-referent selection. Next, we examine conceptual differences between self-referents and other-referent choices and system-referent choice from a psychological contract perspective. We conclude with a discussion of practical implications and opportunities for empirical work.


Most literature on referent selection can be categorized along two basic schema: identification of the types of referents that exist and examination of the outcomes that result from referent selection. While identifying various referent types, several studies have sought to expand Goodman's (1974) original classification of three primary comparison target groups: comparisons involving oneself (self-referents), comparisons involving other individuals (other-referents), and comparisons involving the employee and the organization (system-referents). Studies have identified a multitude of potential referents, primarily drawn from the outcomes being examined, including pay referents (Hills, 1980), referents linked with one's occupation, education, age and job (Abraham, 1999; Scholl et al., 1987), and referents derived from an employee's social network (Shah, 1998). Despite these efforts, the same broad referent categories proposed by Goodman remain relatively unaltered, with very few studies attempting to examine system-referents.

Taking a distributive justice approach, several studies examined referent selection by examining individuals' reactions to pay outcomes (Lee and Martin, 1991; Major and Testa, 1989; Ronen, 1986), attitudes and behaviors related to job satisfaction, intentions to stay and promotions (Ronen, 1986), working conditions, job complexity, security and supervisory behavior (Ambrose and Kulik, 1988; Oldham, Kulik, Ambrose, Stepina and Brand, 1986; Oldham, Kulik, Stepina and Ambrose, 1986; Stepina and Perrewe, 1991). …

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