A woman with stickers on her shirt, labeling her roles in lifeA role—sometimes called a social role—is a collection of behaviors, attitudes, responsibilities, and expectations related to a particular niche a person fills.

What Is a Role?

The concept of a role comes from social role theory, which argues that people’s behavior is affected by group interactions, social expectations, and expectations about rewards and punishments. Social role theorists argue that people generally conform to their surroundings, and a role is a way of conforming.

Most people play several different roles every day. A woman might play the role of sister within her family and serve as a support person and confidante. At work, she may serve as a boss who is tasked with monitoring people’s activities and determining rewards and punishments. Within her group of friends, she might serve as a social butterfly who keeps the crowd talking and engaged. Each of these roles requires filling a specific niche within a group and comes with an expected set of behaviors. While a person might occasionally act in ways that conflict with his or her role—such as when a boss confides in his/her employees or offers an exception to the rules—more frequent nonconformity can result in social sanctions.

Issues with Social Roles

Although a role can help a person determine appropriate behavior, roles can also pose some challenges. Role confusion occurs when someone is unsure of what role to play. For example, a new employee might be unsure of whether to play the role of mentor or employee-in-training. Role conflict occurs when two or more of a person’s roles conflict with one another. For example, a mother who brings her child to work might struggle with the conflict between being a nurturing mother and a tough businessperson.

Family Role

People often play specific roles within their families, and these roles may be quite different from the roles they play at work or with their friends. Sometimes a person outgrows a family role, but the family continues to expect him or her to meet the demands of the role. A person who has always been treated as the family “baby,” for example, might struggle to assert his or her independence or gain respect from family members. Within family systems theory, every family member plays a role as part of the functioning family unit. Each family establishes its own roles for family members to play, but common roles include:

  • Scapegoat – The person who is blamed for the family’s problems. When a family attends family therapy, the scapegoat may be viewed as the reason the family needs therapy.
  • Hero – Often treated as the “good child,” the hero is responsible and often takes on other people’s burdens. He or she consistently meets or exceeds family expectations and may be pressured into rescuing others or giving the family a source of pride and happiness.
  • Mascot – The mascot is akin to the family’s class clown and tends to break tension with jokes. The mascot is often perceived as cute or lovable by outsiders, and the family might rely on the mascot to make the family publicly appealing.


  1. Radina, K., M.Ed. (n.d.). What role do you play in your family? A Chance for Change Counseling RSS. Retrieved from
  2. Roles. (n.d.). Psychology Wiki. Retrieved from
  3. Social roles. (n.d.). Simply Psychology. Retrieved from

Last Updated: 08-21-2015

  • Leave a Comment
  • kishauna

    November 6th, 2014 at 12:38 PM

    well i think the role of the family is to look after each other, be there for each other,help each other etc.

  • kishauna's worst nightmare

    May 4th, 2017 at 8:03 AM

    It’s not about what a family is supposed to be, it’s about what a family is. Maybe do a little more research before you make a highly uninformed comment on a scientific article. Good day to you.

  • Kishauna's other worst nightmare

    October 26th, 2017 at 8:08 AM

    Kishauna, I strongly agree with kishauna’s worst nightmare that you should do more research before you answer to this article that everyone can see, Another good day to you.

  • kishauna's friend

    May 5th, 2021 at 10:44 AM

    I don’t know why people find it necessary to troll random comments. Is this where we’re at as a society? People can’t even voice their own opinions and it’s absurd. Even if the comment was seemingly or realistically uninformed, you could have explained in an intelligent way to kishauna that she was wrong, and why she was wrong?

  • kishauna's friend's worst nightmare

    September 17th, 2021 at 7:14 AM

    no, actually you’re wrong too

  • Kevin

    December 10th, 2021 at 7:46 PM

    Oh I just learning and understand what’s a role? I think it is good therapy srory. I wanted to say thank you for your shared. I sm not the only one . I am the good people .

  • y’all crack me up

    December 16th, 2021 at 10:26 PM

    my counselor sent me this article as prep for our next session, but the comment section is wild

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