Despite abundant indications that individual choice is influenced by the observed choices of others, field evidence to distinguish rational observational learning, long hypothesized by economists, from mere imitative behavior remains elusive. We report a field study in a unique setting in which university students regularly chose between two adjacent, outwardly similar food stands and in which imitative behavior based on direct communication, saliency, or the desire to dine with others seem implausible. Consistent with the observational learning hypothesis, a robust tendency to choose the more crowded stand was observed when many students were new on campus but not when most consumers had previous experience with the stands, suggesting that observational learning is important when individuals have limited experience or information.
- Observational learning
- Social learning