Economics Basics: Utility
  1. Economics Basics: Introduction
  2. Economics Basics: What Is Economics?
  3. Economics Basics: Production Possibility Frontier, Growth, Opportunity Cost and Trade
  4. Economics Basics: Supply and Demand
  5. Economics Basics: Elasticity
  6. Economics Basics: Utility
  7. Economics Basics: Monopolies, Oligopolies and Perfect Competition
  8. Economics Basics: Conclusion

Economics Basics: Utility

We have already seen that the focus of economics is to understand the problem of scarcity: the problem of fulfilling the unlimited wants of humankind with limited and/or scarce resources. Because of scarcity, economies need to allocate their resources efficiently. Underlying the laws of demand and supply is the concept of utility, which represents the advantage or fulfillment a person receives from consuming a good or service. Utility, then, explains how individuals and economies aim to gain optimal satisfaction in dealing with scarcity.

Utility is an abstract concept rather than a concrete, observable quantity. The units to which we assign an "amount" of utility, therefore, are arbitrary, representing a relative value. Total utility is the aggregate sum of satisfaction or benefit that an individual gains from consuming a given amount of goods or services in an economy. The amount of a person's total utility corresponds to the person's level of consumption. Usually, the more the person consumes, the larger his or her total utility will be. Marginal utility is the additional satisfaction, or amount of utility, gained from each extra unit of consumption.

Although total utility usually increases as more of a good is consumed, marginal utility usually decreases with each additional increase in the consumption of a good. This decrease demonstrates the law of diminishing marginal utility. Because there is a certain threshold of satisfaction, the consumer will no longer receive the same pleasure from consumption once that threshold is crossed. In other words, total utility will increase at a slower pace as an individual increases the quantity consumed.

Take, for example, a chocolate bar. Let's say that after eating one chocolate bar your sweet tooth has been satisfied. Your marginal utility (and total utility) after eating one chocolate bar will be quite high. But if you eat more chocolate bars, the pleasure of each additional chocolate bar will be less than the pleasure you received from eating the one before - probably because you are starting to feel full or you have had too many sweets for one day.
 

economics_chart.gif

This table shows that total utility will increase at a much slower rate as marginal utility diminishes with each additional bar. Notice how the first chocolate bar gives a total utility of 70 but the next three chocolate bars together increase total utility by only 18 additional units.

The law of diminishing marginal utility helps economists understand the law of demand and the negative sloping demand curve. The less of something you have, the more satisfaction you gain from each additional unit you consume; the marginal utility you gain from that product is therefore higher, giving you a higher willingness to pay more for it. Prices are lower at a higher quantity demanded because your additional satisfaction diminishes as you demand more.

In order to determine what a consumer's utility and total utility are, economists turn to consumer demand theory, which studies consumer behavior and satisfaction. Economists assume the consumer is rational and will thus maximize his or her total utility by purchasing a combination of different products rather than more of one particular product. Thus, instead of spending all of your money on three chocolate bars, which has a total utility of 85, you should instead purchase the one chocolate bar, which has a utility of 70, and perhaps a glass of milk, which has a utility of 50. This combination will give you a maximized total utility of 120 but at the same cost as the three chocolate bars.

Economics Basics: Monopolies, Oligopolies and Perfect Competition

  1. Economics Basics: Introduction
  2. Economics Basics: What Is Economics?
  3. Economics Basics: Production Possibility Frontier, Growth, Opportunity Cost and Trade
  4. Economics Basics: Supply and Demand
  5. Economics Basics: Elasticity
  6. Economics Basics: Utility
  7. Economics Basics: Monopolies, Oligopolies and Perfect Competition
  8. Economics Basics: Conclusion
RELATED TERMS
  1. Green Economics

    Green economic theories encompass a wide range of ideas all dealing ...
  2. Environmental Economics

    An area of economics that studies the economic impact of environmental ...
  3. Negative Interest Rate Policy (NIRP)

    A negative interest rate policy (NIRP) is an unconventional monetary ...
  4. Tight Monetary Policy

    A course of action undertaken by the Federal Reserve to constrict ...
  5. Laissez Faire

    An economic theory from the 18th century that is strongly opposed ...
  6. Consumer Confidence Index - CCI

    A survey by the Conference Board that measures how optimistic ...
RELATED FAQS
  1. What are some examples of ceteris paribus arguments in economics?

    Economics, like many academic fields, introduces ceteris paribus arguments when trying to demonstrate cause and effect. These ... Read Full Answer >>
  2. How does economics study human action and behavior?

    In many respects, economics is more similar to social sciences such as psychology and sociology than hard sciences such as ... Read Full Answer >>
  3. What is the difference between accounting and economics?

    Accounting is a field that involves recording transactions of a financial nature and subsequently summarizing, analyzing ... Read Full Answer >>
  4. What is comparative advantage?

    Comparative advantage is an economic law that demonstrates the ways in which protectionism (mercantilism, at the time it ... Read Full Answer >>
  5. How does the Wall Street Journal prime rate forecast work?

    The prime rate forecast is also known as the consensus prime rate, or the average prime rate defined by the Wall Street Journal ... Read Full Answer >>
  6. What's the difference between microeconomics and macroeconomics?

    Microeconomics is generally the study of individuals and business decisions, macroeconomics looks at higher up country and ... Read Full Answer >>
Hot Definitions
  1. Liquidation Margin

    Liquidation margin refers to the value of all of the equity positions in a margin account. If an investor or trader holds ...
  2. Black Swan

    An event or occurrence that deviates beyond what is normally expected of a situation and that would be extremely difficult ...
  3. Inverted Yield Curve

    An interest rate environment in which long-term debt instruments have a lower yield than short-term debt instruments of the ...
  4. Socially Responsible Investment - SRI

    An investment that is considered socially responsible because of the nature of the business the company conducts. Common ...
  5. Presidential Election Cycle (Theory)

    A theory developed by Yale Hirsch that states that U.S. stock markets are weakest in the year following the election of a ...
Trading Center