What is Utility?

Why do you buy the goods and services you do? It must be because they provide you with satisfaction—you feel better off because you have purchased them. Economists call this satisfaction utility. The concept of utility is an elusive one. A person who consumes a good such as peaches gains utility from eating the peaches. But we cannot measure this utility the same way we can measure a peach’s weight or calorie content. There is no scale we can use to determine the quantity of utility a peach generates.

Total Utility

If we could measure utility, total utility would be the number of units of utility that a consumer gains from consuming a given quantity of a good, service, or activity during a particular time period. The higher a consumer’s total utility, the greater that consumer’s level of satisfaction.

Marginal Utility

The amount by which total utility rises with consumption of an additional unit of a good, service, or activity, all other things unchanged, is marginal utility.

Law of diminishing Marginal Utility

Suppose that you are really thirsty and you decide to consume a soft drink. Consuming the drink increases your utility, probably by a lot. Suppose now you have another. That second drink probably increases your utility by less than the first. A third would increase your utility by still less. This tendency of marginal utility to decline beyond some level of consumption during a period is called the law of diminishing marginal utility . Failure of marginal utility to diminish would lead to extraordinary levels of consumption of a single good to the exclusion of all others. Since we do not observe that happening, it seems reasonable to assume that marginal utility falls beyond some level of consumption.

diminishing marginal utility graph


Classroom activity to demonstrate Law of diminishing marginal utility

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