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Utility in Microeconomics: Outdated?

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 3rd June 2010

This post clarifies the concept of a utility function, which occupies a very significant position in neoclassical microeconomics. Advances in neuroeconomics and related fields of behavioural economics is constantly challenging the conventional assumptions of microeconomics. This post takes up one such insight by Stephen B Hanauer which was published in Nature in March 2008.

A utility function can be understood in the following way:

U=f(x,y,z) where U is the utility derived from the consumption of x, y and/or z. Alternatively, a utility function transforms combinations of various goods into a single value. Note that x,y and z refer to ‘quantities’ of goods/services consumed.

Suppose, consumer A has the following utility function: U=x+y+z; arbitrary values of x,y and z would result in the following values of U.

x y z U
0 0 0 0
1 0 0 1
10 10 0 20
6 6 8 20
0 10 10 20
10 10 10 30

That is, microeconomics teaches us that the utility of the consumer is determined by the quantity of goods consumed. An common assumption is that ‘more is better’, which implies that the consumption of more goods gives the consumer more utility. The point to be noted is that microeconomic theory teaches us that utility is strictly a function of quantities. The question posed in this post is whether utility is ‘only’ a function of quantities. What happens if utility is also a function of prices? At this juncture, we need to recollect the objective of utility functions. From the utility function, we derive indifference curves and marginal utilities. Utility or use value of the good or service forms the basis of the demand function, which along with the supply function determines the value/price of a commodity or service. Thus, the use value was employed so as to arrive at the exchange value/relative price of the commodity.

What happens if utility (or experienced pleasantness) is influenced by “changing properties of commodities, such as prices”? That is, can neoclassical microeconomics accomodate the following utility function:


And research in behavioural economics and related areas suggest that prices exert a significant influence on utility and hence on choice and demand. However, if we accept such a utility function, it can no longer be used to explain exchange values/relative prices. Another implication is that prices are no longer determined by the interaction of demand and supply. And the statement that ‘consumer is the king’ no longer holds. Also, producers can adjust prices in such a way as to affect consumers’ utilities. We know that high prices are often associated with better quality and hence higher utility.

x y Px Py U
0 0 10 10 0
10 10 10 10 200
10 10 5 10 150
10 10 4 4 80

The above table can be explained by the following utility function: U=x.Px + y.Py

In this case, a higher price gives more utility to the individual. The maximum utility is when x=y=10 and Px=Py=10.

The other extreme case is when high prices are detested by the individual. For instance, consumers with low incomes will get more utility from consuming goods which are priced less. Their utility function could be represented as follows: U=x.-Px + y.-Py

In which case, the consumers utilities based on the previous values of x,y,Px and Py will be 0, -200, -150 and -80. And the consumer’s utility is maximum when he/she consumes x=y=10 when Px=Py=4.

Empirical evidence suggests that utility is equally influenced by prices of commodities as well. Does this threaten the core of neoclassical microeconomics? This is problematic because neoclassical economics assumes the following to be given: 1) tastes and preferences of individuals, 2) endowments of goods and 3) constant technology. It if from these ‘givens’ that prices and quantities (demanded and supplied) are arrived at through the mechanism of demand and supply/competition/market forces. How can we include the recent findings pertaining to consumer utility and satisfaction in a consistent manner?


The link to the reference was embedded in the authors name. However, because of the comment by Dr. Thomas Alexander, the reference is prrovided below. Also,I acknowledge him for bringing this article to my notice.

Hanauer, S (2008), ‘Experienced Pleasantness,’ Editorial, Nature Reviews Gastroenterology and Hepatology 5, 119 (1 March 2008).

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Posted in Behavioral Economics, Consumer Theory, Economics, Experimental Economics, Information asymmetry, Neoclassical Economics, Neuroeconomics, Prices, Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

Is Consumer really the King?

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 21st February 2007

In free market economics, consumers dictate what goods are produced and are generally considered the center of economic activity. [Wikipedia]

Is the price of commodities and services determined by the consumers? Does the consumer have significant control over the prices of good they purchase through their ‘purchasing power’? Or is it just a farce?

Who is a consumer?

Consumer is an individual who has the necessary purchasing power to consume good and services.

On Consumerism

The prices in an economy are said to be dictated by the consumers. The law of demand states that ‘other things remaining the same, as more and more good are demanded, the prices rise and vice versa.’ In accordance to this law, when the consumers demand a great amount of a particular good or service, their prices tend to rise. The reasoning behind it being, when there is more demand, the producers raise the prices in order to acquire a larger profit arising out of the increased demand.

Consumer and ‘Choice’

The consumer is always at an advantage when there is competition because competition means choice. Their votes determine the fate of the manufacturer or service vendor. [Pai 2001]

The theory of consumer choice in Economics states that consumers take into account the following factors before making a purchase. They are

1) How much satisfaction they get from buying and then consuming an extra unit of a good or service

2) The price that they have to pay to make this purchase

3) The satisfaction derived from consuming alternative products

      4) The prices of alternatives goods and services

[Source: Tutor2u]

Rarely do consumers make this kind of analysis. Moreover these days, all sorts of attractive offers are given along with commodities and even services, which attract the consumer towards a particular commodity or service. In the R and D labs of the companies, huge chunks of monies are invested to create a brand image and to promote the product. The scary thing being, the advertisements go to which ever extent possible to attract the consumer.

Rather than the consumer going through the price of alternatives, the company in question provides a comparison table along with the advertisement; making it easier for the consumer. (Hopefully!)

If the consumer had the resources to make the above mentioned comparisons and then make a transaction based on that, probably the consumers would have been the King. Moreover, most of the information is kept as secret by the company. With regard to the existing informational asymmetries in the markets, the Right to Information Act passed by the Government of India is a welcome step.

Asymmetric Information and Consumers

Asymmetric information in markets is aggravated by the advertisements, as they portray the best in their respective products, by employing the best possible personnel. This not only distorts the true image of the product, but also places the consumer in a difficult position. [Thomas 2006]


Thus, in an economy characterized with sharp informational asymmetries, the presence of trans and multi national companies, a booming advertisement market coupled with more than 50 per cent of the Indian populace earning less then $2 a day, the consumers will really find it extremely hard in making informed choices.


1) Alex M Thomas, The Economics of Information, Undergraduate Economist, 2006.

2) M.R. Pai, Consumer Activism in India, 2001.



This article which was pointed out to me is an article too important to miss.

Montague’s hunch was that the brain was recalling images and ideas from commercials, and the brand was overriding the actual quality of the product.

While neuroscientist Montague’s ‘Pepsi Challenge’ suggests that branding appears to make a difference in consumer preference, BrightHouse’s research promises to show exactly how much emotional impact that branding can have.

Thanks to Riot, who pointed out this interesting yet shocking read.

Posted in Consumer Theory, Consumerism, Economics, India, Information asymmetry | 22 Comments »

The Economics of Information-Part 1

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 4th October 2006

Information in Markets

Generally, we take information to be a collection of facts from which conclusions may be drawn. If the facts tend to be accurate, then so do our conclusions. In the present market economy, information is more or less incomplete and distorted. The discipline of Economics assists us here.

First we need to define and understand what a market is, and then we need to know about the major players in the market. Market is the institutional framework within which the act of exchange takes place or the institutional milieu which is the context of the relationship of exchange between the parties. [Kurien 1993] A market is said to be efficient or in perfect competition if all the participants are fully informed about the various prices and quantities prevailing in the market. This is said to be laputan or impractical. Producers earn profits (Both normal and super normal) based on the fact that they are more informed than those buying from them. The consumers analyse and speculate, and reach conclusions based on that, thinking that they have made the best choice; where as in reality, it is not so. Most often, complaints are hurled at the firms for cheating the consumers and for being opaque in their dealings. This is known as asymmetrical information or information asymmetry.

An exchange or a transaction in a market, is a kind of zero sum game, where a gain for one participant is always at the expense of another. This is so, if we view the market as a separate entity from that of ours. In reality, the whole economy is like a spider’s web, woven closely together which makes its difficult to separately study them.

The main reasons for the exit and entry of firms is based on asymmetrical information. The feeling of ‘more information’ can attract you to the market as well as make you exit from it.

Information system is a crucial and often conveniently ignored component of a market. According to C T Kurien, the major determinants of a market are location, medium of exchange, institutional framework, intermediaries and the information system. [Kurien 1993]

The 2001 Nobel Prize for economics was awarded for the analyses of markets with asymmetric information. George A. Akerlof noted the ‘Lemon Problem’ in 1970. His popular example is that of a second hand car market, where sellers know whether or not their car is a lemon (i.e. perform badly), but where buyers cannot make that judgement without running the car. Given that buyers can’t tell the quality of the car they are buying, all cars of the same model will end up selling at the same price, regardless of whether they are lemons or not. But the risk of purchasing a lemon will lower the price buyers are prepared to pay for any car and, because second hand prices are low, people with non-lemon cars will be little inclined to put them on the market.

Asymmetric information in markets is further aggravated by the advertisements, as they portray the best in their respective products, by employing the best possible personnel. This not only distorts the true image of the product, but also places the consumer in a difficult position.

This phenomenon is present in all spheres of economic activity.


1) On markets in economic theory and policy-C. T. Kurien

2) If Life Gives You Lemons …-Tim Harford

3) George Akerlof, Nobel Prize lecture video

Posted in Economics, George Akerlof, Information asymmetry, Lemon problem, Market Theory | No Comments »