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Utility Theory

Utility Theory

Utility theory provides a methodological framework for the evaluation of alternative choices made by individuals, firms and organizations. Utility refers to the satisfaction that each choice provides to the decision maker. Thus, utility theory assumes that any decision is made on the basis of the utility maximization principle, according to which the best choice is the one that provides the highest utility (satisfaction) to the decision maker.


Utility theory is often used to explain the behavior of individual consumers. In this case the consumer plays the role of the decision maker that must decide how much of each of the many different goods and services to consume, so as to secure the highest possible level of total utility subject to his/her available income and the prices of the goods/services.


In addition to providing an explanation of consumer disposition of income, utility theory is useful in establishing individual consumer demand curves for goods and services. A consumer's demand curve for a good or service shows the different quantities that consumers purchase at various alternative prices. Factors that are held constant are consumers' tastes and preferences, income, and price.


In all cases the utility that the decision maker gets from selecting a specific choice is measure by a utility function U, which is a mathematical representation of the decision maker's system of preferences such that: U(x)>U(y), where choice x is preferred over choice y or U(x)=U(y), where choice x is indifferent from choice y-both choices are equally preferred.

Utility functions can be either cardinal or ordinal. In the former case, a utility function is used to derive a numerical score for each choice that represents the utility of this choice. In this setting, the utilities (scores) assigned to different choices are directly comparable. For instance, a utility of 100 units towards a cup of tea is twice as desirable as a cup of coffee with a utility level of 50 units. In the ordinal case, the magnitude of the utilities (scores) are not important; only the ordering of the choices as implied by their utilities matters. For instance, a utility of 100 towards a cup of tea and a utility level of 50 units for a cup of coffee simply state that a cup of tea is preferred to a cup of coffee, but it cannot be argued that a cup of tea is twice as desirable as a cup of coffee. Within this setting, it is important to note that an ordinal utility function is not unique, since any monotonic increasing transformation of an ordinal utility function will still provide the same ordering for the choices.


Irrespective of the type of utility function, utility theory assumes that preferences are complete, reflexive and transitive. The preferences are said to be complete if for any pair of choices x and y, one and only one of the following is stated: (1) x is preferred to y, (2) y is preferred to x, or (3) x and y are equally preferred. The preferences are said to be reflexive if for any pair of choices x and y such that x is equally preferred to y, it is concluded that y is also equally preferred to x. Finally, the preferences are said to be transitive if for any three choices x, y, z such that x is preferred over y, and y is preferred over z, it is concluded that x is preferred over z. The hypotheses on reflexivity and transitivity imply that the decision maker is consistent (rational).


A further assumption of utility theory is that decision makers are willing to trade one choice for another. The existing trade-offs define the marginal rate of substitution. For example, suppose that two investment projects are considered by a decision maker. Project x has a return of 6 percent and a risk of 4 percent, whereas the return for project y is 5 percent and its risk is 2 percent. Furthermore assume that the decision maker considers both projects to be equally preferred. With this assumption it is clear that the decision maker is willing to increase the risk by 2 percent in order to improve return by 1 percent. Therefore, the marginal rate of substitution of risk for return is 2. In real world situations, the marginal rates of substitution are often decreasing. Such situations correspond to diminishing marginal utilities (marginal utility is defined as the change in total utility resulting from a one-unit change in consumption of the good or service). In the above example, we can assume that the decision maker is willing to take higher risks in order to get higher return, but only up to a specific point, which is called the saturation point. Once the risk has reached that point, the decision maker would not be willing to take any higher risk to increase return, and therefore the marginal rate of substitution at this risk level would be zero.


The traditional framework of utility theory has been extended over the past three decades to the multi-attribute case, in which decisions are taken bymade according to multiple criteria. Multi-attribute utility theory has been evolved as one of the most important topics in multiple-criteria decision making, with many real-world applications in complex real-world problems.

First popularized in the nineteenth century by such social philosophers as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, the concept of utility became an important part of neoclassical economics. Utility is used to analyze individual consumer behavior, to explain individual consumer demand curves, and to model the decision makers' preferences. The utility theory has been a research topic of major importance for the development of economics, decision theory, and management for over a century.

Utility theory still attracts the interest of researchers who both support and question this classic model. In the past several decades, the utility theory has led to research on alternative decision models, although most of these alternatives use utility theory as their point of departure, focusing on the ways that observed behavior strays from the conclusions drawn by utility theory. As the authors of The Handbook of Utility Theory (2004) note, In the past twenty-five years, an enormous amount of work has been done to develop new decision theories which can accommodate patterns of choice that contravene expected utility theory. It seems unlikely that any of these alternatives will displace utility theory as the dominant model in neoclassical economics, but refinements and alternatives will continue to be a central research topic for economists, businesspeople, and decision theorists alike.

SEE ALSO Consumer Behavior; Economics


Aleskerov, Fuad, Denis Bouyssou, and Bernard Monjardet. Utility Maximization, Choice and Preference. 2nd ed. Heidelberg: Springer Verlag, 2007.

Belton, V. and T.J. Stewart. Multiple Criteria Decision Analysis: An Integrated Approach. Boston: Kluwer, 2002.

Hammond, J.S., R.L. Keeney, and H. Raiffa. Smart Choices: A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002.

Keeney, R.L. and H. Raiffa. Decisions with Multiple Objectives: Preference and Value Tradeoffs. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993.

Salvador, Barbera, Peter Hammond, and Christian Seidl, eds. Handbook of Utility Theory Boston: Kluwer, 2004.

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