Indifference Curve Analysis: An Alternative Approach to Understanding Consumer Choice

Read this section to learn about indifference analysis. Attempt the "Try It” problems at the end of the section before checking your answers.

5. Utility Maximization and the Marginal Decision Rule

How does the achievement of The Utility Maximizing Solution in Figure 7.10 "The Utility-Maximizing Solution" correspond to the marginal decision rule? That rule says that additional units of an activity should be pursued, if the marginal benefit of the activity exceeds the marginal cost. The observation of that rule would lead a consumer to the highest indifference curve possible for a given budget.

Suppose Ms. Bain has chosen a combination of skiing and horseback riding at point S in Figure 7.11 "Applying the Marginal Decision Rule". She is now on indifference curve C. She is also on her budget line; she is spending all of the budget, $250, available for the purchase of the two goods.

An exchange of two days of skiing for one day of horseback riding would leave her at point T, and she would be as well off as she is at point S. Her marginal rate of substitution between points S and T is 2; her indifference curve is steeper than the budget line at point S. The fact that her indifference curve is steeper than her budget line tells us that the rate at which she is willing to exchange the two goods differs from the rate the market asks. She would be willing to give up as many as 2 days of skiing to gain an extra day of horseback riding; the market demands that she give up only one. The marginal decision rule says that if an additional unit of an activity yields greater benefit than its cost, it should be pursued. If the benefit to Ms. Bain of one more day of horseback riding equals the benefit of 2 days of skiing, yet she can get it by giving up only 1 day of skiing, then the benefit of that extra day of horseback riding is clearly greater than the cost.

Because the market asks that she give up less than she is willing to give up for an additional day of horseback riding, she will make the exchange. Beginning at point S, she will exchange a day of skiing for a day of horseback riding. That moves her along her budget line to point D. Recall that we can draw an indifference curve through any point; she is now on indifference curve E. It is above and to the right of indifference curve C, so Ms. Bain is clearly better off. And that should come as no surprise. When she was at point S, she was willing to give up 2 days of skiing to get an extra day of horseback riding. The market asked her to give up only one; she got her extra day of riding at a bargain! Her move along her budget line from point S to point D suggests a very important principle. If a consumer's indifference curve intersects the budget line, then it will always be possible for the consumer to make exchanges along the budget line that move to a higher indifference curve. Ms. Bain's new indifference curve at point D also intersects her budget line; she's still willing to give up more skiing than the market asks for additional riding. She will make another exchange and move along her budget line to point X, at which she attains the highest indifference curve possible with her budget. Point X is on indifference curve A, which is tangent to the budget line.

Figure 7.11 Applying the Marginal Decision Rule


Suppose Ms. Bain is initially at point S. She is spending all of her budget, but she is not maximizing utility. Because her marginal rate of substitution exceeds the rate at which the market asks her to give up skiing for horseback riding, she can increase her satisfaction by moving to point D. Now she is on a higher indifference curve, E. She will continue exchanging skiing for horseback riding until she reaches point X, at which she is on curve A, the highest indifference curve possible.

Having reached point X, Ms. Bain clearly would not give up still more days of skiing for additional days of riding. Beyond point X, her indifference curve is flatter than the budget line - her marginal rate of substitution is less than the absolute value of the slope of the budget line. That means that the rate at which she would be willing to exchange skiing for horseback riding is less than the market asks. She cannot make herself better off than she is at point X by further rearranging her consumption. Point X, where the rate at which she is willing to exchange one good for another equals the rate the market asks, gives her the maximum utility possible.