Peter T. Leeson


On his book WTF?! An Economic Tour of the Weird

Cover Interview of February 25, 2018


Suppose you see a woman standing in front of a wall with a picture frame by her feet. She’s holding a high-heeled shoe in her hand, which she’s banging against the wall. It’s pretty obvious that she’s trying to hang the picture, but why is she using a high-heeled shoe? One possibility: the woman is irrational. A hammer is the best tool for hanging pictures, but she’s sledging away with stilettos nonetheless; what a dunce!—pardon me, “behaviorally biased agent.” Another possibility: the woman is using her shoe to hang the picture because there’s something about her environment that, oddly enough, makes her shoe the best tool for the job. For example, she doesn’t happen to have a hammer lying around but does happen to be wearing high-heeled shoes.

There’s a good chance that you’ve encountered someone doing something similar in your own life; perhaps it was even you. Because of this, it’s easy to see the logic in the woman’s superficially silly behavior. But what if you didn’t have first-hand experience to draw on—say, like publicly auctioning off your spouse? What if you were 500 years removed from the behavior that sounded downright dumb—say, like suing crickets for trespass? What if the context was foreign, making it nearly impossible to guess the environmental particulars at play—say, like using trial by poison ingestion to determine accused criminals’ fate? You’d probably fall back on the excuse that’s easy, and obvious, and wrong: people are irrational.

The purpose of WTF?! is to gird against this fate—to help us learn how to see the logic in human behavior that often seems totally illogical. If we can do that, we have a better chance of understanding each other and people, past and present, who seem so different from us but are really not so different at all.