Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

So freaking lucky…
March 3, 2011

I know why I haven’t been posting as much lately: it feels a little too much like bragging.

I feel stupid when I whine that we might not meet our savings goal this year.  Like, by less than $5K.  When our goal is $25K.  And other bloggers are struggling to get up to $1,000 in their emergency funds.  It makes me feel like an asshole.

I am a success story, but my “path to riches” includes a very important step:

Sarah’s Path To Wealth
1. Be born healthy & white in the richest country in the world.
2. (…)

No, I haven’t had all of the advantages of, say, Paris Hilton, but a large amount of my success is dependent on a number of factors that have nothing to do with my efforts.  Without parents who cared enough to force me to get good grades while they clawed out of poverty, without genetic blessings that made me smart and at least semi-attractive, without the fortune of being born in a country where everyone is guaranteed at least a basic amount of education, where would I be?

So we donate to charity, but we’re still riding the waves of luck.  How do I blog about that?

Sneaking a peek: what I discovered
March 9, 2010

Apparently all of my readers are as nosy as I am!

It might have been easier if I’d discovered a huge disparity between our salaries.  The next step would be clear: demand a raise!  Feel resentful toward my boss for offering so much less (and rejecting my negotiation attempts)!  Blog bitterly about women’s rights!

Except the disparity is much, much smaller than I expected.  In fact, it was so small that my raise will push me past his salary, although his raise will certainly offset that gain at the same time.  It almost seems fair – I’m a year younger than him, so I earn a year behind his salary.  Would he think it was fair?  I doubt it.  I mentioned that he has an additional degree, so the fact that our salaries don’t take that into account would probably bother him.

This really has me wondering about the explanation for the disparity.  All things being equal, his extra degree should count for several more years of experience.  So why is the difference smaller?

One probable reason is that I had 3 job offers; in order to have me choose this position, they had to  match my offer from another job, which is on a program known for paying high salaries.  Another reason could be that the pay grades that our company uses to determine salary were updated right before I received my offer.

There’s also the fact that – and excuse me if this sounds really conceited or something – I am perfect for this job.  If someone was crafting a job for me, this is the job they would make (except it would pay $20million per year).

And actually, this answered some lingering questions I’d had about why my salary counteroffer was rejected.  If they’d given in, I’d be making more than him!


Would you sneak a peek?
March 8, 2010

Confession time.

I never wondered much about my pay relative to my coworkers. Most of them are close to retirement age, so it never seemed important. After all, I’m certainly making less than them because I have about 30 years less experience (some of these people have worked for my company longer than I’ve been alive).

One coworker, however, is close to my age group. He’s a year or so older than me, with an additional advanced degree. I’d been wondering what he made, sort of idly, wondering if another degree was worthwhile.  Plus, this guy bought a house earlier this year, so I was a little curious about that since it feels like I can’t afford anything.


Because my group works out of a customer site, we have special device that automatically generates a password so we can get behind my company’s firewall. We use this for things like timecards, payroll, expense reports, etc. If you forget this doohickey, you can usually get in under a coworker’s account. 

My coworker’s card was malfunctioning, so he logged in under my name. However, he failed to log out properly, so the next time I logged in, I went straight into his account.

An electronic form of his paycheck was right there.


You guys, I peeked.


I feel really guilty, but I don’t know why.  After all, it’s not like my knowledge makes him earn any less.  I probably could have guessed his salary from the information my company supplies.  Also, I could have done worse – bank account account information, management reviews, and retirement account balances are all stored in there.  I saw the paycheck, got hit with the guilt, and logged the hell out.

Still, the damage was more in the violation of his privacy.  I’m sure he didn’t want me looking at that.

What’s worse, I know I shouldn’t have done it, and yet I’m glad I did.  I’m glad I know.

What would you do if presented with such a situation?  Would you peek at a coworker’s paycheck?

The Psychology of Marketing Being Conned
December 8, 2009

Every time I hear a story about someone falling prey to a 419 scam, whoever I’m with will sniff or roll their eyes. We like to believe that it’s all the result of being blinded by greed, that we could never fall for such a trick. We’ve all heard the stories of people sending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to people who promise that their money is coming. You’d think that after the first time the money transfer netted them nothing, they’d be smart enough to stop.

Someone at work linked me to this report from the University of Cambridge, which delves into the psychological principles behind a successful con.

The report is based partially on information from a British reality television show, so perhaps the scientific rigor is not entirely there. Still, it’s a worthwhile read.  In addition to descriptions of common scams, there is a section on the behavioral patterns that con artists exploit based on a few basic principles. The original report focuses on how these principles relate to security, but I think that recognizing these patterns is an important part of not falling prey to them – especially since some of these tactics align with the marketing techniques used by retailers.

1. The Distraction Principle
Much like the misdirection used by magicians, a hustler relies on our tendancy to always focus on the most interesting or the seemingly most important things going on around us. The 419 scammers, asking for yet another thousand dollars from their mark, focus his attention on how small this amount is compared to the millions he’ll be getting soon.

This is why male enhancement drugs are still a popular item. Show a man a sexy blonde and he’ll be so busy thinking about (ahem) doing things with her that he won’t remember that most penis enlargement pills don’t work.

2. The Social Compliance Principle
We’re trained to trust authority, and it’s amazing how little proof one needs of this authority; for example, a badge or a uniform is usually proof enough that we’re dealing with law enforcement. This is why phishing scams work so well. Using the distraction principle in #1, the thiefs send an emailing saying there has been some fraud on our accounts. When we’re worried about that, it seems natural to click through the email. The email links to a page that looks just like the bank’s webpage, making us feel comfortable with entering the information.

This is why seedy diet pill companies (and let’s face it, also some legitimate companies like GNC) will put a doctor in their ads. Remember the car ad where popular financial advice gurus talked about the awesomeness of the cash back program as a sound financial investment? It’s stupid to trust anyone who’s getting paid to endorse a product to give an honest opinion of said product, but we do it all the time.

3. The Herd Principle

Even suspicious marks will let their guard down when everyone next to them appears to share the same risks. Safety in numbers? Not if they’re all conspiring against you.

Con artists often use accomplices, or shills, to give the mark a false sense of security. If we see someone else having success with CashJar (something I made up just now), we’re more inclined to try it ourselves. Even if CashJar is a scam and the “successful guy” is an anonymous blogger who is actually a shill.

The iPhone is only cool because everyone else wants one, too.

4. The Dishonesty Principle
Once we realize we’ve been conned, anything we’ve done of dubious legality makes us less likely to report it. In a 419 scam, the mark is attempting to do something illegal (money laundering), and thus feels he can’t go to the police for help.

The report references the movie Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and a scam that one of the characters creates.  He places an ad for “male pleasure accessories” (sorry guys, I don’t want Google searches for sex toys coming to my blog!) in the classifieds section of gay magazines.  The checks can be made out to an innocuous sounding name, “Bobbie’s Bits.”  After cashing the checks, they send a letter apologizing because they couldn’t get the item in stock, and include a refund check.  The refund checks have an explicitly pornographic company name on them, ensuring that no one will want to be embarassed by depositing them.

5. The Deception Principle
All scams employ this principle. Things are not always what they seem, and any good scammer – or advertisement – will make us believe that something is what it seems. In a phishing scam, we’re familiar with the bank’s homepage and won’t question it’s authenticity unless something goes wrong.

The best example of this in marketing is with some cell phones that came out just after the iPhone. These phones were designed to sort of look like the iPhone and were marketed toward the same group of consumers, even though they didn’t have all of the capabilities that make the iPhone so popular.

6. The Need and Greed Principle
Of course, those people who roll their eyes at 419 victims are correct: there is definitely greed at play. I think most people feel that they need more money. If it’s not to cover staggering debts or medical bills, it’s just for the promise of comfort and security. The Prince’s inheritance just seems too good to be true.

Every advertisement appeals to our basics desires. Many of us want to be successful or attractive or cool. So an ad does all but scream, “THIS PRODUCT WILL GET YOU LAID AND ALSO MONEY.”

7. The Time Principle
The more quickly we have to make a choice, the less reasoning we’ll use to make our decision. We act on impulse, usually according to predictable patterns.

This tactic is also used in marketing, and is the basis of one-day sales and coupon codes. It’s also why sites like are so popular – only 3 days per sale, and a lot of the good stuff gets scooped up before you can even read the email! You have to hurry to add things into your cart, and then you have 10 minutes to decide if you want to buy it before the cart expires.  The website reminds you that everything is up to 70% off, so it keeps your mind focused on what a great deal you’re getting (back to #1) and steers your decision toward the one that nets them a profit.

(I would add here that the authors forgot to mention the Sunk Cost Fallacy, as that is a big motivator in people continuing with scams. It dosn’t seem to fit in any of the categories listed above.)

Now, I don’t think that marketing is evil because it exploits our behaviors.  That’s silly, because everything preys on our emotions.  Films, television, books, they all try to evoke our feelings, and the more we feel, the more we enjoy watching or reading. 

However, just because I don’t think these techniques are evil doesn’t mean that we have to fall prey to them.  Recognizing our behaviors and the ways that an ad will play on our desires is the first step in not succumbing.

I’m still working on that one.

Energy thiefs!
November 18, 2009

The weather is getting colder in Virginia, and the past week has been especially dreary.

In California, we didn’t have central heat (or air conditioning), so when the temperature went down, we’d just pile on sweaters and maybe put on the space heater.   The only time it was a problem was at night, but even then, it was a simple matter of adding a few blankets to the bed.

This week, despite the cold temperatures outside, we didn’t put the heat on.  It’s just not something we think to do.  It has been about 65o in our apartment, and that hasn’t been uncomfortable at all.

But it has occurred to me that perhaps there’s more than just our adaptability at play.  You see, we have people living on 2 sides of our apartment, and there is an apartment below ours as well.  It’s likely that those neighbors do have their heat on, and that heat is rising up to our apartment.

We’re comfortable, and we don’t have to pay for heat, but is that ethical?

If we ran our heat, those neighbors would probably save money on their electric bills, and we’d pay a little more.  I don’t know how much of a difference it would make in the temperature since we have high ceilings and we’d probably lose a bit through the roof.  Maybe we wouldn’t need the blankets that we usually have thrown on our laps.

Complicating matters is that sometimes, it’s too warm.  A few nights, even with the wicked cold outside, I slept with the bedroom fan on because it was too hot to sleep.  If those downstairs neighbors are heating our apartment, it’s costing us more money to run that fan.

Furthering my confusion is that this summer, we ran our air conditioning. Those same neighbors probably benefited from that if you assume the same heat transfer mechanisms are at play.

We haven’t met these neighbors, so it feels a little awkward to knock on the door and say, “Hey we think we might be leeching heat off you.  How do you feel about that?”

Is there some sort of solution that I haven’t thought of, or should we just accept that this exchange of energy is an consequence of apartment living from which we are currently benefitting?

Car Crashes & Ethics
March 23, 2009

I’m working on answering the questions from the last post; if there’s anything you’re wondering about me, make sure to ask! I’ll post answers on Friday (gives me time to get a good shot of my hair for FB).

So now I have a somewhat ethical dilemma that I’d like some input on.

Chad got sideswiped, and there’s cosmetic damage across the whole right side of my car.  The guy who hit him was really nice about and has already cut us a check for the repair cost.  We didn’t even use insurance companies since his deductible is more than the repair would have cost.

The problem is that one door on that side was already damaged – the panel was dented and there’s some lost paint.  We were lucky that the 2 sets of damage are very distinct from each other; there was no confusing which damage came from which accident.

The problem is that the older damage is very expensive to repair since it involves dents & not just paint.  We don’t have the money set aside to repair it since it was really just cosmetic and doesn’t affect the operation of the car in any way.

My question, then, is about the ethics of not repairing the new damage.  The body shop guy said there was no point repainting over the preexisting dents, so we’d have to either get both fixed or neither.  I have enough money in my emergency fund to cover the cost of the repairs, of course, but I don’t know if I want to – the appearance of my car is not an issue for me.

My feeling is that it’s not ethically wrong to put off the repairs.  The guy who hit the car did the same amount of damage whether we repair it or not.  Since we didn’t go through our insurance companies, there’s no fraud (although I’m not sure how well this hold up if we get hit on that side again).

I’ve put the money into a newly created Auto account since it doesn’t seem right to absorb it as income.  Does this make my decision better or worse?

What would you do?