Gaby Rodriguez, a Yakima (Washington) High School senior, faked a pregnancy for six months as a school-approved senior project. She told no one about the charade, which the school has called a “social experiment,” except her mother, boyfriend and principal. Others, like her siblings, her boyfriend’s family, fellow students, friends and teachers, were led to believe the pregnancy was real.
Thanks to hidden camera shows like ABC’s “What Would You Do?” and various reality shows, too many people have the impression that everyone they meet is a potential guinea pig. On the contrary: using decent, disguise, deception and lies to “see how people react” is no better than lying for any other reason, and often more harmful. For six months, members of the Yakima community expended concern and kindness, as well as, I’m sure, bias and callousness, to a young woman based on her explicit representation that she was pregnant. Presumably she used expectant mother parking spaces. Presumably people held doors open for her oroffered to carry her books. Whatever their reaction, it was triggered by a ruse, because she and her school principal thought that one girl’s senior project justified lying to everyone she came in contact with for six months.
It didn’t. Such dishonest exercises involving the intentional deception of hundreds of people carry a heavy burden of justification. Maybe—maybe—a deceptive experiment carried out by a trained researcher that had a reasonable chance of producing new information and data that could be used to benefit society in significant and tangible ways could justify such extensive and long-running deceit. Rodriguez’s project didn’t promise any such benefits; in fact, it has no genuine social science benefits at all. Before deception can even be considered as an ethical means to gather social science data, it has to be clear that the data could not be gathered any other way.
Hmmmm, now let me think—aHa! Here’s an alternative! Ask any of the millions of women who have been pregnant, as teens, students and otherwise, how people reacted to them! Pregnancy is neither rare nor hidden, and women have seldom been shy about sharing their experiences. There is not a single thing Rodriguez can learn from her “experiment” that isn’t available in abundance from thousands upon thousands of other sources, and not one of them requires six months of lies to access it.
Her hoax undoubtedly caused anxiety to her family members who didn’t know the truth, as well as her friends, and certainly the family of her boyfriend, who, along with the girl’s mother and principal, share responsibility for her unethical conduct. Back in 2004, Fox presented a revolting reality show that at least had the integrity not to pretend it was legitimate research, called “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé,” which paid a woman a million dollars to convince her horrified family and friends that she was going through with marrying a loud, fat, boorish ass, (who was, in fact, an actor) as the cameras recorded their growing anger, worry and concern. In some ways, this despicable swill was a more justifiable social experiment that the one approved by the Yakima principal; at least the woman was getting a lot of money to betray her friends and family, and the “results” of the experiment were shared with everyone via the TV. Rodriguez gets a grade and extraordinarily common information, which she will share with world in a typical high school senior paper that almost no one will read.
Perhaps the worst result of stunts like this is that they help make everyone in a society cynical and distrustful. Nobody wants to be fooled, and many of us are looking for reasons not to take action, or to rescue, intervene, or reach out. Rodriquez’s deception will just plant a little bit of doubt in the back of the mind of the next Yakima resident tempted to give his bus seat to an uncomfortable, pregnant teen.
This senior project was ethically misguided in every way: irresponsible, dishonest, unfair. It trivialized teen pregnancy, and played with people’s emotions for no legitimate purpose whatsoever, while teaching the false lesson that it is justifiable to deceive others, perhaps causing them emotional distress, for narrow personal goals. That it was done with school approval is just one more piece of evidence of the ethics and competence deficit in our public schools.