By now everyone has heard about Gaby Rodriguez, the 17-year-old high school student who faked a pregnancy in order to chronicle what it's like to become stigmatized. Her goal was to document, in detail, how a pregnant teen would be treated by her peers and others in the community. The only people aware of the project were the superintendent, the principal, her mother and her boyfriend.
Using padding and wiring Gaby slowly morphed into a pregnant teen and made her "pregnancy" public to her friends and acquaintances. For more than six months she successfully played the role. Finally, during a school assembly she took off the pregnancy apparatus and revealed the truth.
Whether intended or not, this elaborate social psychological experiment generated a tremendous amount of media coverage. Not unexpectedly, there was no shortage of opinions as to whether Gaby's project was appropriate.
The primary criticism surrounded the issue of lying. I watched two mental health professionals being interviewed separately on TV. Both of them expressed their concern that Gaby's project might be endorsing lying as appropriate behavior. The logic here being, since she wasn't really pregnant, she lied. Therefore, both professionals felt she shouldn't have conducted this experiment.
On a very basic level, of course, it's a lie. But does anybody really view Gaby's behavior as a typical lie? Hardly. Lying is as much about intent as it is about behavior. It is about the avoidance of responsibility. Whether it's "the dog ate my homework" or " oops, I'm sorry, I forgot to give you back the necklace I tried on before I left the store," a lie is intended to deceive, avoid responsibility or harm. To look at Gaby's behavior as a lie is to miss the point completely.
There are three questions worth asking here. First, what was the intent of the project? Second, was anyone harmed? And third, were there any beneficial outcomes?
Clearly, Gaby's intent was to gather information about a stigmatizing condition that might help clarify the difficulties pregnant teens face. Given both the increase in teen pregnancies and its glorification on reality TV shows, a sober look at the actual reality can only be good. For decades social psychologists have been developing research strategies to generate the kind of data that Gaby collected during her project. This is the prism through which Gaby's experiment should be viewed.
Did anyone get harmed? Other than the parents of Gaby's boyfriend who probably had a difficult time thinking about the consequences this would have on their son and themselves, nobody experienced any stress. Do some of the students Gaby interacted with feel uncomfortable with the project? It's probably safe to assume that those that treated her with a lack of sensitivity are not pleased with the project.
As far as benefits are concerned, the fact that this story has gotten media attention suggests its value. But beyond that, this project highlights the importance of empathy. Research suggests that the current generation of young people are less empathic than their elders. This doesn't bode well for the future if being desensitized becomes the norm. Ironically, it took a member of this younger generation to remind us of the critical importance of empathy in our lives.
At a time when most teens are focused on their next Facebook post, going to the mall or watching American Idol, along comes a kid with a social conscience and a lot of courage.
Gaby Rodriguez should be applauded.