Psychologist: “Affluenza” is Junk Science

There are many legitimate conditions that might explain terrible teen behavior, but being too rich is not one of them.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Getty Images (2)

Last week, 16-year-old Ethan Couch was sentenced to 10-years probation for killing four people and critically wounding two while drunk driving. Although the prosecution sought prison time, the defense argued that Couch himself was a victim and presented psychologist G. Dick Miller to testify that Couch was suffering from “affluenza” —that he lived such an extravagant, materialistic, consequence-free life that he was unable to understand or control his behavior. This is perhaps the first time having too easy a life has been considered a mitigating circumstance. The sentencing has naturally inflamed people’s opinions.

Affluenza, in fact, is not a recognized illness.  It is not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association. As a clinical psychologist, I’ve never before seen a mental health practitioner try to diagnose someone with affluenza. And there is practically nothing in the research literature about it.  In the computerized database PsychINFO, the term affluenza is mentioned only 7 times (as opposed to over 101,000 for the recognized illness schizophrenia).  Most of these seven were  mentions or reviews of books published in the non-academic press.  The only empirical research on affluenza was a 2010 study by Peter Lorenzi and Roberto Friedman in the Journal of Behavioral and Applied Management. The authors found little evidence for an affluenza epidemic sweeping America.

(MOREDrunk Driving Teen Avoids Jail Because of the Parenting He Received)

Affluenza seems mainly the product of pop psychology, and it doesn’t even mean what Couch’s defense lawyers intended it to mean. It is generally characterized as a contagious social disease, typified by a “keeping up with the Joneses” materialism, spending and debt. According to Gregory McNeal in Forbes, the term affluenza is often used in tax and estate law, albeit even there with some skepticism. Given all of this, how affluenza came to be so influential in a criminal case is astounding. Our legal system has protections against using junk science in court decisions.  I have not read transcripts of the trial, but I would be surprised if prosecutors made no effort to challenge the use of affluenza in this case.

(MORE: Co-Author of the book Affluenza: “I’m appalled by the Ethan Couch decision”)

Couch may very well have mental health issues. Few psychologists would argue that being raised in an atmosphere of instant gratification and negligible consequences for bad behavior is healthy for child development. In addition, Couch’s risky behavior might indicate alcoholism and, if he truly were evidencing a pathological sense of entitlement or lack of empathy for others, it’s possible he might be diagnosable with a personality disorder. These are legitimate conditions, although they typically do not result in such a massive reduction in sentencing as was seen in this case. It is ironic that, in arguing Couch is a victim of bad parenting free of consequences for antisocial behavior, the defense and judge appear to have merely continued exactly this pattern, demanding unbelievably soft consequences for the death of four.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that money and privilege did indeed influence this case, but not through a psychological illness. Instead, the judge managed to convey the impression that the wealthy are able to buy a different justice from the poor.   Some news reports are comparing Couch’s outcome to that of a 14-year-old African American boy sentenced to 10 years juvenile detention by the same judge for one death resulting from a punch.  The cases aren’t identical, to be sure, but they convey an impression that wealth matters to the criminal justice system.

Ultimately, aside from Couch, the case has more losers than winners. The criminal justice system will suffer from the impression it is classist and unreliable. Psychology will take a hit for being linked to the affluenza term, despite it not being a product of psychological science. And the case will add to the unfair characterization of kids as spoiled, entitled brats, despite the fact that most youth are not. But the worst outcome, of course, is for the victims and their families who have been denied justice.

38 comments
Thingleader
Thingleader

This is just as much a racial issue. If you don't think that's true, consider this. Even the author of this article made the connection of rich~white black~poor without even realizing it. Re-Read this excerpt: "Some news reports are comparing Couch’s outcome to that of a 14-year-old African American boy sentenced to 10 years juvenile detention by the same judge for one death resulting from a punch.  The cases aren’t identical, to be sure, but they convey an impression that wealth matters to the criminal justice system." He doesn't talk about the 14 year-old boys' wealth or socioeconomic status, he simply gives the boy's race and infers that he is poor or at least much less wealthy. That's pretty messed up!

mp12
mp12

 Affluenza is a mental illness inflicted by rich parents into the head of their spoiled no brain children ( The parents should serve jail time for it since they are the ones misleading their children to believe that there is no consequence for wrong doing)  . The judge who made this decision might be one no brain person, so what else can we say!?   Next time this kid may end up dead in a car accident then lets see how the justice will handle the case. 



esox42
esox42

What's really disgusting about this episode is that the judge, reasoning that the little dung squirt was not responsible for his behavior due to never having been held accountable and facing the consequences of his actions, "punished" him by not holding him accountable and letting him get away with no consequences for his actions. The judge should be put on trial for accessory to murder.

DonLond
DonLond

Anyone with an objective brain knows full well that "affluenza" is real and is caused by Global Climate Change, which explains why people voted to eliminate their own freedom in America and unbridled lust has gone rampant as of late.

We ought not worry though. It can easily be cured by raising taxes on the productive and transferring the wealth via a siphoning off political class to the poor of the world.

SBak
SBak

It's funny how all of a sudden there's public outrage when some rich white kid gets away with killing four people and maiming a fifth, but not so much when someone innocent gets put to death in Huntsville. 

PotMeetsKettle
PotMeetsKettle

Next time, read the transcripts.  That's what responsible people do when they opine on something.  Otherwise it might as well be in the "Midnight Sun" instead of "Time."


That said...he pled guilty and this was during the sentencing phase.   (Transcripts, ya know...)


And yes, it is B.S. that he got off effectively scot free.  Definitely a case of "Animal Farm" justice. 

luisrdiaz_1
luisrdiaz_1

Its called getting over "BIG TIME!!!"  The sad thing about this case is that it creates a precedent for other rich kids to claim they too are victims of Affluenza. Its a really sad day in America when court judges buy into this type of nonsense.

MarySchleeLacey
MarySchleeLacey

This judge needs to be fired, no two ways about it.  It is beyond me how any intelligent human being could possibly buy this total bull crap.  Poor baby, so rich, he just doesn't understand the world around him.  Gimme a break!   Let's get rid of this judge and let this kid live in the real world, perhaps working in a morgue where people that have been killed by drunk drivers are.   What he needs is a good dose of reality, not enabling or coddling.

jovenal
jovenal

Ok, so now it will be necessary to establish a Criminal Code not for each crime, but for each of us.

—j


cjgarcia1984
cjgarcia1984

This makes me sick.  The judge decided that because the kid had lived a life without consequence the best course of action would be to simply perpetuate that by essentially not punishing him when he commits a serious crime.  I absolutely cannot believe the judge bought such a ridiculous argument.  This just goes to show that some people really are above the law and this judge should be stripped of all power for having such incredibly poor judgment.

marmar0175
marmar0175

It is not any science it is ridiculous excuses.  The 'judge' in this case should never sit in judgment ever again.  If anyone is thinking it is right or kind to not give this young man the proper punishment for what happened you are sorely mistaken.  I just hope no one I or you care about is his next victim.

therealdude
therealdude

All I can say about this is a very sarcastic "duh". Unless the boy had an IQ of 20, he knew what he did was wrong. The whole trial was a sham and a total disgrace to justice. This verdict not only screams loudly that the rich have a different standard of justice than the rest of us, it also says the lives of the people he killed were worth nothing.

I don't know who I'm more angry at--the boy who did this or the judge who took it upon herself to single-handedly let him off for killing them all over some obvious fake excuse like this. At the very least the judge should be investigated, recalled and if anything is found in the investigation, disbarred and prosecuted herself.

BerniceLost
BerniceLost

"Some news reports are comparing Couch’s outcome to that of a 14-year-old African American boy sentenced to 10 years juvenile detention by the same judge for one death resulting from a punch.  The cases aren’t identical, to be sure, but they convey an impression that wealth matters to the criminal justice system." - If the other boy's skin colour is of note at ALL, then that is a racial issue, not an issue of "wealth." As much as I am in full support of this article, please notice your own prejudice before you make pronouncements. His race was not worth mentioning, and you didn't even MENTION his financial standing. Race is not a person's sole identifier, and should not be included unless you wanted to point out racism, in which case, you really ought to have said so out right.

cachae777
cachae777

I see "Affluenza" as the Wealthy excuse to escape jail time for killing people because you were in a Vehicular Homicide!


No poor (under the influence) person would be afforded "probation" and since his parents could pay off the judge, he walks! He stays in a country-club facility for Alcoholism because his parents can afford to pay for it all.  So why can't poor parents pay to get their kids off?  They can't hire an attorney for, say $10K to say, my son didn't mean to sell drugs, poverty is his defense, or, my daughter stole come clothes because her parents couldn't afford to buy her name-brand jeans.


Does she get to use poverty as a defense. No!  I stole a loaf of bread because I was hungry.  Should I be charged with petty theft because I couldn't afford to feed my kids... They'll throw me Under the jail, and accuse me of being a freeloader of the taxpayer's dime.


Isn't this kid a freeloader off his wealth too?!


BryanBrennan
BryanBrennan

judge and jury need to be thrown in jail for their stupidly. Sounds like California justice. How must those poor families feel. kid and parents and lawyers should be horsewhipped.

eetom
eetom

The affluent not only produce more polluting effluents, they can also, if convicted of a crime, receive milder penalty for suffering from "affluenza".  If a destitute were to commit crime because he needs to survive will he receive lighter punishment because he is suffering form either "destitutitis" or "impoverishnitis"?  

Will one day "affluenza" be as influential as influenza?

firestar1075
firestar1075

I'm sure the Melendez twins are in their cells wondering why this was not used to spring them....to rich to know better...I wonder how long it will be until the defense of being "too poor" or "lackofafluenza" is used as a defense and I actually though in a state such as texas would do better....I hope the family gets a lawyer and "de-aflunces" for all they got

RB1
RB1

No, this boy is the product of NARCISSISTIC parents, molding him to follow in their shared beliefs that they are superior beings to those common human beings. 

These are the type of people with a mental disorder that is being largely ignored by psychology, society and government because they mostly are the people with all the money and supposedly are the leaders of "trickle down" politics that doesn't work, just reinforces their economic advantages and puts you and I into a poorer class of America. 

This mental illness is the catalyst for the last decades economic crisis. We as a society need to demand that science prove that this mental illness produces more harm to all societies than any other mental illness (if not all combined)! We need to force our government and the science of psychology to own-up to this problem and dislodge these mentally ill people from the roles of power!

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

So based on the entire episode in court, news stories and arguments made regarding it, affluenza is just another word for sociopath.  I supposed affluenza sells better than sociopath does for a defense.

But it being Texas, I don't expect that any of the families this sociopath impacted are going to take this and just walk away.


They almost all have guns there, last I heard, and they're not afraid to use them.

Yoshi
Yoshi

“Affluenza” is Junk Science

I agree. Total, telling, garbage. Wonderfully executed defensive strategy, however, ethics aside.


brotherskeeper
brotherskeeper

This Judge should be immediately asked to step down from the bench for allowing this kind of incredible rubbish to be use as a defence in a court of low. Clearly the judicial system in the U.S has been seriously compromised . We are truly living in a capitalist society if you do not have the capital you will get the "punishment" and if you have stupendous amounts of money you can get away with murder by having assine decisions like this. Woe unto to the poor and minorities "dog eat your supper"

DerekMason
DerekMason

Even if he were rich, black kid could not have gotten this sentience.  Being rich and white was sole reason he got the treatment he got from the judge.   He would have plead prior to the case going to court.  Not only that,  a jury would have laughed the defense out fo the court room.  It would have been the fast jury deliberation on record...

mp12
mp12

@firestar1075 The Melendez brothers were abused by their parents, they claimed abuse not afluenza, so it means that they were strong enough to understand that there were consequences  for their act.   Affluenza are used world wide by rich people, but I thought in USA the justice were not as blind as the third world justice. 

cachae777
cachae777

@firestar1075 You are sooo right.  Maybe the Melendez twins didn't pay their attorney (judge) enough to get off!

therealdude
therealdude

@RB1 This hits on a bigger concern and that if cases like this will become the wedge to create a whole new system of justice based on class. True, one could easily argue one already exists, however, sometimes in cases like this where there's no doubt, justice actually gets served. We've seen it inching along more and more since the 80's--last year we had the 46% comment by a presidential candidate during an election and it was just about the only thing he didn't immediately flip on, I even remember a conservative who said point-blank that the rich were biologically superior to everyone else, attempts at new voting laws directly targeting demographics to influence the outcome of an election...To me, Affluenza is really more of a symptom of an emerging plutocracy. And what's equally frightening is, as we saw in 2012, no matter who you vote for in an election, it doesn't seem to stop it.

annajrclark
annajrclark

@RB1 Bravo!! Extremely well formulated idea. Drove to San Diego today and it dawned on me why we have illegal immigrant issue. That's because the wealthy don't want to let go of their south of border slaves. The wealthy settlements went on for miles and miles. Thus the problem.

cachae777
cachae777

@RB1 There is no mental illness here... My $$ Will pay for EVERYTHING belief is what they suffer from.  Rich = I can get away with murder.  If the Kennedy's can, why cant he?

therealdude
therealdude

@DeweySayenoff Right. However, affluenza indicates a wealthy sociopath capable of buying people off and influencing them into at least saying they believe some ridiculous theory/excuse for whatever terrible thing they did.

LindaArmstrong
LindaArmstrong

@Yoshi Our justice system is one of the strengths of our government. If it fails (like this) consistently, the result will be less civilized forms of revenge and, in the ensuing chaos, more innocent people will be hurt. Note that people go to "court." This term is left over from a time when kings settled disputes. This was a vital part of their governing obligation. We should not forget.

cachae777
cachae777

@brotherskeeper How about... Money will buy me EVERYTHING I need - including freedom!  I can get way with murder because I'm rich, and my parents can afford the best attorneys $$ can buy.  JonBenet's parents were NEVER charged, which sends a bad messages 2 the rest of the world.  

As long as you have $$ you can get away with ANYTHING!  

Yoshi
Yoshi

@LindaArmstrong@YoshiWhy not change the law? Strike this precedent down? At least a prosecutorial appeal? This case had nothing to do with "revenge" and everything to do with excellent lawyers who performed as paid to do. That's what they are supposed to do in our system of justice. Keep in mind that the sharpest lawyers are NOT in public practice. I don't like the outcome any better than you do, but there are mechanisms to correct this for the future. Let's use those.

What does any of this have to do with "kings and courts"?