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.
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.
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.