No, Affluenza Is Not a Real Thing

The term is an insult to psychology—and using it to excuse a teen’s actions in a terrible DUI case exposes the deep cracks in our legal and moral codes.

12.16.13 10:45 AM ET

What do we get when being sociopathic, lacking empathy, chasing thrills, and leaving a body count in one’s wake is paired with wealth, privilege and an A-list defense? The hot new term: Affluenza.  This term was used as an actual defense in the case of Ethan Couch, a privileged young man who chose to drive while intoxicated, which resulted in four deaths and a friend now living with severe spinal cord and brain injuries.

This annoying new term was coined in the Couch case by questionable psychology and has begun to germinate within our collective consciousness.  The term Affluenza caused a national gag reflex—and as a doctor I can assure you that, no, Affluenza is not a real affliction. It is a constructed excuse for behavior that gives a privileged teen an out because his father is a millionaire and his defense team is of the Gucci variety. Yet the judge, a seemingly intelligent and well-regarded woman, apparently bought it.  We know that failure of justice is not infrequent; it just never had such a cringeworthy label. I would like to eradicate this word from our vocabularies going forward.

If there were to be a word cloud created for this last week’s newsworthy topics, Affluenza would take a prominent position with gigantic letters overshadowing words like Mandela and Iran.  Over and over again, we were subjected to this rather irritating term; semantically a combination of a state of affluence and apparently a viral type of affliction that has been posited to cause a sense of self-entitlement, rule breaking, haughtiness, and a lack of empathy or remorse for one’s bad behavior.  Affluenza is touted as a disease that seems able to remove all accountability.

To the public’s amazement and disgust, this Affluenza defense actually worked. Couch was not sentenced to an iota of time in a juvenile detention center or prison.  He will instead be convalescing in a five-star rehabilitation facility with his own personal therapy horse, yoga sessions and cooking classes for at least a year. Wouldn’t we all be healthier with our own therapy pony? Couch’s parents will be shelling out nearly half a million dollars for the privilege to “protect” their son from the harsh realities of a broken system by using their own broken system of throwing money at a problem. 

If this defense seems absurd to anyone watching at home—that would be because it is completely absurd.

Affluenza is not found in our diagnostic categories of mental illness and it is not even a construct that makes sense.  The psychologist on the case gave a bizarre interview to CNN’s Anderson Cooper this week and doubled down on his contention that Affluenza is a real syndrome, going on to state that 80 percent of Americans actually suffer from Affluenza.  Wait, what? Even if we suspend reality for a moment and assumed Affluenza was a real condition, it would by definition affect the wealthy—who, I am sorry to inform the good doctor, are not 80 percent of the population. This entire debacle insults the field of psychology, deflates public trust and the willingness to seek mental health treatment by a competent professional when needed.

In behavioral science, when we see individuals who exhibit a lack of empathy for others, haughtiness, self-entitlement, thrill-seeking behavior, impulsivity, and substance abuse, there is likely a personality disorder present. In psychological terms, these characteristics are found in sociopaths and narcissists.  It is appalling to find that when the individual is of financial means, this troubling psychopathology is tritely relabeled with a junk science term such as Affluenza.  And when one is poor, they are then simply regarded as criminals.  Sociopathy and narcissism are not caused by having too much money or having too little money, but can be correlated with environmental factors like abuse, neglect and poor parental attachment. Either way, these personality disorders do not bid a criminal a way out of prison and are not even remotely sufficient for an insanity defense.   They can explain criminal behavior but do not excuse criminal behavior. 

The Affluenza defense is a mind-numbingly circular argument that goes like this: Couch never experienced discipline because he was rich and spoiled, so therefore he should not be subjected to discipline now because he is too rich and too spoiled. If this poor little rich boy is again learning the wrong lesson in life, who is at fault? The suspects include: the parents, the doctors spouting off bogus diagnoses, the judge, our justice system and Couch himself for hiding behind his money and packing his bags for Newport Beach, dodging the bullet of accountability. Perhaps Couch could have taken some lesson from the Ohio man, Matthew Cordle, whose viral YouTube video confessing his guilt in a DUI case that resulted in loss of life garnered him a six-and-a-half-year prison sentence. Cordle fessed up, manned up, and made amends as best he could.  The only lesson Couch now takes from this bloody event is that he can walk free because of his family’s wealth.

Let’s just all step back for a moment and appreciate that the case is a microcosm of so many of the deep-seated issues that are wrong with our culture and our justice system.  It plinks on the nerves of race, socioeconomic disparity, privilege, junk science, and recent pivots in our American values whereby money outweighs morals. The case brings a neon highlighter to what so many of us already unfortunately know and accept to be true about the gross inequities in our justice system: privilege still exists and money can buy special treatment. We know this is the case, but turn a blind eye because the problems are too entrenched and too massive, until a case this egregious jolts us to attention.  Perhaps this can be the lesson for all of us from this case, even if Couch himself learns nothing more than how to ride a horse on the beach and the power of privilege. 

Dr. Michelle London is a Johns Hopkins-trained neuropsychologist and President of the Chicago NeuroRehabilitation Center.