Medical Examiner

There’s No Defense for Affluenza

The claim that a rich kid didn’t understand consequences is a distortion of psychology.

Ethan Couch, 16
Ethan Couch, 16, avoided prison time after his lawyers offered the “affluenza” defense.

Screenshot from ABC affiliate WFAA

You may have heard about Ethan Couch, a 16-year-old who drove while drunk and killed four people and injured two others. Couch had three times the legal limit of alcohol in his blood (that’s the limit for adults—minors shouldn’t have any alcohol in their blood). He also had Valium and some THC in his system. Stolen beer was in the pickup truck he was driving, which was owned by Couch’s father’s company. When Couch drove too fast, his companions asked him to slow down; instead, he sped up.

Rather than the 20 years of jail time the prosecution asked for, Texas Judge Jean Boyd gave Couch absolutely no jail time and instead sentenced him to 10 years of probation and time in a long-term treatment facility. That facility costs $450,000 per year, paid for by Couch’s wealthy parents. Among other amenities, it offers equine therapy and organic food choices.

Many people have railed against the judge’s sentence, which was drastically different from that given to others who have killed people while driving drunk. One mitigating factor that worked for Couch: a creative defense team. During the sentencing phase of the trial, the defense argued that Couch shouldn’t be held as responsible as he might be because his parents were so permissive in their style of child rearing that Couch did not experience socially appropriate consequences for his socially inappropriate behavior.

The defense’s argument for a lenient sentence is summed up in the word affluenza. (The term affluenza apparently came into public use with a 1997 PBS special and subsequent book of that name. In that original context, the term referred to increasing materialism and “keeping up with the Joneses.”) The defense team seems to have made up its own definition to argue that, because of his family’s wealth and child-rearing style, Couch never learned that his actions had consequences. Psychologist for the defense Gary Miller is reported to have said that Couch’s parents gave their son whatever he wanted—including “freedoms no young person should have.” Supporting his argument, Miller related an incident that happened when Couch was 15: Police caught him passed out in a pickup truck with a naked 14-year-old girl.

I’m a clinical psychologist, not a lawyer. My interest in this case is from a psychological point of view: the issues the case raises about the definitions and diagnoses of mental illness and why Couch should—or shouldn’t—be held responsible for his behavior.

Examining the psychological underpinnings of the misnamed “affluenza” defense, there’s no “there” there. Let’s take Couch’s history of a lack of appropriate consequences for his behavior. In essence, this part of the defense’s argument rests on the assumption that knowing the law is not enough to deter someone from criminal acts. Instead, the person must have experienced deleterious consequences for his or her socially inappropriate or illegal behavior in the past. Otherwise (it seems to follow), the threat of legal consequences will appear empty since the person hadn’t experienced consequences before.

This argument doesn’t hold water for at least two reasons. First, even though Couch’s parents may not have taught him that his inappropriate behavior has negative consequences, this doesn’t mean that he was incapable of learning this lesson in other areas of his life. We know that people are sensitive to context and accurately distinguish between consequences that will occur in one situation but not in another. Even rats and other animals learn to make analogous types of discriminations based on context. They learn that if a light is on when they press a lever, they’ll receive a food pellet, but when the light is off they won’t. If you’ve spent time around preschoolers you know that they are sensitive to context—to how much they can “get away with” when Person A is in charge of them versus Person B. High-school students learn that a substitute teacher has less authority, and thus they may act up with him or her in ways they would never consider with their regular teacher.

Couch’s wealth and privilege may have led him to feel immune from the usual consequences of certain behavior, but somewhere along the way he understood that there were at least some consequences for some of his actions. For instance, he didn’t drop out of high school. Even though school can be unpleasant or difficult, he somehow learned that there would be untoward consequences if he didn’t participate.

Let’s look at a mirror situation: poor teens whose parents didn’t appropriately discipline their children because the parents were working two jobs to put food on the table. These children may have gotten away with socially unacceptable or even unlawful behavior in the past and not suffered any negative consequences. But would their defense team successfully argue that these youths were less responsible than others? I don’t think so, even though the same issue is at the core: a lack of consequences from people in authority for socially undesirable behavior.

A second interesting facet of this whole sorry situation, to me, is the confusing message the judge is sending to Couch by allowing him to live in a “private rehabilitation home.” If Couch’s affluenza means that he didn’t receive appropriate consequences for his behavior in the past, what is the judge’s take-home message to him? The message is that his wealth and privilege can obviate the negative consequences of his criminal behavior. That wealth and privilege can buy someone’s way out of going to jail or to programs that are part of the public juvenile justice system. Judge Boyd’s cure for affluenza seems to be more of the same.

A central puzzle in this situation concerns the concept of diagnosis. Affluenza seems to have been used as a diagnosis to explain his behavior and why he shouldn’t be criminally responsible. The logic seems to be that young people with this affluenza suffer from a psychological deficit or even a developmental disorder: “I am not responsible for my behavior because my parents didn’t hold me accountable for my behavior. I never really learned (from my parents) that my untoward actions have consequences. Therefore, I should not be held accountable now—or at least I should be held less accountable than someone who experienced first-hand that undesired behavior has negative consequences.”

But affluenza (even the inaccurate way it was used in this case) is not a mental disorder. It isn’t identified by any mental health professional organization or diagnostic manual. It is not a diagnosis for a mental disorder. In the hands of this defense team, it is a fabrication invented to serve a specific purpose. Made-up psychological mumbo jumbo to mitigate responsibility reflects poorly on the mental health profession. Don’t tar the rest of us with this brush! Let’s hope affluenza goes the way of the Twinkie defense.