Experts Just Gave Us the Blunt Truth About Affluenza

Last week, authorities announced that the Texas teenager who got off with 10 years of probation after killing four people in a drunk driving accident two years ago had gone missing. Eighteen-year-old Ethan Couch became known as the "Affluenza teen" after his defense team hired a psychologist who testified that Couch was essentially too privileged to be held criminally responsible for his actions.

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Here's how the psychologist explained it: Because Couch grew up in an environment with "irresponsible parenting," his "affluent upbringing strongly enabled the accident." She termed the psychological disorder "affluenza," a diagnosis that drew the ire of many following the case who felt that the then-16 year old shouldn't have been excused for drinking and driving — his blood alcohol content was three times the legal amount for an adult driver — and killing four people.

ethan couch

Lawyers argued that because Couch's parents failed to properly discipline him and teach the concept that actions have consequences, the teen was psychologically impaired from understanding what could happen to him and others if he drove drunk — even if he understood that drunk driving was technically illegal.

But while the psychologist's argument appeared to be effective with the judge in the case, earning Couch a 10-year probation when he could have faced a much more serious sentence, the scientific basis of affluenza has been called into question.

In effect, psychologists have described the affluenza defense as "junk science."

"[Affluenza] doesn’t hold water for at least two reasons," clinical psychologist Dr. Robin Rosenberg wrote. "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.

"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," Rosenberg continued.

Then there's the fact that affluenza is not recognized as a legitimate mental disorder by any mental health professional organization or diagnostic manual. In fact, the origin of affluenza as a diagnosis is not entirely clear. A number of psychologists have spoken out about the case, condemning the defense team's expert for the unprecedented rationale used in the case.

"As a clinical psychologist, I've never before seen a mental health practitioner try to diagnose someone with affluenza," Christopher Ferguson, a professor and department chair of psychology at Stetson University, wrote. "And there is practically nothing in the research literature about it."

In PsychINFO, the American Psychological Association's computerized database, the word "affluenza" only comes up seven times, and most of the citations come from non-academic book reviews. Compare this to the word "schizophrenia," a documented mental disorder, which has upwards of 100,000 references in the database.

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"In the hands of this defense team, it is a fabrication invented to serve a specific purpose," Rosenberg wrote at Slate. "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!"