Affluenza – An Isolated Case in Texas or a Growing Epidemic in the US?




Texas landscape

This article examines some of the issues surrounding and emanating from the Ethan Couch verdict in Texas. Needless to say, this situation is sparking tremendous outrage from many directions. Here, I am discussing my clinical take on the matter.

While I clearly do not know this 16 year old in any clinical way, and I know very little about family dynamics over time, here is what I know. This adolescent white male stole beer from a well-known retail store and went on an alcohol binge-drinking episode with some peers that ultimately led to driving his father’s company truck while severely intoxicated. He killed four people and injured nine others, at least two severely on November 10, 2013 in Texas. He was found to have a blood alcohol level that was three times the legal limit, and 24 times more for someone under the age of 21.

He has been sentenced to 10 years probation and to attend an intensive, and quite expensive, treatment center for the next two years. His father is paying the bill for treatment. He has also been ordered to have no contact with his mother and father over this time period.

In court, a clinical psychologist hired by the defense, testified that this young man suffers from “affluenza”, and requires rehabilitation; not imprisonment. The presiding judge follows the psychologist’s recommendation. This determination indicates that Ethan has not internalized a proper moral code because of severe parental indulgence. Neglect is consequently a potent mitigating factor in this case.

Our personality is viewed as the more consistent part of who we are in regards to our thinking, our feelings, and our actions. Personality is in part, genetically primed. We often call it temperament. However, I believe that intimate interpersonal reactions from caregivers impact us in a much greater way.

Personality tends to begin to show itself around the age of three. It continues to be dynamically shaped until around the third decade of life. In an earlier article on this site, I outlined the construct of Global Personality Orientation (GPO), of which there are at least three subtypes: prosocial, asocial, and antisocial. I believe that parenting styles, in this case, indulgent and neglectful, produce so often an antisocial GPO. And I project that the overall psycho-social family environment is crucial as well.

Ethan is described as living alone in his own “mansion” from the age of 13 and has been impacted by a tremendous sense of wealth and privilege transmitted by his parents, with little or no parental limits. Therefore, he has become quite egocentric in his worldview and that of others. In this case, the family environment has been dysfunctional to toxic.

Taking a broader view of these issues in this country, professionals are describing a number of examples of “affluenza” among the wealthy, including individuals and corporations who are “too big to fail; too big to jail”. We are reminded often of the relentless and increasing divide between the very wealthy and the rest of us. We presume now, that as wealth accumulates, empathy and compassion drops.

At a personal level, I am outraged about Ethan’s verdict, considering the damage he has done. And at a clinical level, I believe that at 16, he is not salvageable. It seems to me that we will continue to hear and read about affluenza in its many manifestations.

Image via Robert Crow / Shutterstock.

  • jm

    i absolutely disagree.

    it’s heartening to see a justice system actually working. it’s not an entertainment show for people to heap scorn on those we think deserve it. it’s a constructive process where we try to mend the best possible future for the world out of the deepest tragedies. otherwise we’ll just be bonking each other with sticks until there’s no one left to run the prisons. we’ll all be in prison.

    • Maria

      Where’s the justice for those people he killed and the lives he has ruined?

    • Anonymous

      Did you even think this through? By your logic, there should be no prison time for anyone, ever… just more rehabilitation.

      This is a case of complete lack of accountability on the part of Ethan Couch… to the point of being responsible for murdering multiple people. Sorry… “I’m just too rich and spoilt to know any better” does NOT cut it.

      I’m appalled by this ruling!

      • Anonymous

        I agree with you.A crime is a crime.It does not matter how much money you have the law is for everyone.But I guess if you pay off the right people you can get away with murder.

  • grinch

    I totally believe in Affluenza, or basically the idea that the environment you were raised in has a major impact on your behavior. DUH! The same applies to people living in poverty as well. Every person does not make spontaneous moral decisions based on nothing. People make moral decisions based on their genetic programming and the environmental inputs that have influenced them. Period. There is no personal responsibility that exists independently of these two factors.

    With that being said, affluenza CAN NOT be used as a defense, because the justice system itself is part of the environment that is designed to shape us to be better people. Prison has many purposes which includes a deterrent, as well as a way to isolate dangerous people from the rest of us. Unfortunately, prison is NOT a place of rehabilitation, because its designed to turn people into animals who do even worse when they rejoin society.

    Even though we are just products of our environment, we need the environment to be reinforcing of good behavior. That means rewarding us when we do well, and punishing us when we do bad. That is why Affluenza is not a legitimate defense.

Richard Kensinger, MSW

Richard Kensinger, MSW, has over forty years of clinical experience in behavioral healthcare as a psychotherapist, trainer, consultant, and faculty member in the Psychology Department, Mount Aloysius College. He has also taught at Penn State, University of Pittsburgh, and Temple University. He is also a lover of "football", known in the USA as soccer. He is currently associated for over 30 years with youth "football", 26 as a referee.
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