When a lawyer argued that a 16-year-old involved in a fatal drunk-driving collision in Texas suffered from “affluenza,” or being so privileged by his rich parents that he wasn’t capable of distinguishing the consequences of bad behavior, many eyebrows were raised.

But it seemingly convinced the judge, who issued a minimal sentence to the teen whose car killed four people. Ethan Couch was ordered to probation and alcohol treatment, but will not go to jail.

So is affluenza a real psychiatric condition, or just the new spoiled?

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“It’s a cute idea in the public’s imagination, but there’s no diagnostic criteria that says people have affluenza,” said Thomas Plante, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University.

While it’s not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, both Plante and Arizona State University psychology professor Suniya Luthar say they recognize the behavior. In fact, Suniya posed a question to several teenagers as part of a recent study: “If you were caught at school with vodka for the third time, and the principal decided to report it to the police, how likely would it be that your parents would protest?” Twenty percent said their parents would “probably” or “definitely” protest.

“In the upper middle class, as kids get older, parents become conscious of their kids’ resumes -- and some are terrified of something bad on them,” Luthar said. Some parents, she said, would rather transfer their children to a different school than face sullying a record. “That’s not doing their child any favors. It’s not easy for any of us to be bad cops, but that’s how kids learn the consequences of their actions. If we place a higher value on a pristine school record than on being responsible, we’re asking for trouble.”


The psychologist who testified in the case, Dr. G. Dick Miller, said that Couch grew up getting whatever he wanted, and never facing consequences. When Couch was 15, for example, and police found him in a pickup truck with a naked, passed out 14-year-old girl, there was no parental punishment. The defense argued Couch couldn’t be blamed since his parents never taught him responsibility.

Although it doesn’t appear that Couch has a diagnosis, the behaviors described do resemble those of real personality disorders, Plante said. People with narcissistic personality disorder, for example, think the world revolves around them, to the extent that they stop caring about other people. It can lead to destructive behavior, including cheating, stealing, and date rape. Substance abuse and impulse control disorders such as ADHD can also lead to similar behaviors, he said.

Many personality disorders and behaviors are the result of a confluence of biological, psychological, and social factors -- the biopsychosocial model, Plante said. So when someone wired with impulse control issues or predisposed to depression is paired with extremely lenient parents, bad decisions often ensue.

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Plante, who works in Silicon Valley, sees the effects of lenient, wealthy parents all the time. “We joke that when kids don’t get BMWs when they turn 16, it’s perceived as child abuse,” he said.

A 2012 study showed that drivers of BMWs were the least likely to stop at crosswalks for pedestrians, even when required to stop by law.

To counteract the tendency to raise an entitled child, Plante said he and his wife have worked hard since birth to keep their teenage son humble. They make sure he balances his track practices with doing service work with the poor and marginalized, he said.

“We just had a conversation yesterday when he was accepted early decision to Dartmouth as a track recruit,” Plante said. “We said, this is great, and we can celebrate, but don’t let it get to your head. You’re fortunate, but no different than anyone else.”