Is Affluenza a Real Condition?
April 25, 2012 -
Did John Edwards work with his aide to hide his affair or didn't he? Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, faces up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines if he is found guilty on six charges of violating campaign finance laws, allegedly paid off to his mistress Rielle Hunter. As his trial plods along, there are certain tells, experts say, that reveal when a person is lying -- whether that be him or his aide, Andrew Young. But as detective shows and police know, liars always have their tells. In this slideshow, we take a look at the ways liars show their true colors.
Even if a liar can put on his or her best poker face, unconscious emotional "cracks" -- or unintentional and brief flashes of emotion -- give away a subject's real mental state, according to a study by Stephen Porter's Forensic Psychology Lab at Dalhousie University.
Although sudden cracks in facial expression could give away subtle clues to deception, one researcher found that tiny movements in facial muscles -- such as the zygo maticus major and the orbicularis oculi -- can unmask liars. Social psychologist Mark Frank used computer technology to analyze facial expressions, following a large body of research "about the evolutionarily-derived nature of emotion and its expression," according to a press release on EurekAlert!. Micro-expressions in subjects' faces, such as tics, smiles, frowns and wrinkles, essentially serve as accurate windows into the emotions, even if the person being interrogated is trying to suppress his or her feelings. Frank's system can be used not only to uncover potential criminals, but also even reveal terrorist threats. Frank, however, is quick to point out that his system only provides investigators with "very good clues" and "not proof of anything."
The Eagles may have been on to something. Eyes may reveal a liar in the act, and scientists at the University of Utah have developed technology to detect just that, as reported by Discovery News' Tracy Staedter in 2010. A computer camera and tracking software record minute eye movements to measure cognitive reaction. By contrast, a polygraph measures a subject's emotional reaction. The system "also records other variables, including the time it takes to respond to a question, how long it takes a subject to read or even reread a question and how many errors are made," according to the report. The researchers hope that the technology will be adopted by various U.S. defense, intelligence and law enforcement agencies that regularly employ polygraph tests.
As anyone who has ever dealt with a bad liar before can attest, some people just can't keep a story straight. But even the most talented studied storyteller can fall into some familiar speech patterns that indicate a truthful tale. In a study published in American Journal of Forensic Psychiatry, UCLA professor of psychology R. Edward Geiselman and his colleagues reveal speech patterns they have detected that are often red flags for deceit. Liars very often provide few details, have a tendency to repeat questions, actively monitor listener reactions, speak in sentence fragments and more. To unmask dishonesty, Geiselman and colleagues suggest listeners have potential deceivers tell their story backwards, ask open-ended questions and never interrupt.
If the source of every lie is the brain, shouldn't it be possibly to simply see if that particular region of the brain associated with deceit is active when a subject is lying? Scientists are attempting to use functional-magnetic-resonance-imaging (fMRI) as a lie detector. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2009, Joshua Greene, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University, found that "areas within the volunteers' prefrontal cortices registered vigorous activity," according to a report on TIME.com. However, as Greene admits, the technique can't tell the difference between someone who intends to lie and a person who is contemplating whether to lie. Despite the limitations of this kind of technology, at least two companies have offered lie detection services using the same technique. This application has led some scholars to criticize these lie detection methods as no better than the polygraph. Even though these kinds of studies currently have their detractors, the efforts aren't without warrant. A 2005 study out of the University of Southern California and published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found brain abnormalities in people who are habitual liars. "The liars had significantly more 'white matter' and slightly less 'gray matter' than those they were measured against," according to a press release available on Science Daily. The wiring in the brain, white matter may help liars with the extra cognitive effort needed to fabricate information.
Liars may not actually have their pants on fire, but their faces sure seem to heat up when they're not telling the truth, according to a study led by the Mayo Clinic and published in Nature in 2002. In 80 percent of cases studied for the experiment, heat patterns in the face change dramatically when a person is lying. Using high-definition thermal imaging technology, an investigator can monitor these heat patterns to assess the veracity of a subject's statements.
Although handwriting analysis is often regarded as a pseudoscience, it may have a potentially legitimate application in assisting with lie detection, according to researchers at the University of Haifa in Israel. Using a computerized tool to detect a user's hand movements, the researchers found that certain cues, such as "the duration of time that the pen is on paper versus in the air; the length height and width of each writing stroke;
the pressure implemented on the writing surface," can signal when someone is about to write an untruthful statement, according to a release in Science Daily. This technology is intended to work in tandem with verbal-based lie detectors.
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?
“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.
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.”