Affluenza: The ‘Disease’ that Only Affects Rich People

A person that, in an irresponsible way, drives a vehicle at high speed in a high-traffic area. The impact and the immediate death of innocent pedestrians who become victims. Dreams and lives ruined in a second.

At times when the problem of direct responsibility in fatal traffic accidents moves the political agenda in our country, the result of a tragic automobile accident caused by a wealthy teenager in the United States could set a dangerous precedent, and deserves analysis, discussion and partial interpretation of such a noteworthy and relevant subject.

The event in question took place in Texas, in June of 2013. Ethan Couch, a 16-year-old teenager and a member of one of the most well-off and influential families from that state, ran over and killed four people and injured another nine (one of which was left paralyzed).

Ethan was driving at a speed of 110 kilometers per hour [about 68 miles per hour] on a street with a speed limit of 65 kilometers per hour [40 miles per hour], with a blood alcohol level that was three times the legal limit in Texas. There were also traces of Valium in his system, which when mixed with alcohol, causes a drunk feeling, decreases one’s reflexes, and causes drowsiness.

Up to this point, it is just a sad case that resulted in preventable deaths. But the truly peculiar thing in all this was that the defendant was sentenced to 10 years of house arrest and parole thanks to the arguments presented by his lawyer, which involved “social class” and could set a dangerous precedent: According to the lawyer, Ethan Couch carried out the mentioned act because he suffered from affluenza, a new social disease that affects rich people, and which deserves a detailed analysis that will be carried out later.

What Is Affluenza and How Does It End Up in a Lawsuit?

The word affluenza was introduced for the first time by the psychologist Jessie O´Neill, granddaughter of a president of the General Motors car company, who published a book in 1998 called “The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence.” The term affluenza is a neologism that combines the words “influenza” (which means flu in English and Italian) with “affluent” (well-off or rich).

In that way, the meaning of affluenza would be something like “rich people sickness” or “the disease of the rich.”

This disease is characterized by acting without values, the absence of feelings of guilt, and a total lack of empathy for some people thanks to excessive ambition and a social status that is generally very high.

To better understand its characteristics, you should keep in mind that the opposite of dissatisfaction is satisfaction. For example, earning a salary that would be considered low is a cause of dissatisfaction, but the solution for this (for example, getting a raise or switching jobs) does not increase your satisfaction; instead, with luck, it decreases your perceived dissatisfaction. In this way, the opposite of satisfaction is dissatisfaction. For example, if you create strong expectations for something which are soon unfulfilled, the sensation that stays is not less satisfaction; instead, it is dissatisfaction.

According to this, affluenza could be considered being permanently dissatisfied, which temporarily improves when goods are bought or when enjoying other privileges that come from status, but that soon begins to get worse until the previous levels of dissatisfaction return.

This “disease,” according to Texas lawyer Scott Brown (who defended Ethan), is passed from parents to children and prevents the children from having a clear notion of the gravity of their actions.

In order to defend its argument, the defense called a number of witnesses that are close to the family, who testified that the careless driver had a comfortable lifestyle where there are no consequences for his bad behavior, and that he enjoyed freedoms that no young person should have.

Judge Jean Boyd, of the juvenile court of Fort Worth, Texas, bought all these arguments and practically let Ethan Couch go free, taking that step of staying on the side of the defendant who mysteriously and suddenly becomes a victim.


In a column published a few weeks back called “Egoistic Behaviors of Wealthy People,” we have debated diverse issues that show how insensitivity toward your neighbor increases as you climb the social pyramid; but from there to this situation of justifying abhorrent deeds seems like another world.

Following the line of reasoning from this case, you could say that there are a lot of people that commit crimes and find themselves conditioned by the family environment in which they grew up, like those that have marginalized families, the seriously disturbed, or those with alcoholic or abusive parents that end up stealing.

Don’t try to become a civil rights advocate, but rather demand that justice is carried out in an impartial way, without favoring outlandish arguments from those who have greater material resources to contract more creative lawyers at the time of presenting arguments for their client.

My experience with this subject tells me that our relationship with money (or our family’s, in the case of being a minor) can be used to explain an important part of our behavior. But when the same involuntary aspects endanger the lives of others, the focus shouldn’t be the same.

The risk here is that affluenza may be used as an argument to excuse people from punishment that their actions deserve instead of the pain and suffering that they cause in the lives of other people.

Let’s hope that for once, common sense and a greater social conscience prevents it.

About this publication

1 Comment

  1. ” Affluenza ” ? as an excuse for vehicular homicide ? What a mockery of justice. It is the capitalist system, a class divided society, that diminishes ” social conscience ” even in modest living, respectable middle class. It is no accident that many American judges can be moved by this morally insane defense. They are imbued with upper class values from the first day of law school. It is a rare judge that has read a word of Marx, Darwin, or Freud. Often their hostility to lower class people in their courtroom is blatant and shameless. THEY- the UNDERCLASS- are seen as ” scumbags ” in contrast to the ” Nice People ” of wealth . A most interesting essay titled ” Nice People ” was written by that old radical socialist, British philosopher Bertrand Russell. It seems that most of the nice people Lord Russell knew were quit nasty. He was briefly jailed for opposing the Great War-to make the world safe for nice rich people. Here “affluenza ” damned him !
    [ ]

Leave a Reply