Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Mo Money, Mo Problems? Affluenza Doesn't Exist

Affluenza? Doesn't exist! (source)
"I don't know what they want from me,
It's like the more money we come across,
The more problems we see."
--The Notorious BIG

Some people think that the rich live hard knock lives-- I was first made aware of this hypothesis by these lyrics written by the '90s hip hop icon the Notorious BIG. Admittedly, I haven't given much thought to this idea all the way up until last December. It was at that time that a teenage drunk driver caused an accident, leaving four people dead. A judge sentenced the teenage boy to 10 years probation and therapy. The judge was lenient, in part, based on the defense's claims that the boy was afflicted with a rare illness known as affluenza, which, according to the LA Times is "a syndrome that keeps someone from a wealthy background from learning that bad behavior has consequences."

It seems the news media has caught the affluenza bug in the weeks since this story ran: Just this week I came across an article about affluenza in that paragon of journalistic integrity, the Huffington Post. The article reads "Though often used in jest, the term (affluenza) may have more truth than many of us might think." It appears that some journalists are taking the term seriously (oh and hooray, I'm QUOTED in the friggin' article). The same day this article appeared online I was asked to participate in an internet discussion about... affluenza (I declined).

I wrote this blog post today, under a blanket shielding me from the polar vortex outside, to make one small point: NO NO NO NO NO!!!! Stop It!!! Affluenza does not exist!!! EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!

Four Reasons Why Affluenza Doesn't Exist

I. Affluenza is not an illness or syndrome. Put your tiny violins away!
Before you break out the smallest violin in the world for all the suffering wealthy people in America, please consider that Affluenza is not a real syndrome/illness. How do I know this? So many reasons, but take this one: It's not recognized by the American Medical Association or the American Psychological Association as an illness or a mental disorder. I got this information from the LA Times article (linked above) buried in the last sentence of paragraph 621.

II. The wealthy kids are all right. Growing up is hard, but don't try to tell me that it is especially hard for wealthy kids. If you want to make that sort of argument, at least have some data to back up your claims.

What's that? You can't find any data? Well that might be because the data suggests that being wealthy is actually kind of awesome for people.

I will focus on two pieces of data that suggest being wealthy is a good thing for people, and not a cause of some terrible moral maladjustment flu-like state: First, people with money go to college in large percentages--with the top income quartile representing 74% of all top university students (here). Last time I checked, going to college is kind of important for a person's future, and the wealthy have distinct advantages in this domain.

The wealthy are also healthier than their non-wealthy counterparts-- when examining mortality rates by any cause in the United States and in the United Kingdom, wealthy individuals live longer than their poorer counterparts (here).

So, if you're keeping score at home--that's wealthy individuals having more access to university and living longer. Sounds just miserable.

The Huffington post argues that wealthy people are negatively stereotyped, and that is true according to research--wealthy people are seen as low in warmth and trust. That's accurate, but wealthy individuals are also seen as high in competence--that's not so terrible. If we're really talking negative stereotypes, the most negatively viewed individuals are the poor, who are seen as both low in warmth and low in competence (here). When it comes to negative stereotypes, the poor win (lose?) that battle too.

III. High social class does not make people "incapable of learning that bad behavior has consequences."
Many of these articles that discuss affluenza link to research in psychology suggesting that wealthier individuals are "insensitive jerks"--and some research is suggestive of this possibility: For example, people of higher class backgrounds were more likely to cheat in a laboratory game than lower class individuals (here). As well, large scale surveys indicate that people with lower incomes give a higher proportion of their incomes to charitable organizations (here).
Me being part of the affluenza problem.

All this research points to a morality deficit among the wealthy. Well, it doesn't actually, but it would if the differences in these behaviors between wealthy individuals and their poorer counterparts were fixed and unchangeable.

The reality? Researchers have demonstrated several instances where the wealthy are equally as moral and charitable as their poorer counterparts. Just one example: My colleagues and I examined helping behavior for a distressed laboratory experiment partner by asking participants to work on longer tasks in the experiment to give this distressed person a break. We did this either after a neutral (boring) video or a video depicting images of suffering others. When upper income individuals saw the neutral video they helped less than their lower income counterparts. When upper income individuals saw the suffering video they helped equally (here). Wealth hardly makes people incapable of learning moral rules and consequences.

IV. Treating character deficits as a syndrome with an unknown etiology isn't helping anyone.
There are so many reasons why it is a bad idea to suggest that rich people behaving badly is some sort of incurable disease. First, it's a license for wealthy individuals to break laws without remorse. Second, it makes the application of the law even more unfairly skewed to benefit the wealthy. Third, it further damages the reputations of psychologists through the conjuring of a made up mental illness (thanks G. Dick Miller!).

These are all bad things, but I think the worst problem with the term affluenza is that it focuses our attention on something that isn't a problem for people. There are many real problems out there (like poverty for instance) and having a friggin' truckload of money is NOT one of them--at least in terms of any kind of data driven metric related to real life outcomes.

So enough already with this affluenza nonsense. It doesn't exist, it's not supported by any psychological research, and the only people who catch affluenza are journalists looking to capitalize on advertising revenue from reader clicks.  Let affluenza die, we'll all be better for it!

Some Future Reading on this Topic
Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A. J., Glick, P., & Xu, J. (2002). A model of (often mixed) stereotype content: competence and warmth respectively follow from perceived status and competition. Journal of personality and social psychology82(6), 878.

Kraus, M. W., Piff, P. K., Mendoza-Denton, R., Rheinschmidt, M. L., & Keltner, D. (2012). Social class, solipsism, and contextualism: How the rich are different from the poor. Psychological review119(3), 546.

Piff, P. K., Kraus, M. W., Côté, S., Cheng, B. H., & Keltner, D. (2010). Having less, giving more: the influence of social class on prosocial behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology99(5), 771.


  1. Great post, Michael! So glad someone is speaking out against the crazy claims made by clueless journalists whose collective science illiteracy is frankly frightening...

    While I agree with you that "affluenza" is a ridiculous term that has no empirical merit, there are actually some research studies demonstrating that affluence is associated with adjustment difficulties during development (see especially the work conducted by Suniya S. Luthar). I have referenced some of these studies here.

    Of course, these studies do not lend credibility to the whole notion of "affluenza" as an illness/disorder or condition. I still think they merit some mention, though, as they bring up some important points to consider when understanding the implications of social class for adjustment across development.

    Keep up the great work! :]

    Luthar, S. S., & Barkin, S. H. (2012). Are affluent youth truly “at risk”? Vulnerability and resilience across three diverse samples. Development and Psychopathology, 24(02), 429–449.

    Luthar, S. S., & Becker, B. E. (2002). Privileged but pressured? A study of affluent youth. Child Development, 73(5), 1593–1610.

    Racz, S. J., McMahon, R. J., & Luthar, S. S. (2011). Risky behavior in affluent youth: Examining the co-occurrence and consequences of multiple problem behaviors. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 20(1), 120–128.

    1. Thanks for your comment Jenn! In general I agree that people of different social class backgrounds face unique environments with their own challenges and opportunities. This means that everyone, regardless of class faces challenges in development, just different ones.

      But let me push back on one point: For lower-class individuals, it is pretty clear that the cause of the problems these individuals face is the social class environment--lower class environments strain social and financial resources and lead to the mortality rates and reduced education access I described.

      In contrast, though wealthy kids face developmental challenges, I'm not sure that we would be justified in blaming these problems on the pressures of affluence. It seems to me that a more likely cause would inconsistent parenting styles or avoidant attachment patterns.

      I'd love to hear yours and others' thoughts on this pattern.

    2. Dear Michael,

      Sorry for the late response (dissertation writing has a way of completely sucking up one's time!)

      While I completely agree that the cause of problems for low SES individuals often result directly from social and financial strains, I still believe that pressures of affluence play a prominent (albeit perhaps more indirect) role on youth's adjustment. I know this sounds like cries from the "poor little rich girl/boy," but allow me to explain. First, achievement is highly valued and emphasized in affluent environments; affluence is often viewed as a symbol of achievement. Given this emphasis, youth in affluent families often face extreme pressures to excel and achieve. Given the negative effects of stress on health, extreme pressures to achieve likely undermine youth's well-being, even if they do benefit from a wealth of resources (e.g., private tutors; elite prep classes). As well, an emphasis on achievement may come at a huge cost to interpersonal relationships (and we know close interpersonal relationships are important to adjustment): youth may see one another as competitors they need to beat rather than fellow peers to befriend; every minute spent on studying is one that is not spent on socializing/maintaining relationships. Additionally, high-paying jobs are often stressful and require long hours and a strong commitment to work (academia is perhaps the rare exception in which number of work hours appears completely unrelated to one's salary and income, but I digress :P.....) It is likely that demanding jobs often leave parents of affluent youth little time to spend with their children (of course, this is a gross over-generalization, but I think still highly plausible). In this view, we have an environment that puts high stress on youth while simultaneously undermining their sources of social support.

      Although these reasons may seem far-fetched, I still think they are important to consider, especially in light of findings that demonstrate high rates of dysfunction and maladjustment in affluent youth.

      I hope my rationales are understandable. Thanks for considering my views. Keep up the great work! :]

    3. Hi again Jennifer and thanks for your comment!

      These reasons don't seem far-fetched, and again, I know of the research suggesting that high SES environments can be tough on people stress-wise.

      My gut & training tells me, though, that this evidence is no good and here is why: The large sample, excellently done epidemiological studies all consistently show that high SES is good for people. The best example is the Whitehall II Study of British Civil Servant Workers (thousands of people in the study). Higher occupational grade means more responsibility and direct supervision of others--high stakes work. However, consistently across health measures, high SES individuals have far better health outcomes (almost anything you look at--sick days, blood pressure, even mortality). This study is notable because all members of the British civil service have the exact same health care.

      So what accounts for patterns of maladaptation found in high SES samples? High SES people have personalities and so some will deal with high expectations and job rigor worse than others.

      You mention that high SES jobs might take you away from raising your children. This could be true, but I actually think that a low-paying working class job where someone has to take a longer shift away from their kids could have the same effect. What alleviates some of the problems for the high SES/high stakes job though, is that the high stakes job is likely well compensated--leading to the purchasing of childcare assistance. That'd be my guess at least.

    4. Thanks for your response, Mike!

      Your argument does make a lot of sense. This is such a complex issue, and I definitely think a lot more research is needed to better understand how SES fits into everything...

      Thanks again for your thoughts! :]

  2. I'm a lawyer and I find how you doctors keep beating up on the straw man doctor who testified strange. He used the word "affluenza" once, he didn't claim it was a diagnosis, it wasn't a defense. The kid got a typical sentence for vehicular manslaughter in the state. Judges don't want to sentence people, let alone minors, to prison because there is no drug treatment there.

    1. I'm all for leniency for kids making mistakes--even big ones like this. That isn't the issue though. The issue isn't really the PhD who made the non-diagnosis of affluenza. The issue is whether affluenza is real--and I'm arguing it isn't. I think that about brings us up to speed. Thanks for reading!

  3. Bridgette seems to be on to something here, that judges don't want to sentence people using the rationale that there is no drug treatment. My husband was catastrophically and permanently injured by an intoxicated driver in our front yard, and the judge recommended a two-month jail sentence, which is less time than my dear hubby spent confined to a hospital bed! The judge cited the lack of drug treatment, however, there are programs in the NC jail system, though it's true they are underfunded and in high demand. In this case the woman who maimed my husband was an Army dependent and had access to free treatment, so this is no excuse to pay the appropriate consequences for her crime. If intoxicated driving laws are weak and not enforced, than it will continue to be a problem, one with tragic outcomes. It is senseless because it is preventable. Please read and share our story at and perhaps there will be justice in my husband's case. Perhaps we can help prevent others from suffering by uniting and demanding change.