Is 'Affluenza' Contagious?

In June, 16-year-old Ethan Couch plowed his pickup truck into two vehicles parked on the side of a Texas highway, killing four people and injuring nine. The teenager, who had stolen beer from a local Walmart earlier in the day, had a blood alcohol level of 0.24 — three times the legal limit for an adult.

Media pundits, outraged citizens and the families of the deceased are now howling for justice after Couch got a relatively lenient sentence: 10 years' probation, plus a stint at a high-priced private counseling center in California, paid for by Couch's wealthy father, according to KHOU.

The case also brought renewed attention to the term "affluenza," a popular term for a non-medical condition marked by irresponsibility, reckless behavior, casual sex, substance abuse and the all-around obnoxious, antisocial conduct seen in some wealthy people and, especially, their kids. A psychologist brought in by Couch's defense attorneys claimed affluenza was the root cause of his criminal acts. [Hypersex to Hoarding: 7 New Psychological Disorders]

The psychologist, G. Gary Miller, said that Couch's parents gave him "freedoms no young person should have." As an example of the teen's affluenza and the way the condition breaks the link between behavior and consequences, Couch received no punishment when, as a 15-year-old, he was found passed out in a parked pickup truck with an undressed 14-year-old girl.

The term affluenza was first coined by author Jessie H. O'Neill in her book "The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence" (Affluenza Project, 1997). The book describes the emptiness and desperation felt by many affluent people, who feel entitled to everything that money can buy and suffer profound psychological damage as a result.

Catching a case of affluenza

Can behavior such as Couch's spread from one person to another? There's some evidence that it can: A 2010 study found that the level of self-control demonstrated by people around you can influence your self-control in one direction or another. If you see people acting with little self-control, you're less likely to exercise self-control, and vice versa, according to the study authors.

"The take-home message of this study is that picking social influences that are positive can improve your self-control," said lead author Michelle vanDellen, a psychology professor at the University of Georgia. "And by exhibiting self-control, you're helping others around you do the same."

And an earlier study, published in 2007, found that obesity is "socially contagious" — people with friends who become obese over time are 57 percent more likely to become obese themselves.

'No consequences'

"Social effects, I think, are much stronger than people before realized," said co-author James Fowler, a social-networks expert at the University of California-San Diego. "There's been an intensive effort to find genes that are responsible for obesity and physical processes that are responsible for obesity, and what our paper suggests is that you really should spend time looking at the social side of life as well."

Many family members of the victims expressed shock at Couch's lenient sentence. "There are absolutely no consequences for what occurred that day," Eric Boyles, who lost his wife and daughter in the accident, told CNN. "The primary message has to absolutely be that money and privilege can't buy justice in this country."

Others were more compassionate, KHOU reports: The widow of one of the victims told Couch, after his sentencing, "Ethan, we forgive you."

Follow Marc Lallanilla on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on LiveScience.

Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.