Tuesday, December 17, 2013

There’s No Defense for Affluenza

[From my piece in Slate.com]
Ethan Couch, 16
Screenshot from ABC affiliate WFAA
You may have heard about Ethan Couch, a 16-year-old who drove while drunk and killed four people and injured two others. Couch had three times the legal limit of alcohol in his blood (that’s the limit for adults—minors shouldn’t have any alcohol in their blood). He also had Valium and some THC in his system. Stolen beer was in the pickup truck he was driving, which was owned by Couch’s father’s company. When Couch drove too fast, his companions asked him to slow down; instead, he sped up.
Rather than the 20 years of jail time the prosecution asked for, Texas Judge Jean Boyd gave Couch absolutely no jail time and instead sentenced him to 10 years of probation and time in a long-term treatment facility. That facility costs $450,000 per year, paid for by Couch’s wealthy parents. Among other amenities, it offers equine therapy and organic food choices.
Many people have railed against the judge’s sentence, which was drastically different from that given to others who have killed people while driving drunk. One mitigating factor that worked for Couch: a creative defense team. During the sentencing phase of the trial, the defense argued that Couch shouldn’t be held as responsible as he might be because his parents were so permissive in their style of child rearing that Couch did not experience socially appropriate consequences for his socially inappropriate behavior.
The defense’s argument for a lenient sentence is summed up in the word affluenza. (The term affluenza apparently came into public use with a 1997 PBS special and subsequent book of that name. In that original context, the term referred to increasing materialism and “keeping up with the Joneses.”) The defense team seems to have made up its own definition to argue that, because of his family’s wealth and child-rearing style, Couch never learned that his actions had consequences. Psychologist for the defense Gary Miller is reported to have said that Couch’s parents gave their son whatever he wanted—including “freedoms no young person should have.” Supporting his argument, Miller related an incident that happened when Couch was 15: Police caught him passed out in a pickup truck with a naked 14-year-old girl.
I’m a clinical psychologist, not a lawyer. My interest in this case is from a psychological point of view: the issues the case raises about the definitions and diagnoses of mental illness and why Couch should—or shouldn’t—be held responsible for his behavior.
Examining the psychological underpinnings of the misnamed “affluenza” defense, there’s no “there” there. Let’s take Couch’s history of a lack of appropriate consequences for his behavior. In essence, this part of the defense’s argument rests on the assumption that knowing the law is not enough to deter someone from criminal acts. Instead, the person must have experienced deleterious consequences for his or her socially inappropriate or illegal behavior in the past. Otherwise (it seems to follow), the threat of legal consequences will appear empty since the person hadn’t experienced consequences before.
This argument doesn’t hold water for at least two reasons. First, even though Couch’s parents may not have taught him that his inappropriate behavior has negative consequences, this doesn’t mean that he was incapable of learning this lesson in other areas of his life. We know that people are sensitive to context and accurately distinguish between consequences that will occur in one situation but not in another. Even rats and other animals learn to make analogous types of discriminations based on context. They learn that if a light is on when they press a lever, they’ll receive a food pellet, but when the light is off they won’t. If you’ve spent time around preschoolers you know that they are sensitive to context—to how much they can “get away with” when Person A is in charge of them versus Person B. High-school students learn that a substitute teacher has less authority, and thus they may act up with him or her in ways they would never consider with their regular teacher.
Couch’s wealth and privilege may have led him to feel immune from the usual consequences of certain behavior, but somewhere along the way he understood that there were at least some consequences for some of his actions. For instance, he didn’t drop out of high school. Even though school can be unpleasant or difficult, he somehow learned that there would be untoward consequences if he didn’t participate.
Let’s look at a mirror situation: poor teens whose parents didn’t appropriately discipline their children because the parents were working two jobs to put food on the table. These children may have gotten away with socially unacceptable or even unlawful behavior in the past and not suffered any negative consequences. But would their defense team successfully argue that these youths were less responsible than others? I don’t think so, even though the same issue is at the core: a lack of consequences from people in authority for socially undesirable behavior.
A second interesting facet of this whole sorry situation, to me, is the confusing message the judge is sending to Couch by allowing him to live in a “private rehabilitation home.” If Couch’s affluenza means that he didn’t receive appropriate consequences for his behavior in the past, what is the judge’s take-home message to him? The message is that his wealth and privilege can obviate the negative consequences of his criminal behavior. That wealth and privilege can buy someone’s way out of going to jail or to programs that are part of the public juvenile justice system. Judge Boyd’s cure for affluenza seems to be more of the same.
A central puzzle in this situation concerns the concept of diagnosis. Affluenza seems to have been used as a diagnosis to explain his behavior and why he shouldn’t be criminally responsible. The logic seems to be that young people with this affluenza suffer from a psychological deficit or even a developmental disorder: “I am not responsible for my behavior because my parents didn’t hold me accountable for my behavior. I never really learned (from my parents) that my untoward actions have consequences. Therefore, I should not be held accountable now—or at least I should be held less accountable than someone who experienced first-hand that undesired behavior has negative consequences.”
But affluenza (even the inaccurate way it was used in this case) is not a mental disorder. It isn’t identified by any mental health professional organization or diagnostic manual. It is not a diagnosis for a mental disorder. In the hands of this defense team, it is a fabrication invented to serve a specific purpose. Made-up psychological mumbo jumbo to mitigate responsibility reflects poorly on the mental health profession. Don’t tar the rest of us with this brush! Let’s hope affluenza goes the way of the Twinkie defense.
Robin S. Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist in San Francisco, is the author of Superhero Origins and Abnormal Psychology. Visit her website

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Forging Man of Steel: A Review of the Film

I like Superman—as a character, as a superhero, as an embodiment of (certain) values. I had looked forward to seeing Man of Steel. Although I was disappointed (more on that later), I’ll start with what I liked. Warning: I’m assuming that readers have a basic knowledge of Superman’s origin story. I discuss some details of the film, so you may want to see the film before reading this review.
First, I liked this incarnation of the “villain” of Zod. In What Is a Superhero?, I have an essay on the typology of supervillains (“Sorting out Villainy”). According to my classification scheme, Zod is a heroic villain. His actions are motivated by—what is to him—an altruistic cause (saving Krypton/Kryptonians). This is made explicit at the beginning of the film, when Zod says to Jor-El (Superman’s father) that he’s taken up the sword against his own people for a greater good. Jor-El, too, could be considered a heroic villain in that he’s done something against Kryptonian law, but is doing so for what he believes is a greater good. The importance of point-of-view in defining “good” versus “evil” is nicely portrayed. It’s not a “black and white” morality tale.

Second, I like the way the film (accurately) portrayed the social challenge of being gifted (i.e., “super”). Like many superheroes, gifted children in our world sometime hide their talents and abilities from others for fear of social ostracism or harassment. (In Clark Kent’s case, though, it was because the government might want to “take” him.) Like some gifted people in our world, the young Clark views his budding powers as burdens—to be hidden. Clark’s father explains that one day he’ll view his abilities as gifts, not burdens. This is also true for gifted people in our world. (For more about the ways that superheroes are similar to and different from gifted individuals, see my essay with psychologist Ellen Winner, “Are Superheroes Just SuperGifted?” in Our Superheroes, Ourselves.)

Third, this version of Lois Lane is the best screen version thus far. She’s smart and spunky but not high strung or temperamental. It’s easy to see why Clark would like her (which isn’t true of the Loises in the other films). She’s an admirable character. Way to go!

The aspects of the film that I didn’t like were, unfortunately, numerous. One fundamental flaw rests on the reason for Jor-El and Lara trying to conceive “naturally” on Krypton: To bring a child into the world that wasn’t pre-conceived or pre-programmed with a destiny. (On this version of Krypton, it seems that children’s DNA is genetically engineered to fill society’s niches—soldier, scientist, etc.—and fetuses are externally incubated.) Yet the young adult Clark, on Earth, discovers a holographic-type projection of his long-dead father, and this Jor-El tells Clark what Clark’s destiny is—why he was sent to Earth!! He’s “supposed to guide humans, to be a force for good. You will help them to accomplish wonders.” This hypocritical stance about destiny versus free choice is a major plot flaw, in my mind.

Another significant problem with the plot rests on the idea that humans would freak out if they knew an alien lived among us. Yet by the end of the film, after downtown Metropolis has been practically laid waste by aliens, there is no sense that humans are freaking out about Superman being an alien, or even freaking out that there was an alien battle on Earth. This basic fear of people’s response to knowing about aliens, which drives much of story of Clark’s childhood, is carelessly thrown off by the end of the film.

And then there is the wanton destruction, the endless fight scenes, explosions, buildings collapsing. It became boring. I couldn’t help but notice that the Daily Planet building took its share of damage, yet by the end of the film, the Planet’s office looks fine, and there no sense of the trauma that Metropolis’s citizens must have experienced since their city was a center ring in which the aliens fought. And the city is magically clean and rebuilt by the end! Yes, we have to suspend disbelief in most superhero films (perhaps Christopher Nolan’s Batman films being the exception), but not this much.

The film was called Man of Steel, but it felt that too little of the film was actually about Superman. It was really about Jor-El versus Zod, with Superman acting as proxy for Jor-El. I wanted to see more character development about the adult Clark/Superman. In a film over two hours long, it seemed that his screen time—when he wasn’t in a fight scene—was too brief, totaling perhaps 20 minutes. (If you were to time it, it’s possible that there was more screen time on this. But it felt too brief and his “character development” superficial.)

This contrasts dramatically with the Nolan Batman films. Which is ironic because the script was written by the same folks who wrote Batman Begins: Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer. Whereas Batman Begins provides wonderful and psychologically insightful character development, Man of Steel does not.

Rosenberg, R. S. (2013). Sorting out villainy: A typology of villains and their effects on superheroes. In R. S. Rosenberg & P. Coogan (Eds). What is a Superhero? New York: Oxford University Press.
Rosenberg, R. S., and Winner, E. (2013). Are superheroes just supergifted? In R. S. Rosenberg (Ed). Our Superheroes, Ourselves. New York: Oxford University Press.

Copyright 2013 by Robin S. Rosenberg.
Robin S. Rosenberg, Ph.D., ABPP is a clinical psychologist in private practice in San Francisco and Menlo Park, Calif. She often writes about the psychology of superheroes. Her latest books are What Is a Superhero? and Our Superheroes, Ourselves. Her website is www.DrRobinRosenberg.com.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Superhero for children with cancer

Superheroes inspire some of us to be “heroes” in our everyday lives. For others of us, simply surviving can be a heroic effort on a daily basis. People who are depressed or otherwise suffer from debilitating forms of mental illness “fight to survive” on a daily basis. People with certain medical illnesses or conditions similarly “fight” heroically each day.

Nistar is a comic book story about the heroic fight against cancer—specifically pediatric cancer. The protagonist is a superhero who fights the good fight against cancer. Shira Frimer, the author of Nistar, is trying to raise enough money to publish the book and give free copies to children with cancer throughout the world. Click here to find out more about Nistar and how you can help.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Superheroes To The Rescue--For Real

Flying like Superman in virtual reality can make you more helpful in real life. That's what my colleagues and I found in a recent study. At Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, Shawnee Baugman, Jeremy Bailenson, and I had participants enter a virtual environment and they were either given the power of flight or rode as passengers in a helicopter. They were then assigned one of two tasks: help find a missing diabetic child or tour a virtual city. Regardless of which task they performed, people who had the power of flight were significantly more likely to help a researcher pick up spilled pens in real life than the helicopter passengers were. 

Embodying a superpower in virtual reality may prime players to ‘think like superheroes’ and thus facilitate subsequent helpful behavior in the real world. Alternately, participants who could fly in the game may have felt like more active participants than those who passively sat in the helicopter while performing tasks, and this more active involvement may have induced their subsequent behavior.

To read the paper in the journal PLOS ONE, click here. To see a short video clip about the study, click here.

And for more about superheroes, take a gander at my new book:

This is a book about seven superhero origins stories, what they reveal about the superheroes' personality, how they reflect the findings of psychological research, why we're interested in their origin stories, and what their stories can teach us about ourselves.

[photo credit: Cody Karutz]

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Another Cosplay Survey: The Psychology of Cosplay 2

Hello to all you folks who cosplay. Here’s the link to a survey on cosplay that my colleague, Andrea Letamendi, and I are conducting.

We want to know more about the psychology of cosplay and hope you can help us. We’ll post the results this summer.


The Psychology Behind Superhero Origin Stories

From my article in Smithsonian Magazine:

“Why is every superhero movie an origin story?” complained Entertainment Weekly film critic Adam Markovitz after seeing a trailer for this summer’s Man of Steel—yet another version of the 75-year-old Superman saga. Perhaps we love origin stories, Markovitz suggested, because they “show the exact moment when a normal guy goes from being Just Like Us to being somehow better, faster, stronger.”
I’m inclined to disagree. As a clinical psychologist who has written books about the psychology of superheroes, I think origin stories show us not how to become super but how to be heroes, choosing altruism over the pursuit of wealth and power. I’ve learned this through hundreds of conversations at comic book conventions, where fans have been remarkably candid about their lives and the inspiration they draw from superhero stories.

Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/The-Psychology-Behind-Superhero-Origin-Stories-187938991.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Holy Wonder Woman! A Review of Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines

I had the opportunity to see documentary Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines recently. The film provides a history of superheroines, beginning with Wonder Woman, overlaid with a history of women in American culture and women’s rights during the same decades. It was interesting to see Gloria Steinem talking about feminism, Ms. Magazine, and Wonder Woman in the same breath, and to see many women (and men)—some famous, some not—talk about the ways in which Wonder Woman has been an icon of female power and inspiration.

Wonder Women
The film also includes what the director or interviewees see as the descendants of Wonder Woman in popular culture:The Bionic Woman, Ripley in the Alien films, Sara Conner ofTerminatorXenaBuffy the Vampire Slayer, and evenCharlie’s AngelsCharlie’s Angels seems like a bit of a stretch, but the film makes a case for it.

More interesting psychologically are the parts of the film that talk about how icons in general, and superheroines in particular, inform us about what we should aspire to be. How they create templates to which we gravitate and fuel our imaginations, our self-images, and who we might want to become. Some of us may resonate with (or aspire to) Sara Conner’s tough, capable, and single-minded way of being strong. Others of us may resonate with Wonder Woman’s model of compassion, bravery, and strength. Or Buffy’s sense of humor in the face of adversity. There is something for everyone in the pantheon of superheroines.

I wish the film had spent more time on the sexualization of superheroines. We all know that superheroines in comic books are drawn with marvelous figures in skimpy costumes, and film and TV superheroines as similarly endowed and attired. The film touched on the issue of superheroines always being sexy, and sexy being equated with power, but a longer discussion of the implications of this for the audience would have been welcome. For instance, what does it mean that superheroines sometimes use their attractive physical appearance to achieve their goals? (Though Wonder Woman rarely does this, other superheroines do.) And what are the effects on females in the audience who see that superheroines only come in a certain size “package,” adorned a particular way. (For interesting research related to this in computer games, see Lissa Behm-Morawitz’s research). What does it mean for women and men that superheroines are, by and large, also seen as sex objects in our world? (Click here for research aboutobjectification, in which the experience of being treated as an object results in coming to see oneself that way. Objectification theory was originally conceived of as primarily pertaining to females. The original article by Barbara Frederickson and Tomi-Ann Roberts in 1997.)
I suppose that’s the subject for another documentary.

Copyright 2013 by Robin S. Rosenberg

All rights reserved.
 Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. Her website is DrRobinRosenberg.com. Her most recent book is What’s the Matter with Batman? An Unauthorized Clinical Look Under the Mask of the Caped Crusader.