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Study Explores How Alcoholics Anonymous Helps Members Stay Sober


A new study examining how Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) helps its members stay sober finds two crucial factors are needed: spending more time with people who support abstinence, and having greater confidence in one’s ability to maintain sobriety in social situations.

Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital evaluated data from more than 1,700 study participants in a program called Project MATCH, which compared three alcohol treatment approaches. They received assessments three, nine and 15 months after completing the program, in which they reported their alcohol consumption and attendance at AA meetings. They also completed an assessment that looked at factors, including their confidence in remaining abstinent in social situations, and whether their close social network supported or discouraged their efforts to stay sober.

The study also found reduced depression and increased spirituality or religious practices had a significant role in the recovery of people who had received inpatient treatment, meaning they most likely had been more seriously dependent on alcohol, according to Science Daily.

“Our findings are shedding light on how AA helps people recover from addiction over time,” study leader John F. Kelly, PhD, said in a news release. “The results suggest that social context factors are key; the people who associate with individuals attempting to begin recovery can be crucial to their likelihood of success. AA appears adept at facilitating and supporting those social changes.”

The study is scheduled to be published in the journal Addiction.

12 Responses to this article

  1. Roget Lockard / September 18, 2011 at 11:28 pm

    If I was limited to moving through the rest of my life with but one sentence from the “Big Book” of AA, it would be the one that reminds me that I experience “a daily reprieve, based on the maintenance of [my] spiritual condition.” Should I be allowed two sentences, the second would describe the essence of my problem: “The alcoholic [addict] is an extreme example of self-will run riot.” And finally, if I were allowed yet a third, it would be the humbling cautionary, “We realize we know only a little.” These are, for me, the essential teachings. As Hillel said regarding all of the Torah beyond the Golden Rule, “the rest is commentary.”

  2. Avatar of Kate
    Kate / September 17, 2011 at 10:01 am

    I cannot believe that we are still doing “studies” on the role of AA in recovery!! There is nothing “new” here- what a waste of money. All this just points to the on-going ignorance of a general medical practitioner’s knowledge of addiction and recovery.

  3. Avatar of Brad
    Brad / September 16, 2011 at 6:48 pm

    Alcoholics Anonymous is not a religious program, but it is a spiritual program. Certainly the social support found in AA meetings and confidence in one’s ability to stay sober are helpful. However, it has been my experience that almost all those who find long-term sobriety in AA attribute that success to their willingness to develop faith and reliance upon a power greater than themselves. Most call that power “God” or “Higher Power”, some call it their “AA Group” or the “AA Program”, but even those of us who are atheists have found that the key is to abandon self-reliance and self-will and place ourselves in the care of someone or something outside ourselves. The spiritual component of recovery in AA and working to help other alcoholics recover are far more crucial to long-term sobriety than social support and confidence, but social scientists and clinical experiments seem to overlook those and focus on more easily measured factors.

  4. Sandra / September 16, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    Any clinical study is necessarily limited in scope, but these two ways AA helps us are almost trite. If these were the main benefits of AA, so many souses would have recovered during prohibition that I never would have heard of Bill W. and Dr. Bob. I can only agree with Dormilona and Linda–when I heard other people talk about their drinking and their thoughts and feelings, I suddenly felt my shame disappear, and I slowly learned more than I can ever pay back.

  5. Avatar of Dormilona
    Dormilona / September 14, 2011 at 10:46 pm

    What I found in the rooms of AA (something I’ve never found anywhere else) are people whose heads spin the same fantasies and delusions that mine spins. They are people who don’t look a bit like me or sound like me or dress like me, but they’re prey to the same absurd thoughts. They provide the kind of instant relief I used to seek in the bottle. This is not to minimize the spirituality and service aspects of the program – I depend hugely upon those as well. But the essence of AA is one alcoholic talking to another.

  6. Avatar of Linda in NH
    Linda in NH / September 14, 2011 at 6:34 am

    I can speak from my own experience and that of my sponsors: social relationships combined with service works created the conditions where I learned how to live a sober life style, thereby developing the belief that I could live sober. Eventually I Came to Believe in a spiritual tradition, for me it’s the Baha’i Faith. A classic example of the study from 30 years ago!

  7. Avatar of Jim Russell
    Jim Russell / September 14, 2011 at 1:20 am

    Give me a break! This resonates more like what we really don’t need: more so-called experts on alcohol and/or drug addiction telling us again (and again) what we already know while a persistent cancer continues to devastate the economic and social fiber of our society. Doing something about the problem is what’s needed, not nurturing academic tenure and publish or perish anxieties to do more of the same.
    Since 1970, the alcohol and/or drug industrial complex (prevention, research and treatment) has manipulated the intent and monies of the Hughes Act. To date, other than creating thousands of bureaucrats, bureaucracies and research centers, their efforts to do what they are supposed to be doing has been dismal, and certainly not at all responsible to the American taxpayer. In fact, the cancer that is eating away at the economic and social fiber of our society has only gotten worse as alcohol and/or drugs are now cheaper, more plentiful and much more potent as the economic and social cost to society continues to escalate.
    Unfortunately, and as we all know, bureaucracies seem to be more concerned about their own survival than serving public needs. The issue should be reducing a cancer that is eating away at the economic and social fiber of our society, not job security for individual and organizational “sacred cows”. While the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) spin is to reduce the impact of substance abuse on America’s communities, I would like to see them put up … or shut up and let some real experts show them how it’s done.
    Jim Russell, Founder
    The Spirit of Recovery Foundation, Inc.

  8. Bob Herried / September 13, 2011 at 8:28 pm

    Would be interested in reading the whole article. However, what is said here misses or discounts some key points to A.A. as I understand and live it. A.A is about getting, it’s about giving. Now, the newcomer needs to get a lot from those who have time in the program–but once the steps have been taken, A.A. is about helping another alcoholic. The gift is in the giving not in the getting.

  9. Avatar of Patti Herndon
    Patti Herndon / September 13, 2011 at 5:06 pm

    Interesting article. A critical factor in recovery is the belief in ones ability to make and maintain healthy change away from that of coping with psychoactive substances. We are certainly far enough along in the collective journey of addiction in our society that we can provide that self belief-building, social construct outside of an AA meeting, too. Any application of support, (there are multiple, evidence-based approaches), in any combination, that result in an individuals increased awareness and ability to bridge their hopes for themselves to empowered, sustainable change is a good, good thing for everyone.

  10. Avatar of Kim B.
    Kim B. / September 13, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    Doesn’t the concept of service belong in here? Isn’t that one of the most important concepts? I am glad they all felt comfortable in social contexts but isn’t working with another alcoholic and giving back what has kept most of us sober?

  11. Avatar of Lloyd Vacovsky
    Lloyd Vacovsky / September 13, 2011 at 3:04 pm

    “having greater confidence in one’s ability to maintain sobriety in social situations”

    If you have no confidence in your ability to achieve a goal, any goal including abstaining from alcohol and or drugs certainly diminishes the probability of a positive outcome. A very common story relates to the orientation process that new clients or patients attend. The facilitator will look over a room of say 20 people and announce that maybe, just maybe one of them will succeed. Not a very good tool to instill confidence. Clients utilizing MAT, for example naltrexone seem to have far greater confidence in their ability to remain abstinent.

  12. Avatar of Walter Young
    Walter Young / September 14, 2011 at 10:21 am

    I think the final sentance obliquely refers to this, “the people who associate with individuals attempting to begin recovery can be crucial to their likelihood of success” those who work with the newcomer might be a better way (for those of us in the program) to read it.

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