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See Inside March / April 2011

Does Alcoholics Anonymous Work?

For some heavy drinkers, the answer is a tentative yes

Other research suggests that AA is quite a bit better than receiving no help. In 2006 psychologist Rudolf H. Moos of the Department of Veterans Affairs and Stanford University and Bernice S. Moos published results from a 16-year study of problem drinkers who had tried to quit on their own or who had sought help from AA, professional therapists or, in some cases, both. Of those who attended at least 27 weeks of AA meetings during the first year, 67 percent were abstinent at the 16-year follow-up, compared with 34 percent of those who did not participate in AA. Of the subjects who got therapy for the same time period, 56 percent were abstinent versus 39 percent of those who did not see a therapist—an indication that seeing a professional is also beneficial.

These findings might not apply to all problem drinkers or AA programs, however. Because this study was “naturalistic,” that is, an investigation of people who chose their path on their own (rather than as part of the study), the researchers could not control the precise makeup of the meetings or treatments. Furthermore, the abstinence rates reported might apply only to those with less severe alcohol problems, because the scientists chose people who sought help for the first time, excluding others who had done so in the past. Various studies have found that a combination of professional treatment and AA yields better outcomes than either approach alone.

Constructive Combination
Taken as a whole, the data suggest that AA may be helpful, especially in conjunction with professional treatment, for many people who are addicted to alcohol. We do not know, however, whether AA might occasionally be harmful. When a group is highly confrontational, for example, alcoholics may become resistant to change [see “The Advice Trap,” by Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lilienfeld; Scientific American Mind, September/October 2010]. Nevertheless, in light of the evidence supporting the program, the wide availability of meetings and the lack of expense, AA is worth considering for many problem drinkers.

This article was originally published with the title "Facts & Fictions in Mental health: Does Alcoholics Anonymous Work?."

(Further Reading)

  • Matching Alcoholism Treatments to Client Heterogeneity: Project MATCH Posttreatment Drinking Outcomes. Project Match Research Group in Journal of Studies on Alcohol, Vol. 58, pages 7–29; 1997.
  • Participation in Treatment and Alcoholics Anonymous: A 16-Year Follow-Up of Initially Untreated Individuals. Rudolf H. Moos and Bernice S. Moos in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, Vol. 62, No. 6, pages 735–750; June 2006.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous Effectiveness: Faith Meets Science. Lee Ann Kaskutas in Journal of Addictive Diseases, Vol. 28, No.2, pages 147–157; 2009.
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