About one third of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) members are women, and although the organization helps both sexes recover from addiction, a new study suggests that it does so in different ways—in part because male and female alcoholics drink for different reasons. John Kelly, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, and his colleague Bettina Hoeppner analyzed data collected over the course of 15 months from 1,726 AA members about their social networks, their drinking habits and how confident they were in their ability to stay sober in various situations. They found that male alcoholics typically relapse when they are in social-drinking situations and that AA largely helps them stay sober by inducing them to spend time with nondrinking friends and by helping them cope when they do find themselves with friends who are drinking.

Female alcoholics, on the other hand, are more likely to drink when feeling down, yet AA does little to help them handle such emotion-driven cravings. “The findings really underscore gender-based differences in relapse risk,” Kelly says. If AA addressed these needs in its programs, he adds, it could become even more effective.