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Why Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) Works

Does Alcoholics Anonymous work? That’s a question that medical professionals have been asking since its beginnings in the 1930’s, and it’s not an easy one to answer. The reason for this is because, as suggested by its name, AA is an anonymous program. What that means is that its members are not required disclose their full names. The program doesn’t take attendance or require paperwork to be signed, and members are also encouraged not to speak about who they see in meetings, or what they hear. These practices were a vital part of the program’s success initially, because many members did not want to be labeled “alcoholic” by employers, wives, friends, etc because of the repercussions that title carried for a 1930’s business man (which was the majority of AA’s original members).

So how do you test the efficacy of an anonymous program? Fortunately, the tradition of anonymity in AA allows for any individual to be as open as they desire about their own personal recovery, and due to decreases in stigmas about alcoholism and addiction, more and more members are opening up. Finally researchers are beginning to have access to the information they need to answer the question of whether or not AA works.

Numerous studies have been conducted, and the result is a resounding yes- AA works to treat alcoholism and substance abuse. Of course, medical professionals across the board agree that attending 12 step programs is most beneficial when used in combination with treatment or therapeutic intervention, but it does hold its own value.  One such study, presented by Alexandre Laudet, PhD, at a conference sponsored by the University of Michigan’s Substance Abuse Research Center found that higher rates of abstinence and long term abstinence from substance abuse were recorded when members of the study attended AA, and additionally, that more frequent attendance increased those odds even more. The study also concluded that those who continued attending AA regularly (1 or more times a week) throughout their sobriety were 4.1-8.6 times more likely to sustain sobriety.

For so many people, the bigger question still is, why does AA work? Another study conducted by John F. Kelly, the associate director of the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Center for Addiction Medicine, takes a look at the psychology behind why the program works. What he found was that the program has many mental and emotional benefits for those trying to get and stay sober. Among these are “maintaining motivation, confidence in the ability to cope with the demands of recovery, decreased depression symptoms, and increased spirituality” (Walsh, 2011). The study also notes the psychosocial benefit of the change in social network which comes with getting involved in 12 step programs.

More research is taking place constantly to shed more light on the effectiveness of these programs, but initial findings show that Alcoholics Anonymous can be an incredibly beneficial too for those struggling with alcohol or substance abuse, and looking for a way out.


Krentzman, Amy R., Elizabeth A. R. Robinson, Barbara C. Moore, John F. Kelly, Alexandre B. Laudet, William L. White, Sarah E. Zemore, Ernest Kurtz, and Stephen Strobbe. “How Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) Work: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives.” Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dec. 2010. Web. 13 July 2017.

Colleen Walsh, Harvard Staff Writer |, Leah Burrows SEAS Communications |, Liz Mineo, Harvard Staff Writer |, Alvin Powell, Harvard Staff Writer |, and BWH/HSCI Communications |. “What Makes AA Work?” Harvard Gazette. N.p., 12 Sept. 2011. Web. 13 July 2017.