Alcoholics Anonymous: The 12 Steps of AA & Success Rates
What is Alcoholics Anonymous?
For those struggling with alcohol use disorder, or alcoholism, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is an international organization of peer groups meet to support each other. Members meet regularly to discuss issues and concerns related to their addiction and to support one another through triumphs and relapses. Generally, more seasoned group members “sponsor” newer members, guiding them through the process of “working the steps” to help on alcohol rehabilitation.
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How AA Works: The 12 Steps of AA
Alcoholics Anonymous uses the 12-step approach. Members complete each step on their path to recovery, often with the help of a sponsor.
- Step 1: admit powerless over alcohol
- Step 2: accept that a higher power, in whatever form, will restore your sanity
- Step 3: make a decision to turn your will and life over to a higher power
- Step 4: take a moral inventory of yourself
- Step 5: admit to a higher power, another human, and yourself the nature of your wrongdoings
- Step 6: accept that a higher power will remove your character defects
- Step 7: humbly request the higher power remove your shortcomings
- Step 8: list people you hurt during your addiction and be willing to make amends
- Step 9: make amends to those people unless it would harm them
- Step 10: continue to take a personal inventory, and when you’re wrong, admit it
- Step 11: use prayer and meditation to connect with the higher power
- Step 12: carry the message of AA to other alcoholics and continue to practice the principles of the 12 steps in your daily life2
Members can revisit the steps at any point. Some people work them multiple times.
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AA History & Statistics
The group originated in 1935 when Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith formed a group in Akron, Ohio, for those suffering from alcoholism.1 The concept of the group revolves around the fact that alcoholism is an illness that can’t be controlled but can be managed. Additionally, the group centers on spirituality and its impact on alcohol rehabilitation and recovery.2
Per the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 51.7% of people age 12 and older reported drinking in the past month while 24.5% of people age 12 and older binge drank in the past month (5 or more drinks on one occasion for men, 4 or more drinks for women). In addition, 6.1% stated they engaged in heavy alcohol use over the past month (binge drinking on 5 or more days over the past 30 days).3
In 2015, only 4.4% of people age 12 and older with alcoholism received treatment.4
With the prevalence of alcohol abuse and addiction in the U.S. and around the world, the widespread presence of AA is not a surprise. Alcoholics Anonymous has more than 115,000 groups worldwide.5
A survey conducted by AA in 2014 showed that:5
- 32% of people were introduced to the group by another member.
- An additional 32% were introduced to AA by a treatment facility.
- 59% of AA members received some form of treatment or counseling prior to entering the program.
What Is the Success Rate of Alcoholics Anonymous?
Success is a vague term to describe the prognosis of the program. Some people never relapse while others relapse and never relapse again after that initial bump in the road.
There isn’t an exact success rate available since many of the results are published by AA and vary based on several factors. Because AA is anonymous, some members of the group don’t participate in studies since it could breach the anonymity of the group. Many want their participation in AA to remain unidentified, in line with the group’s original intention. Additionally, participants might not want to admit to relapse.
Moreover, the people who attend meetings change constantly since people drop out. In fact, 40% of people drop out of AA during the first year, according to some studies.6
Although AA has been criticized by some sources for having a low success rate, the rate likely isn’t 5% like some say it is.7
- Addiction specialists cite success rates slightly higher, between 8% and 12%.7
- A New York Times article stated that AA claims that up to 75% of its members stay abstinent.8
- Alcoholics Anonymous’ Big Book touts about a 50% success rate, stating that another 25% remain sober after some relapses.9
- A study conducted by AA in 2014 showed that 27% of the more than 6,000 members who participated in the study were sober for less than a year. In addition, 24% of the participants were sober 1-5 years while 13% were sober 5-10 years. Fourteen percent of the participants were sober 10-20 years, and 22% were sober for 20 or more years.5
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism featured results on a long-term study on AA members. The study consisted of formally treated, informally treated (AA), and untreated individuals who suffered from an alcohol problem.10
- The one-year and three-year follow-up points indicated that half of the participants who entered into AA on their own were abstinent while only a quarter of those who entered into formal treatment were abstinent at the time of the follow-up.
- The eight-year follow-up showed that 46% of those who chose formal treatment were abstinent while 49% of individuals who attended AA were abstinent.
- Results revealed that those with alcohol issues who participated in both formal treatment and AA were more likely to be abstinent than those in formal treatment between years one and three, but did not show much difference in abstinence rates after eight years. This group did not show much difference with the AA-only group across the follow-up period in terms of abstinence rates.
- The results concluded that for some, AA attendance can be a source of recovery.
A study conducted on males from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs showed abstinence rates of those recovering from alcohol abuse at one year and 18 months. Approximately, 20-25% of those who didn’t attend a 12-step program, such as AA, or another aftercare program were abstinent from alcohol and drugs after one year. On the other hand, the abstinence rate was nearly twice as high for those who attended AA or another similar 12-step program without any aftercare. The results were evident that the more meetings people attended and the longer they were in the program, the greater the chances of alcohol and drug abstinence.11
Another study mentioned in the same publication observed a smaller outpatient sample. The results concluded that over 70% of those who attended a 12-step program weekly for 6 months before the two-year follow-up point were abstinent from alcohol. Another study conducted on those with an untreated drinking problem showed 70% of those with 27 weeks or more in AA were abstinent from alcohol at the 16-year follow-up mark. Moreover, the study revealed those with a shorter duration of time in AA had lower rates of abstinence.11
Is Alcoholics Anonymous Effective?
Those looking for a recovery support group after they’ve already sought out addiction treatment may benefit greatly from a 12-step approach. However, people should research their options and determine if a spiritual approach to recovery is ideal for their needs. An effective addiction aftercare program fits a person’s specific needs, and in some cases, a more secular approach to recovery may be preferable.
Lack of participation appears to hinder the results of the program. If people don’t adhere to the structure and attend regular meetings, they won’t receive the full benefit of the program, so it’s important that people are committed to AA to succeed.
Finding Sobriety Without AA
If you or someone you love has an addiction to alcohol and it is affecting their lives, there are a variety of treatment programs available to you. Explore our rehab centers below.
- Alcoholics Anonymous. Historical Data: The Birth of A.A. and Its Growth in the U.S./Canada.
- Alcoholics Anonymous. (2017). This is A.A. An introduction to the A.A. Recovery Program.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2018). Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2017). Behavioral Health Barometer, United States, Volume 4.
- Alcoholics Anonymous. 2014 Membership Survey.
- Lilienfeld, S. and Arkowitz, H. (2011). Does Alcoholics Anonymous Work? Scientific American.
- Stein, J. and Forgione, M. (2011). Charlie Sheen claims AA has a 5% success rate – is he right? Los Angeles Times.
- Friedman, R. (2014). Taking Aim at 12-Step Programs. The New York Times.
- Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. (2001).Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered From Alcoholism.
- Kelly, J. and Yeterian, J. The Role of Mutual-Help Groups in Extending the Framework of Treatment. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
- Kaskutas, L.A. (2009). Alcoholics Anonymous Effectiveness: Faith Meets Science. Journal of Addictive Diseases, 28(2), 145–157.