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Are the 12 Steps Really Effective?

The Twelve Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous is one of the most popular means of addressing alcoholism, leaving many to ask: are the 12 steps really effective? This approach to alcohol addiction treatment went a long time without scientific research regarding its effectiveness, but in recent years this research has been catching up with the approach of the twelve steps.

The short answer to whether or not the twelve steps are really effective is that they can be very helpful in aiding people on the road to recovery. The twelve step program not only helps people get sober in the first place, but also work as a great source of support for the long term. This helps recovering alcoholics stay sober for years.

Many people tend to misunderstand the 12 steps. For instance, some people assume that you have to be religious in order to participate in a twelve step program. This is not the case, and has nothing to do with how and why the twelve steps are really effective. Instead, the power of this approach is found in the ability of the twelve steps to address both the internal causes of alcoholism and the external consequences, setting up the recovering alcoholic for success.

What Are the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous?

Taken altogether, the twelve steps work as a guide to recovery for those working toward overcoming alcoholism. The organization behind the 12 steps has been around for decades, and the idea behind the guide is now applied to many other forms of addiction and substance abuse treatment.

Because there is often a misunderstanding about both what the twelve steps are and what they mean, it is worthwhile to present all 12 steps of AA here. Reading through each of these steps in turn will give you a better idea of both how the twelve steps are supposed to work, not to mention the purpose behind Alcoholics Anonymous itself.

  • We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable.
  • Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  • Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  • Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  • Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  • Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  • Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  • Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  • Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  • Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  • Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him.
  • Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in our affairs.

There is a recurring theme across all twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The purpose behind each and every step is to simultaneously take responsibility for one's actions and recognize that one needs help to recover as an alcoholic. Both of these points are crucial not only to participating in AA, but to any form of alcoholism treatment program. Alcohol addiction is a mental disorder, and Alcoholics Anonymous works to get to the bottom of both the reasons behind and the effects of alcoholism.


Are the 12 Steps of AA Really Effective?

Despite the fact that thousands of people turn to the twelve steps every day in the United States, the effectiveness of AA is controversial. However, research regarding the effectiveness of the twelve steps has found that this approach to addiction treatment can have a large positive effect. Participating in the twelve steps consistently results in better results during the recovery process (see 'View Sources' for more details).

"Twelve-Step Facilitation therapy is still a tried-and-true proven approach. It is far more than advising a patient to go to AA and providing them a list of meeting locations and times. In Twelve-Step Facilitation, the therapist actively probes and nudges, encouraging not only attendance, but participation, in meetings; it explains the potential benefits of working with a sponsor and promotes the individual developing a relationship with a sponsor. Twelve-Step Recovery addresses the psychology of the person with addiction as well as the individual's spirituality - values, connectedness to others, and willingness to engage with others and humbly ask for help."

~ American Society of Addiction Medicine

As this quote from the American Society of Addiction Medicine makes clear, the AA 12 Steps are not some kind of mumbo jumbo. Instead, the 12 steps of AA aim at getting to the heart of addiction through an informal therapy. Through each step, the recovering alcoholic builds a better understanding of both themselves and how their alcoholism has affected their life. Along the way, the twelve steps also provide a healthy level of community support.

What Are the 12 Steps Not? Understanding the Twelve Steps as Part of the Recovery Process

We have said it before: what you get out of rehab mostly has to do with how much effort you put into it. No one aspect of the recovery process should be treated as the magic solution to addiction or alcoholism. This includes the 12 steps of AA.

The 12 steps are all about group support and the chance to listen and be listened to. This approach to addiction treatment is effective, but it should not be treated as a catchall for fully addressing a substance use disorder. Outpatient programs, and even in some cases supervised detox, should also be an integral part of this process. Instead, the social support and informal groups that are part of the AA 12 Steps should be treated just as part of the recovery process.

  • Alcoholics Anonymous. (2017). Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. Retrieved from: http://www.aa.org/pages/en_US/twelve-steps-and-twelve-traditions
  • st Century Addiction Medicine. Retrieved from: https://www.asam.org/magazine/read/article/2015/02/13/the-relevance-of-twelve-step-recovery-in-21st-century-addiction-medicine
  • David Sack. (2012, November). Why the Hostility Toward the 12 Steps? Retrieved from:
  • Lee Ann Kaskutas. (2009). Alcoholics Anonymous Effectiveness: Faith Meets Science. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2746426/