What is the Alcoholics Anonymous Success Rate?

Many members of Alcoholics Anonymous swear that the program has saved their lives and changed them profoundly for the better. For some critics of the program, AA is essentially a cult, built on pseudoscience with no tangible benefits for members.

This has been a difficult argument to settle. Until the last 20 years or so, it was particularly difficult to get good figures on the success of Alcoholics Anonymous.

However, the high-quality research that has been done, shows that AA has an impressive success rate. In comparison to other forms of treatment, the 12-step program has fared either equally well or in most cases somewhat better.

According to one particularly good study, 67% of those who attend AA meetings regularly remain sober in the long-term. It is important to note that this is the success rate for those that stick with the program over the years and not the success rate for those who were members briefly.

The Obstacles to Conduction Scientific Research

Scientific research is a long and arduous process, particularly when the task is to measure outcomes over a significant amount of time. To conduct scientifically valid research on the effectiveness of the program, a researcher would need to track the success of members in recovery over time. To conduct a truly scientific comparison, they would also have to compare this success with outcomes for other comparable addicts.

The problem with research into Alcoholics Anonymous is the principle of anonymity. It is one of the major traditions of the organizations that the identity of members should be protected. Also, meetings have traditionally been closed to the general public. This makes it highly difficult for researchers and scientists to identify members of Alcoholics Anonymous and track their progress in recovery.

Another problem is defining effectiveness and recovery. AA defines recovery as maintaining complete sobriety. But that is not the only option. What if an individual no longer drinks too much and leads a normal life, but has not maintained sobriety? Does that mean the program was effective or not?

Another issue researchers have had to grapple with is the length of sobriety. What if, for example, an individual was sober for 15 years and then had a relapse into alcoholism? Does that mean the program failed because the member relapsed? Or did it succeed because of the length of sobriety? On some level, all benchmarks of sobriety are somewhat arbitrary.

A final problem is the issue of self-reporting. Researchers have neither the ability nor the inclination to follow members around and check if they are drinking or not. Instead, they have to rely on self-reporting by addicts. Unfortunately, people will often misrepresent their choices to make themselves look better. Indeed, it is easy to imagine a member relapsing and telling researchers that they have maintained sobriety out of embarrassment.

Related: Narcotics Anonymous Effectiveness

Overcoming the Obstacles

Luckily for researchers, AA has changed many of its policies over the years as alcoholism has become more acceptable in mainstream society. Many AA groups now have public meetings, which can be attended by researchers and provide an opportunity for them to meet and recruit test subjects.

They have also done their best to overcome the other obstacles. Although the length of sobriety and degree of “dryness” remain somewhat arbitrary markers no matter where they are drawn, a lot can be learned by comparison to groups of addicts who do not participate in AA meetings and have not worked the steps. Similarly, self-reporting can be partially overcome through comparison. While the exact rates may be inaccurate, there is no reason to assume members of AA will be less likely to be forthcoming about their sobriety than addicts who are not members. 

The Findings

The first widely respected study into the success rate of AA was completed in 2003. It found that regular attendance of meetings in the first few years of recovery was a dramatic factor in increasing the odds of a full and long-term recovery. Those who fully participated in AA and utilized all of its facets were 35% more likely to practice abstinence from alcohol than those who did not.

A few years later, a study was released focusing more heavily on the long-term fortunes of alcoholics. It found that while only 34% of those that were not practicing members of AA maintained their sobriety, a large majority of those who attended meetings regularly remained sober.

Indeed, the success rate of AA compares favorably to any of the other accepted treatments for alcoholism. Neither rehabilitation centers nor cognitive addiction therapy has recorded higher rates of recovery. One study found that between 22% and 37% of AA participants remain dry in the long-term, while those participating in cognitive therapy remained sober 15% to 25% of the time on average.

Indeed, most centers and treatment facilities now incorporate 1-steps into their treatments due to the proven success of the formula.

It Works if You Work It

A large number of AA members drop out within the first year of membership. Even for those who remain and work hard, success in sobriety is not certain. It is certainly not a magic bullet and is best practiced in conjunction with other methods. Nevertheless, there is no question that for many alcoholics the 12-step program has offered a chance at a healthy and productive recovery.