After 75 years of existence nobody is quite sure why Alcoholics Anonymous works. Wired attempts to discover why:
There’s no doubt that when AA works, it can be transformative. But what aspect of the program deserves most of the credit? Is it the act of surrendering to a higher power? The making of amends to people a drinker has wronged? The simple admission that you have a problem? Stunningly, even the most highly regarded AA experts have no idea. “These are questions we’ve been trying to answer for, golly, 30 or 40 years now,” says Lee Ann Kaskutas, senior scientist at the Alcohol Research Group in Emeryville, California. “We can’t find anything that completely holds water.”
The problem is so vexing, in fact, that addiction professionals have largely accepted that AA itself will always be an enigma. But research in other fields—primarily behavior change and neurology—offers some insight into what exactly is happening in those church basements.
To begin with, there is evidence that a big part of AA’s effectiveness may have nothing to do with the actual steps. It may derive from something more fundamental: the power of the group. Psychologists have long known that one of the best ways to change human behavior is to gather people with similar problems into groups, rather than treat them individually. The first to note this phenomenon was Joseph Pratt, a Boston physician who started organizing weekly meetings of tubercular patients in 1905. These groups were intended to teach members better health habits, but Pratt quickly realized they were also effective at lifting emotional spirits, by giving patients the chance to share their tales of hardship. (“In a common disease, they have a bond,” he would later observe.) More than 70 years later, after a review of nearly 200 articles on group therapy, a pair of Stanford University researchers pinpointed why the approach works so well: “Members find the group to be a compelling emotional experience; they develop close bonds with the other members and are deeply influenced by their acceptance and feedback.”
Researchers continue to be surprised by just how powerful this effect is. For example, a study published last year in the journal Behavioral Therapy concluded that group therapy is highly effective in treating post-traumatic stress disorder: 88.3 percent of the study’s subjects who underwent group therapy no longer exhibited PTSD symptoms after completing their sessions, versus just 31.3 percent of those who received minimal one-on-one interaction.
The piece, by Brendan Koerner, serves as a fascinating intersection of history and neuroscience.