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ItsAHabit's avatar

Is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) self-delusional?

Asked by ItsAHabit (2297points) July 28th, 2010

Is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) self-delusional?

1. AA asserts that “alcoholics are people who can’t drink in moderation.” Then, when the federal government and others report overwhelming evidence for decades that many alcoholics do drink in moderation, AA members retort that they couldn’t have been alcoholics because “alcoholics are people who can’t drink in moderation.” That’s an illogical tautology; the definition determines the conclusion.

Let’s say I define the earth as a relatively flat rectangular object on which billions of people live and that revolves around the sun. You then provide evidence that the earth is relatively spherical. I then insist that’s impossible because “the earth as a relatively flat rectangular object on which billions of people live and that revolves around the sun.” You’re clearly wrong about that spherical foolishness.

As further evidence that alcoholics can’t ever drink in moderation, AA argues that “a pickle can never become a cucumber.” If you’re looking for a serious discussion about AA, the last person to consult would appear to be a member.

2. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services reports data indicating that AA’s success rate is “up to 5%.” When researchers report that AA’s success rate is low, members insist that “AA works for everyone who really wants to stop drinking and who follows the program.”

So AA is 100% successful. It’s the 95% of members who fail—- its their fault!

AA tells members to “work the program, don’t analyze it.” Teaching mindless acceptance of AA ideology helps protect its doctrine from open minded analysis. This ploy is used to discourage any questioning of the ideology.

And the list goes on.

So is AA largely self-delusional? If not, how do we explain members’ apparently blind adherence to an ideology that has not withstood scientific scrutiny and their intolerance and attacks on anyone who dares raise reasonable questions?

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34 Answers

Afos22's avatar

This reminds me of any religion ever created.

tedd's avatar

There are flaws in the system they use, but overall it is very effective. It may not cause someone to stop drinking forever, but it has helped many millions of people stop being alcoholics at least.

I think the zero tolerance “alcoholics can’t drink in moderation thing” while not true in my opinion, helps because it gives you a flat solid line of “you can’t drink at all or you’ll fail,” that probably helps some people achieve their goals. The double edge to that sword is that when you have a glass of wine at a wedding, you feel like a failure when in reality you’re fine.

In short, the group has flaws, its far from perfect, and there may even be better organizations or ways to go about fixing alcoholism. BUT, it has done a lot of good, and will likely continue for a while.

As far as arguing with them about their ideology, I wouldn’t really bother or care about it. If you’re not a member it doesn’t matter to you. If you are a member you should probably be following it.

tedd's avatar

@Afos22 Its a religious based group. One of the 12 steps is handing yourself over to a higher power and admitting you’re helpless to fix your “disease.” (this being one of the big things I don’t like about the group)

phaedryx's avatar

Do you have citations for your assertions? I’m curious to read through these reports.

Afos22's avatar

@tedd Im saying a lot of religious people are also delusional like AA, and I didn’t know about that step, thanks

wundayatta's avatar

There are a lot of lonely people out there. There are a lot of people who never get to talk about what is really going on with them. Addiction groups are an awful lot like support groups, except they are focused on a common experience. They give people a chance to talk; to confess; to make friends; to share their shames—all without being shamed. Folks hang out with each other and they can finally talk about all the shit on their minds. That’s a rare thing.

Addiction groups are also a lot like religions. They have their saints, their bibles and their rituals. These things all help strengthen the cohesiveness of the group and they also allow folks to travel from group to group and have something familiar wherever they go.

I’m not big on ritual, especially their rituals, but I don’t mind that much. It’s really boring to have the rules read every beginning of the meeting I go to, but there is a regular schedule of topics to discuss and it is interesting hearing other people’s stories. The folks sometimes hang out after—just talking or maybe getting some food. They have social activities as well—some just for us, and some for us and our families.

As to cure rates—well, I knew they weren’t as high as advertised before I went in. My wife and my therapist wanted me to go, so I could make all happy and get to tell stories and make friends at the same time. So that’s why I went. Of course, my addiction isn’t a substance but a behavior, so things are probably different here. I also go to another support group that is also about behavior. Although, come to think of it, abusing a substance is a behavior, too. In one of my groups, most people have the opposite problem—they don’t take their drugs when they should.

Do these things help? It all depends on how you define the problem and the criteria for the solution. What is alcoholism? What does it mean that many alcoholics drink in moderation? What does it mean when someone is better?

I don’t know if there is a medical definition of alcoholism. Functionally, though, I think most people consider it an addiction when the behavior is destructive of their lives. They are improved when they are able to build their lives back up. Both of these things are very subjective, and can only be measured with a survey, if they can be measured at all. I don’t think people would go if they didn’t think they got some benefit from it. Do their behaviors change as a result? I don’t know.

How can we establish a standard for positive behavior change? How can we know whether the change would have occurred with or without the participation in meetings? There are just too many subjective factors in this for me to believe that any research about it provides useful information.

I don’t think AA or any other addiction program is self-delusional. I don’t know if people know what they are getting into, but I think they feel whether it is right for them or not, and choose to participate or not based on that. If it feels right, then that is one standard of success. And your tautology is correct, the meetings are made up only of people that it feels right to.

There are, of course, people for whom it feels wrong, and they don’t go after the first or sixth meeting or whatever. Now, if you are measuring the success of a treatment, does it make sense to include people who don’t get the treatment in your study? You’re getting a selection bias there, which will throw off your results.

I think there are two main problems with AA groups. They may not do what they say they are doing, and they have an overt religious component. Personally, I find the religious imagery and language somewhat annoying, but I find that if I ignore the language and focus on the experiences people describe, then I can relate to those experiences, and I have experienced similar things.

When people talk about giving up to their higher power, I get a sense that they are talking about a complete and utter giving up. I know that feeling. I employed it, without knowing anyone else does it, to help recover from depression. When I gave up fighting my depression, it lost some of its power, and I was able to turn myself around. I don’t know if that’s what addiction people are talking about, but it’s good enough for me.

Austinlad's avatar

All I know is, a friend of mine never would have survived to the age she is now without AA.

truecomedian's avatar

I don’t get it what does “self delusional” mean in this context? Meaning does AA make you delude yourself? Does it make you believe false things? What group doesn’t?

marinelife's avatar

I agree with AA about alcoholics not being able to drink in moderation. It is a continuum that alcoholics are on with every increasing amounts of alcohol and ever-increasing symptoms.

That said, I have a lot of problems with them as an organization. Largely, that they have put the kibosh on other methods springing up and being researched. Because I don’t think their method works very well.

Nullo's avatar

It works, right? Can’t be all that bad.

Sometimes you have to take a hard-line approach, with extreme premises, in order to avoid the pitfalls of the slippery slope.
It’s like with firearms: you always assume that the sucker is loaded and the safety is off (even if you just emptied the gun and engaged the saftey), so that you don’t go treating it like a toy. You only ever point it at something that you wouldn’t mind blasting to slivers. Instructors who know their sci-fi will suggest that you imagine that it’s like a lightsaber with a mile-long blade, one that’s always on.
It’s extreme, and it’s a bit unrealistic, but darn if it isn’t the most effective way to keep you from accidentally shooting someone.

Seek's avatar

My husband has been ordered by the DMV to attend AA.

They. Are. Insane.

Anything and everything that is wrong with their life, they blame on alcohol. “Boo hoo! I have an addiction to shopping and I bought a brand new Corvette I can’t afford because I haven’t had a drink in three years!”

And meanwhile, they simply replace one self-destructive habit with another. Usually smoking. “It’s all about moderation * puff, puff, puff * I’m so glad I’m completely sober * puff, puff, puff *. It’s great not being attached to some substance to maintain my sanity * puff puff puff *”

And then, even if they do well, they’re still completely self-defeating. “I haven’t had a drink in 30 years, thank god and AA. I’ll be at the meeting place all day on 4th of July because if I go to my wife’s family’s barbeque and there’s beer there, I’ll probably go crazy and fall back into the demons!”

Anyone who knows me knows how I feel about the “god” aspect, so I’ll leave that alone for now.

ItsAHabit's avatar

Seek Kolinahr Your husband’s Constitutional rights may have been violated:

“Ruling that Alcoholics Anonymous “engages in religious activity and religious proselytization,” New York state’s highest court declared Tuesday that state prison officials were wrong to penalize an inmate who stopped attending the organization’s self-help meetings because he said he was an atheist or an agnostic.

The court ordered prison officials not to tie the man’s eligibility for a family reunion program to his refusal to take part in the Alcoholics Anonymous sessions at Shawangunk state prison in Ulster County.”

“A recent court case ruled that a parolee can sue a parole officer for damages if the parole officer requires the parolee to attend 12-step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous when this violates the parolee’s religious or non-religious beliefs.

The case is titled Inouye v. Kemna, issued Sept. 7, 2007. The full text of the opinion is here. The court that issued the decision is the Ninth Circuit of the United States Courts of Appeal. The court’s ruling is the law in California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands.”

“AA Ruled Religious

Brieant’s judgment hinged on his finding that Alcoholics Anonymous’members engage in religious activity as part of the program.

“The record before this Court shows that in addition to the numerous religious references in the Twelve Steps, meetings of AA are closed with a recitation of The Lord’s Prayer,’ he wrote. Brieant also cites as precedent, an earlier Court of Appeals ruling that AA ‘is a religion,’ and so courts couldn’t compel persons to attend the meetings.”

Seek's avatar


I think the only problem with that is that it was the DMV, which is not the court. Driving isn’t a right, it’s a privilege, and all that bullshit. And it wasn’t even directly the DMV – the DMV ordered counseling, and the counseling ordered the AA. However, the DMV is enforcing the AA requirement.

It was just easier to waste the 12 hours of bullshit and the Lord’s Prayer than to try to fight it.

ItsAHabit's avatar

Nullo A success rate of “up to 5%” really sounds more like a failure rate of 95% or more. It’s important to realize that AA isn’t the only option. Some of the choices include: – The Jude Thaddeus Program has the highest independently verified success rate in the United States. – Moderation Management stresses balance, moderation, self-management, and personal responsibility. – Drink Wise is a brief, confidential educational program for people with mild to moderate alcohol problems who want to eliminate the negative consequences of their drinking. – Habit Smart promotes the reduction of harmful behaviors and harm through habit change and wise choices. (1–800-303–2873) – Established as an alternative to the spiritual nature of AA as well as its view that alcoholics are powerless and must submit to God’s will in order to recover, Rational Recovery stresses the innate power and strength of individuals themselves to overcome obstacles. It rejects the AA belief that “once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.” Rational Recovery teaches people how to become independent of both alcohol addiction and of organizations dealing with alcoholism. (310–821-8430) – Secular Organizations For Sobriety (SOS), also known as Save Our Selves, this program stresses the need to place the highest priority on sobriety and uses mutual support to assist members in achieving this goal. The Suggested Guidelines for Sobriety emphasize rational decision-making and are not religious or spiritual in nature. (216–292-0220) – Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART Recovery) views alcohol dependence as a bad habit and attempts to use common sense techniques to break the habit. (1–800-333–1606) – The mutual support groups of Women for Sobriety work to enhance the self-esteem of members. Women for Sobriety groups are non-religious and the meetings also differ from those of AA in that they prohibit the use of tobacco, caffeine and sugar.

If AA works for a person that’s great. But for the 19 out of 20 for whom it doesn’t work, there are plenty of other approaches.

The important thing for alcoholics is not to give up hope but to consider other therapeutic options.

Seek's avatar

I wish I could find the reference… I’m pretty sure it was on NPR, but I can’t find it. I heard it about a year ago…

I think the statistics said that a normal person who simply decides to quit has about a 7% chance of being completely successful. Since 5% of AA members actually successfully quit drinking, that would mean that AA is a complete failure, and actually causes more people to turn back to alcohol than would have done so normally.

Seek's avatar

Here’s a different reference that corroborates my prior statement, but with different numbers:

cazzie's avatar

AA helped my dad but my mom got nothing out of it. So, I guess my mom was in the 7% and my dad was in that 5%.

evandad's avatar

I think the AA definition is the correct one. An alcoholic who drinks in moderation doesn’t really have a problem, just a label. Most rehab programs don’t work, including AA. If they use what you call self-delusion to get the limited success they do have, then that’s fine with me.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@Nullo Actually, no it doesn’t.

keobooks's avatar

I’ve heard that the success rate is more like around 20%, which seems really bad, but much better than the other programs.

I do think that court ordered attendence is terrible and defeats the whole purpose the program, which is supposed to be voluntary. I know many other people who hate them too.

I got a whole heck of a lot out of those meetings for a few years. They were a good foundation. But I left because after a while, it wasn’t really a good fit.

I was tired of sitting around listening to people talk about the good old days of drug use. I didn’t start really abusing drugs until I was in my late teens and I cleaned up in my early 20s, so I ran out of “cool stories” to tell quickly and lost interest in “cool stories” a few years later.

While I was making lots of friends in the program, I was learning poor social habits to talk to anyone outside of the rooms. I remember when a friend of mine asked me if my room mates were clean. I went on for a few minutes about how one room mate had 2 years sober and the other one drank beer occaisionally and smoked a joint now and then. There was a long awkward pause and my friend said—- “I just wanted to know if they were tidy or messy.”

The longer I stayed sober, the less I had in common with the people in the room my age and the more I had in common with people who just never used drugs or alcohol in the first place. Most of my friends don’t drink alcohol at all and don’t use drugs—because they aren’t into that or have medical conditions that don’t let them. It’s just not part of my life and I feel pretty far removed from that lifestyle.

But I really did get a lot ofhelp and I still think about and practice the 12 steps on my own and try to live by them.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

What has not been said here is that alcoholism is a fatal disease. 100% of active alcoholics die drunk.

What has been bandied about a lot here is the definition of an alcoholic. A.A. teaches that each individual is left up to defining themselves as alcoholic or not.

I have been sober for 11 years, and I’m damn lucky. I pray I’m one of the 5% who succeeds at staying sober until death. My life as an active alcoholic was a living hell, and I hope I never go back to that.

This question assumes that A.A. believes and preaches it is successful all the time, and that is not true. We see people go in and out of the program all the time, and when you see it often enough, you stop thinking about it. It’s the nature of the disease.

Is A.A. self-delusional? Not in my experience.

Seek's avatar

Removed by me.

truecomedian's avatar

Does the big book ever actually call alcoholism a disease. I remember when AA was always a couch I could crash on, not anymore. I am not an alcoholic but I saw AA simply as a group of people that wanted to not drink. I wanted to not drink, I blamed alcohol for my problems that way. I have gone to meetings for almost ten years, and I have learned a few important things. There are some very dangerous people in AA. I have gotten into a lot of trouble from people I have met in AA. AA is for the spiritually bankrupt, the ones who find themselves with no moves left, no hope, no path, no way. AA, spiritually, gives these people, one thing better than what they currently have, which is nothing. These people take to it, those who really need it. I could never stay sober more than a few months. If I would have stayed, stayed in the rooms and stayed sober, from my first meeting, my life would be so much better. But I can’t turn back the clock, and I can’t keep fooling myself. I feel my problem is greater than a substance, and this is true for alcoholics, it says that alcohol is but a symptom. But I dont like the AA program. As I’m writing this I’m seeing a pattern, it sounds like Im in denile but I’m not. I just resent the AA way, if that’s possible because I feel it caused me harm. This is crazy, just crazy. I think that I am in for a whole lot of pain, can’t face my real problems, at all, I’m being worn down. I am one of those lost souls that end up suffering unknown to anyone. I guess I believe in Hell and that I’m a bad person because I cant follow this one jagged path. Or that I am beginning to realize that it’s also evil to not do what you know you should do, because you dont really care. I have tried to kill myself five times. All overdoses, intentional. I feel like I have lost something from going through that trauma of near death. Or maybe I’m still suicidal but just not so directly. Yeah, that’s the only logical reason. It’s like the ripples on still water from a thrown stone, where the stone lands, the center, that is overtly suicidal, and the ripples farther out, is less direct, but still, I cant believe what I have done to myself. And others. I’m a good person, I’m just stupid as hell, trying to kill myself, what the fuck, how crazy do you have to be to do that. I’m better today, I know I am, it’s just a fear that I’m not a changed man, I am. Whew, that was therapuetic.

keobooks's avatar

@truecomedian and anyone else interesting

Here’s a full text cop of the Big Book you can read online.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

@truecomedian The “Doctor’s Opinion” in the beginning pages of the Big Book written in 1939 says that at least that one doctor believes it is a disease, and the AMA labelled it as such in the 1950s.

I’m sorry to hear about your difficulties. I hope that you can find a way to peace of some kind.

One thing is clear in the Big Book. It states plainly that A.A. does not have a monopoly on recovery. Whatever path you find that works to solve your problem is fine. The difficulty is finding the path. It might be through religion, therapy, or some other form. Keep searching. Keep breathing. Keep calm.

truecomedian's avatar

Something I found disturbing is on page 134 fourth edition. It says in talking about the damaged family “The children are sometimes dominated by a pathetic hardness and cynicism” What the f, the kids that have been abused and neglected are “pathetic”, not nice.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

@truecomedian Remember that the Big Book was written in 1939. “Pathetic” may have had a different usage at that time. I don’t know.

It’s not a perfect book. It also says on page 164 that “more will be revealed.” The book itself didn’t expect to be the last word on the subject.

truecomedian's avatar

Sorry to everyone, for what exactly, I don’t know, but I’m sorry. Think I’m sorry that I’ve been on Fluther too long, haha. I don’t like this subject and I went for it like clockwork. Damn it.

keobooks's avatar

If you really feel comfortable with the Big Book’s way of wording things, you may like the NA’s Basic Text better. I actually like the Basic Text MUCH more than the AA book myself. It’s newer and was written and edited by several people so it’s not all about Bill W and his view on the world. It has a more anonymous feeling to it. It’s easier to read and it may be more help to you.

I’d link the Basic Text here, but there is no legal copy of it online. But if you went to a meeting, someone would probably give you one.

boffin's avatar

AA is for quitters…

ItsAHabit's avatar

The commonly-held belief that “100% of active alcoholics die drunk” is, fortunately, not true.

Seek's avatar


It is if you’re making up the phrase “active alcoholic”. Obviously if they hadn’t drunk that day they weren’t active, right?~~~~~~~~

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

Again, what’s not being discussed in this thread is the term alcoholic. What is an active alcoholic? I didn’t drink from morning until night, but I was still an active alcoholic.

My dictionary says that an alcoholic is someone suffering from alcoholism, and that term is defined as: 1. an addiction to the consumption of alcoholic liquor. 2. the diseased condition resulting for this.

The term active alcoholic was not made up by me. It is to defferentiate from a recovered alcoholic. Spend just a few years in the rooms of recovery, and you’ll soon learn that drinkers or active alcoholics die.

ItsAHabit's avatar

I didn’t make up the term “active alcoholic” and it’s not in Keller et al’s A Dictionary of Words about Alcohol. But it’s clear that it means a drinking as contrasted to an abstaining alcoholic.

Nevertheless, it’s not true that 100% of active or drinking alcoholics die drunk.

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