What Is The AA Success Rate?

by pgh

What’s the success rate of alcoholics anonymous?

Well frankly, it depends a lot on how you define “success”. The reported success rates of AA has varied from 75% in some studies, to negative success rates in others – meaning that users had a better chance of spontaneously getting better without any treatment.

Looking At The Numbers

As you can see, there is a huge disparity in the numbers when people have attempted to measure AA success rates.

If you want to skip to my own personal thoughts on AA, you can do so by clicking here.

Otherwise, here are some random studies/surveys that have attempted to measure the Alcoholics Anonymous success rate over the years:

Study/Source Year of Study Results
Project Match 1997 AA compared favorably to other treatments, however this study didn’t include a control group that received no treatment at all
Department of Veterans Affairs and Stanford University 2006 33% higher success rates for AA participants at 16 year follow up mark.
A.A. World Services Survey 1992 35% were sober for more than 5 years, 34% were sober between 1- 5 years, 31% were sober less than 1 year.
Note: Surveys are inherently biased, since they don’t include a control group. Those who relapsed are probably far less likely to respond to an A.A. survey.
Outpatient Treatment of Alcoholism: Brandsma et. al. 1980 Indicated that AA increased alcoholic binge drinking compared to control groups. AA also had a drop-out rate 30% higher than the alternative RBT treatment.


Note: These are just some studies taken at random to show the huge variance in studies of AA success rates over the years. If you’d like to examine more individual studies on your own, you can check out the “Notes” section of Wikipedia’s page on Alcoholics Anonymous (scroll to the bottom).

Also notable: To see a summary of the studies and arguments against AA, take a look at the orange papers. For the counter-arguments and studies that support AA, see the green papers. Personally, I find the green-papers to be the more balanced analysis of AA, but you can read both and come to your own conclusions.

Why Is It Hard To Measure Success Rates?

One of the problems with the attempts to measure AA’s success rate is that each study has a different way of defining success. Are we talking about complete abstinence for life? Surely, there’s no accurate way to study that. Are we talking about alcoholics who make it 1 year sober? 5 years? 10 years? Does 1 relapse count as failure? What about those who manage to get sober after multiple relapses?

To further complicate things, a rigorous study should have a control group of untreated alcoholics. A study at The Harvard Medical School reported that alcoholics have an annual spontaneous remission rate of around 5%, meaning that every year, around 5% of chronic alcoholics get better with no treatment – perhaps on their own or perhaps with the help of close friends/family.

Doing a comprehensive double-blind study with a control group is expensive and difficult. Compounding the problem is the anonymity aspect of the AA program and the resulting difficulty of following up with relapsed alcoholics. This all makes it very difficult to accurately assess success rates across an unbiased sample. And when it comes to surveys, forget about it. There’s a tendency for those who succeed in AA to respond to follow up studies, while those who relapse are often unreachable, making surveys unreliable for accurately assessing success rates.

What Are The Alternatives To AA?

Unfortunately, AA is the only widespread option available for long term recovery support. There are certainly other options, but none are as prevalent as AA, and none of them enjoy widespread support nationally or internationally. And while some of these other treatment programs claim to have higher success rates than AA, their measurements suffer from the same flaws as the studies of AA recovery rates.

But no matter what some people say about AA, it is still the single largest recovery support system for alcoholics on the globe.

The Truth About Success Rates

The truth about AA -and any other recovery program for that matter – is that alcoholism recovery statistics in general point to low success rates for treatment programs of all kinds. The majority of alcoholics will relapse multiple times. Some will die as a result of relapse.

On the other hand, some people have enjoyed tremendous success in recovery through AA. Others have claimed that it’s useless, and that you’re more likely to recover on your own.

At the end of the day, the reason for this dichotomy is fairly simple – AA is not for everyone. Some people will respond well to the structured, highly dependent, and quasi-religious nature of AA. Others will reject it.

AA is not a perfect program, but their are definitely many people who have had their lives changed after attending AA.

Taking Personal Responsibility For Your Own Recovery

The truth about AA is this: if you’re on the fence about attending an AA meeting, you should ignore the studies and simply try it out for yourself. Inconclusive numbers don’t tell the true story when it comes to your own personal recovery – try asking one of the millions of alcoholics that AA has successfully helped – they’ll likely tell you that they don’t care what the reported success rates are. What mattered is that it worked for them.

If it turns out that AA is not for you, then there are other ways of getting sober. It’s even possible to get sober and stop drinking alcohol on your own, despite what often gets taught at AA.

If you go into AA with an open mind and a willingness to take action, you’ll benefit from attending, even if it’s just to learn that AA is not for you.

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