Do 12 Step Groups Really Work?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The effectiveness of 12 step groups varies widely, and is dependent on so many factors that it is difficult to study 12 step groups scientifically and accurately. Obviously, these groups work for some people, or they would not be so popular, but they also fail for large numbers of others, for a variety of reasons. Ultimately, joining a 12 step group should be considered only one aspect of treatment, to encourage people to use as many resources as possible when they attempt to cope with a problem like drug addiction, codependency, alcoholism, or gambling addiction.

12 step groups may help people cope with drug addiction problems.
12 step groups may help people cope with drug addiction problems.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was the first 12 step group, and in 1939, the original Twelve Steps were published, leading people to adapt them to other forms of addiction as well. Since 1939, huge numbers of people have “worked the 12 steps,” moving through the process with a supportive group. Membership in a 12 step group requires regular attendance at meetings, the selection of a personal sponsor to assist with the process, and a belief in the spiritual principles of the 12 steps.

The most well-known 12 step groups focus on alcoholism.
The most well-known 12 step groups focus on alcoholism.

In studies of 12 step groups, researchers are faced with several problems in evaluating effectiveness. The first is that study subjects are self-selected, rather than random, and many of them obviously join such groups because they recognize a problem and want to work on it. A control group is also not possible with a 12 step group, making it hard to create a basis for comparison, and researchers also recognize that a number of factors can influence someone's recovery from addiction, ranging from genetic predisposition to social pressure.

Narcotics Anonymous is a 12 step program designed to help those addicted to opioids and other drugs.
Narcotics Anonymous is a 12 step program designed to help those addicted to opioids and other drugs.

In long-term studies on 12 step groups, researchers have found that around 95% percent of participants drop out in the first year. After the first year, commitment among the remaining five percent tends to be much stronger, and the attrition rate drops sharply. For those among this five percent, obviously 12 step groups really do work. However, the success rate is comparable to other methods of addiction treatment, so it has been suggested that 12 step groups are no more or less effective than other recovery programs.

Ultimately, 12 step groups are as effective as their participants want them to be. For some people, the approach of a 12 step group simply does not work, and participation in such programs will be of limited benefit, although other treatment programs could be very effective. For others, the spiritual approach and focus on group support is ideally suited, and they may do very well in 12 step.

12 step groups may help people addicted to painkillers.
12 step groups may help people addicted to painkillers.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


More people stop drinking on their own than with 12 step programs. The tried and true method of quitting alcohol is people quitting on their own, including my Grandfather and myself.

And don't get me started on how many people I know who quit doing drugs on their own (myself included) without any help from anyone.

When it comes to 12 steppers, I guess some people just never learn how to do anything on their own and never will. The 12 steps program and meetings are made for them. Also, before any 12 stepper attacks me, I do believe in God. I'm Catholic, but was protestant at the time. To each their own, I guess.


@D.G.: You are a prefect example and product of the program. That is not to be critical, only your experience is that: yours. The outcome percentages are what they are.

I could talk for pages about that but the important thing is you found something that works. For anyone else reading this, I quit without the use of a 12 step program. People who attend 12 step programs have a tendency to believe it is the first time they have ever heard or practiced those principles and values before. I consider myself a graduate of not only addiction, but the step beyond it and that being of sobriety.

I don't treat alcohol like anything other than what it is: an ethanol based substance that brings addiction to the body through biochemical demand over time. It is not a dragon to be slain and I don't need a shield to protect me. I quit without drama and did it holistically. I never have cravings though I drank for a very long time. I don't ever consider using it in a good or bad environment. It was something I experienced.

I never asked God for help quitting but did learn much about myself and the trauma that put me their through the process. That being said, as humans we get ourselves into trouble, but often think we need a program, or God, or whatever we call it at that moment to get out. What we need to do is to address the addiction physically and then make rational and reasonable choices to end an abusive cycle surrounding it and develop insightful purpose from there. If that takes counseling, so be it.

I did mine through education and am very satisfied with the outcome. As for higher powers, to have an example of an understanding of self, read Victor Frankl - he survived the holocaust at its worse, where he sought a higher power, that being within himself.

People need to know they have it within themselves. The other 95 percent continue to relapse. Higher order learning must evolve from within, and that is going to requiring principles beyond 12 steps. Believe me D.G., I get it, for resolving the challenge without cognitive dissonance was my experience, not yours or anyone else's. In theirs when they find a solution they may just truly find themselves. Peace out.


I have 26 + years of freedom from chronic drug and alcohol abuse. I am alive, healthy, happily married, a father of three and grandfather of four because of 12 Step programs. Never mind the naysayers and self-proclaimed experts who take it upon themselves to come up with negative percentages regarding the success rate of anonymous programs.

Never mind the quantity of people I've personally seen saved. Try to fathom doing the math on how many have been able to stay alive and thrive since this extraordinary system was discovered back in the 30's or 40's. Furthermore, all 12 Step programs deliver. If you don't want to drink or do drugs, you will lose the desire as promised-without even having to go through the Steps themselves.

There are those who seem to "get it" without the process of working the Steps but for the majority, sober does not always mean "well". For those who aren't familiar with the 12 Steps, they are all about recognizing and changing self-destructive beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors in order to have clear communication with a Higher Power of each person's choice and understanding.

Being the imperfect being that I am, I've studied and experimented with all kinds of books, tapes, and seminars on self-development. I've seen nothing even close to what 12 Step programs have to offer, and it costs next to nothing to attend. Oddly enough, this process has even worked for those who've chosen to remain confirmed atheists.

From my experience, the most common reason that people shy away from attending meetings or working the Steps is the requirement to honestly look at one's self. This means putting down the magnifying glass, or telescope, if you prefer, and looking in the mirror.

To add, the 12 Step process is a very natural function of the creative universe. For anyone who takes time to understand what takes place throughout the 12 Steps, they will realize that every success of man throughout history was brought forth via the 12 Step process. I mean everything: from the discovery of the wheel, cures for diseases, every invention, and every other great accomplishment of mankind, went through this 1 to 12 phase procedure before it came to be.

Anyone who takes time to analyze what I've just stated will discover the facts. What Bill and Bob found and developed was no accident, it was and is a great miracle and an infinite, irrevocable law of the universe.

If world leading politicians had a 12 Step program and worked it, we would not have wars.

--Davinder G.

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