Some Observations on the Problem with Research on the Effectiveness of the 12 Step Programs

Researchers tend to reject assertions based on human experience, often referred to as “anecdotal evidence” because supported by individual observations or experience and not buttressed by scientific investigations. Therefore, the scientific research literature tends to discount experience of members of 12 Step self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, who have achieved abstinence and sobriety. Even more confounding for those in scientific circles is the spiritual aspect of these 12 Step Programs, which is also often viewed with intense suspicion. The research mostly concludes that there is little definitive scientific proof that the 12 Step Programs are more effective than other approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy. However, according to research, the best hope for recovery from  alcoholism, is through use of recognized therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy, coupled with regular (the longer the better) attendance of programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Unfortunately (in my abstinence-biased view), the research into recovery from drug addiction, especially opiate addiction, supports treatment using methadone and suboxone (using legal, long lasting opiates instead of illicit opiates, with counseling and medical support), rather than abstinence based treatment and use of the 12 Step Program known as Narcotics Anonymous.

As one who has worked as an addiction counselor for over 37 years, and as a professor teaching graduate courses on addiction for over 24 years, and as an individual in longterm recovery from addictive disease with intimate knowledge of 12 Step Programs, I have looked at the research on the effectiveness of the 12 Step programs, pro and con, and have arrived at the following conclusions about such research that, admittedly, are colored by my bias in favor of the spiritually based 12 Step Programs:

1) Researchers, with a few wonderful exceptions (I can furnish citations), do not understand the spirituality of the 12 Step Programs;
2) Most researchers do not understand the powerful healing effects that arise when individuals with the same life-threatening disorder help one another at meetings as well as through the relationships of home group members and sponsors, though the researchers may use fancy terms such as universality, role modeling, and the like to explain such dynamics; and, finally,
3) The vast majority of researchers do not have the personal experience of addiction and recovery using the 12 Step Programs that, I believe, would allow them to understand how these programs work, thereby enabling them to construct scientifically valid investigations to evaluate the effectiveness of the 12 Step Programs.

I realize that these observations are driven more by my personal and professional experience than by scientific evidence, but so be it.

As always, comments are invited. Jan Edward Williams,, 09/22/2016.

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