Does The 12 Step Program Really Work?

Does The 12 Step Program Really Work?

The 12 step program is a plan used to help people recovering from alcohol and drug addictions stay sober. The program is built on the principle that while people can help each other achieve and maintain sobriety, healing from addiction cannot occur unless the individual surrenders to a higher power. The 12 step model has received a lot of positive and negative feedback. But does the 12 step program really work?

How Do the 12 Steps Work?

The first 12 step program was created by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and was solely dedicated to helping people recovering from alcoholism. Since the 1950s, the program has expanded to help people with all kinds of drug addictions and is even used by Narcotics Anonymous (NA).

The main premise of 12 step programs is that true recovery from addiction occurs if the person surrenders to a higher power. While many programs are Christian, others encourage patients to determine their own higher power that they wish to surrender to.

All 12 step programs are centered on the same 12 steps, hence the name. These 12 steps are:

  1. Admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of a higher power.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to a higher power, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have a higher power remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked a higher power to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and, when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with a higher power, praying only for knowledge and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

People who have received drug or alcohol treatment may go through the 12 steps with the help of a sponsor or recovery advocate. For the individual to complete the program and get the most out of it, they must complete each step in order.

Each step presents a unique challenge, which may or may not be difficult. The purpose of this exercise is to help patients relinquish the need to control everything and utilize the assistance of a higher power to achieve peace and recovery from addiction. Defining this higher power depends on them.

12 Step Program: Pros and Cons

The effectiveness of 12 step treatment has always been a hot topic. Does the 12 step program really work? What about people who aren’t religious? How long do these programs last?

To better understand how these programs can benefit people and where they may miss the mark, below are the pros and cons of 12 step programs to consider beforehand.


Whether it’s for alcoholism or drug addiction, the pros of 12 step programs include:

  • Increasing accountability by helping patients acknowledge their addictions
  • Accept the consequences of their addictions
  • Find ways to address the damage their addictions caused
  • Provide peer support to contribute to their long-term recovery

Some may also consider the 12 step program’s lack of emphasis on physical recovery a problem, but that’s why it’s often used in tandem with medically monitored detox or drug treatment programs. It’s meant to be a supplement, not a replacement for anything.

Considering the fact that the AA and NA are supported by donations, these programs are pretty self-sufficient. In addition to the pros listed above, AA and NA also have Internet-based chat rooms and online meetings that can be easily found on the Internet or through their respective sites.

These chat rooms and internet meetings are online sources that are not meant to replace in-person meetings that members should be attending. Instead, they offer people receiving addiction treatment the option to continue their programs in the safety and comfort of their homes, a major benefit in light of the coronavirus pandemic.


Like anything, while the traditional 12 step model for substance abuse treatment has worked for many, there are some drawbacks. The 12 step model emphasizes acknowledging one’s powerlessness in battling addiction, a concept that studies have found to be less effective for women.

Research on gender differences in alcohol consumption indicates that men and women begin drinking for different reasons. While men tend to drink to feel more powerful and decrease inhibition, women are more likely to numb pain.

Women don’t usually report feeling more powerful when they drink. As a result, women tend to see real improvement with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) over the 12 step program, which seeks to empower women toward skill-building, decision making, and to help them cope with past physical and sexual trauma.

Some people are also uncomfortable with the public nature of the 12 step program as it asks its members to acknowledge their addiction in a group setting. For someone with a co-occurring mental disorder, this can exacerbate their symptoms and simply make them uncomfortable.

Some cons of the 12 step program include:

  • Less effective for women seeking addiction treatment
  • Reliance on a higher power may make participants feel as if they can’t change without this higher power
  • The group setting of the program may make some participants uncomfortable

Keep in mind that every year these programs are revised to address the increasing awareness of the complexity of addiction to improve members’ chances of long-term recovery. As a Palm Beach addiction center that utilizes the 12 step method in treating patients, we believe that it can be a helpful resource when used alone or when paired with a rehab program.

How Effective Are 12 Step Programs?

In 2012, there were an estimated 64,000 groups with 1.4 million members in the United States and Canada, and a worldwide estimate of over 114,000 groups and 2.1 million members. This membership has increased in recent years, with more than 58,000 weekly meetings in 131 countries.2

But does the 12 step program really work? Yes, it does. Many studies support the effectiveness of 12 step treatment for addiction.

One study found that the median length of abstinence reports by AA and NA members is greater than 5 years.1 Another study found that compared to people who did not receive 12 step treatment, those who were in 12 step programs showed better results in their 16-year follow-ups.3

A separate study on the effectiveness of the 12 step program showed that people who attended AA meetings are about twice as likely to remain abstinent from alcohol than those who did not. Higher levels of attendance are also associated with higher levels of abstinence.4

Further research conducted by a Stanford School of Medicine researcher and collaborators evaluated 35 studies on the effectiveness of 12 step programs involving the work of 145 scientists and the outcomes of 10,080 patients. In the end, researcher Keith Humphreys and his collaborators determined that AA was nearly always found to be more effective in achieving abstinence. They also determined that AA participation also lowered health care costs associated with addiction.5

Find Addiction Treatment That’s Right For You

There will continually be research on the efficacy of 12 step programs because, at the end of the day, the goal is to help as many people with substance use disorders as possible. At Seaside Palm Beach, we pay attention to research and constantly revise our programming to meet the needs of our patients.

For that reason, we offer a 12 step program at our facility that’s led by a team of specialists, allowing participants to become involved with sponsors and other members of the recovery community. However, because everyone is different, we also offer other forms of therapy, such as holistic treatment, to offer patients a variety of options that will work for them.

If you need drug or alcohol treatment or know someone who does, we’re here for you. Call our South Florida luxury rehab today at 561-677-9374 to learn how our addiction treatment in Palm Beach can help you achieve long-term sobriety.

Related Reading:

Highest Risk of Teen Alcoholism Found in Upper-Class Families

Signs of a Weekend Alcoholic


AA – The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

NCBI – 12-Step Interventions and Mutual Support Programs for Substance Use Disorders: An Overview

NIH – Participation in treatment and Alcoholics Anonymous: a 16-year follow-up of initially untreated individuals

NIH – Alcoholics anonymous effectiveness: faith meets science

Stanford Medicine – Alcoholics Anonymous most effective path to alcohol abstinence

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