Does Science Show What 12 Steps Know?

Data seem to support the 12-step program's benefits for addicts.

A bible being read by an individual struggling with addiction.


Science has never revealed as much about addiction—potential genetic causes, influences, and triggers, and the resultant brain activity—or offered as many opportunities and methods for initial treatment as it does now.

Even so, the grassroots 12-step program remains the preferred prescription for achieving long-term sobriety.

Since the inception of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.)—the progenitor of 12-step programs—science has sometimes been at odds with the notion that laypeople can cure themselves.

Yet the success of the 12-step approach may ultimately be explained through medical science and psychology. Both offer substantive reasons for why it works.

Climbing the Steps to Recovery

The "miracle" of A.A. can be traced to the evening of June 10, 1935, when a struggling alcoholic named Bill Wilson, fighting to stay dry while on a business trip to Akron, Ohio, met with an apparently hopeless drinker named Bob Smith in order to quell his own thirst.

It had been suggested to Wilson, through a religious organization called the Oxford Group, that talking to wet drunks about his experiences and trying to help them get sober would, in turn, help him stay dry. Smith, once a respected physician in the community, was referred to him as someone at bottom, beyond help.

Their discussion sparked the insight that the best hope for sobriety was a daily reprieve from alcohol, which stood with the singular practice of helping others.

Over the next five years, a non-denominational program emerged that drew much of its spiritual doctrine from Christian practices. It embodied an action plan in the form of 12 "steps" that are essentially guidelines for right living, including taking a personal inventory of one's strengths and shortcomings, making restitution for past wrongs, and helping others find sobriety.