The AA Delusion

As fascinated as I am over the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous—a physician and stockbroker who created a mass movement because they couldn’t stop drinking—I would not be much of a freethinker if I didn’t offer a more candid analysis.  The Big Book, despite containing some obvious truths, is a muddled piece of work that seems to only intrigue its members but not the experts.

Although it contains many pithy statements to give it its appeal, the book is far away from a scientific understanding of alcoholism and substance abuse.  Even though it is wrong in its details, the approach works for many (iii) by creating a group consciousness that their pseudo-selfish (i) behavior is destructive to them and to others.  The group acts to reinforce the new social norms created.

Too Smart For Own Good

Now we come to another problem, the intellectually self-sufficient man or woman… far too smart for own good… blow ourselves into prideful balloons… [2]

The theme throughout the book is that the ego, self-will, or willpower is something to be smashed and looked down upon.  The ego is the part of us that we feel when we self-indulge—I want, and I need—and helps us to differentiate ourselves—I am better than he, she, or they—as well as engages in self-appraisals—I did this and everyone needs to know.  The ego is the ugly part in all of us.

But the ego is also the part of us that helps us to advance in life since it drives us to compete with others.  The problem with the Big Book is that it generalizes the ego and equates it to sin.  This isn’t surprising given the Protestant background of the founders, and the same fear tactics are used from religion concerning over-indulgence.  But a big ego in itself doesn’t cause addiction (ii).

The book contradicts itself often and one noteworthy paradox is that the same will and self that is condemned is the same will and self that helps the member to learn new habits and stay clean and sober.  Maybe the founders anticipated members to be critical—”far too smart for own good”—of the newly learned beliefs and hence they decided to denigrate the concept of the ego altogether.

The Self-Centered Man (iv)

Selfishness, self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate. [3]

Selfishness can’t be the cause of addiction.  We usually stand to benefit when we are being selfish and alcoholics and addicts are beyond the stage of pleasure.  They are driven by an obsession to use the substance and can act compulsively on that impulse.  Selfishness is just not an accurate description especially since their willpower has been hijacked by a very strong desire to use.

Even in the beginning stages of addiction, a member that drinks occasionally would be no more selfish (ii) than someone that indulges in chocolate.  From an outsider, it looks like a selfish act since the attention is on them, but in the long run, there is no net benefit for them, and they end up harming themselves.  At best, we have to settle for a label of quasi or pseudo selfish [1].

The Big Book of course gets it right when it says that arrogance and over-indulgence usually backfire on us, but that does not mean that these qualities cause addiction.  Furthermore, there is no shortage of grandiose personalities who are not addicts or alcoholics, and there has to be the right situational and genetic factors that lend hand to creating what we would call an alcoholic or addict.

A Harmless Delusion

We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. [3]

During the course of the day, many of us will think and feel that we are better than average in capabilities, appearance, and intelligence.  This can’t be true if these traits have a bell-shaped curve.  But we operate best when we delude ourselves into thinking that we are slightly better than others.  So is there anything wrong with members believing that God is helping them stay sober?

We should be careful to not dismiss members out of hand because there are well-understood benefits to surrendering ourselves to something greater than ourselves.  This concept is endorsed by Western psychology and even evolutionary psychology as a way to deescalate the defense system (involuntary defeat system) which is what is activated in periods of failure, rejection, and stressors.

The founders wanted members to be demoralized, hence the humiliation of “My name is __, and I am an alcoholic”, so that they realized the severity of their problem.  Members often are in denial to protect their egos, so perhaps this method works in combination with surrendering their willpower to something greater than them so that they open up and address the problem.

But if we want an analysis of what is really going on, then members need to realize that believing in something that feels good doesn’t mean it’s grounded in reality.  A belief in God is optional but is probably harmless.


i) The best analysis that I have seen on AA was brought to my attention by Dr. David Allen.  Please see the references section [1].

ii) Two personality traits that are related to what we would think of as egotistical would be narcissistic and self-centeredness.  Addiction is correlated with these two traits but that does not mean that they cause addiction.

iii) An analysis of over 27 randomized controlled studies concludes that 42% of 10,565 participants of a 12-step approach will remain abstinent for a period of 1-year or more whereas only 35% would remain abstinent through other approaches.

iv) When I use the word man, I am implying the pronouns he, she, or they.

v) The group’s “serenity prayer”—”. …accept the things we can’t change, the courage to change what we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”— is powerful and although we may not know it in words, we intuitively do it all the time by letting go of concerns that are out of our control.


[1] Allen, Dr. David. “The 12 Steps of AA: A Translation.”  Psychology Today

[2] 12 Steps and 12 Traditions.  Alcoholics Anonymous World Services Inc.

[3] The Big Book.  Alcoholics Anonymous World Services Inc.


  1. K says

    In Evangelical/Fundamentalist (they’ve kind of merged into the same fetid deplorable) thinking, the very worst sins a person can commit it to be selfish (aka self-protective) and god forbid, *smart*. A smart person sees through their con. Therefore, a program designed by these folks is going to hate the same things they hate.

    • musing says

      I agree with you. But I often wondered if over-indulgence can lead to problems in life, perhaps it’s a good thing to label, in a categorical fashion as religions do, as it being evil. As much as I hate labels, it serves the purpose to deter the overindulger. I just don’t know how effective it is and the costs of penance, which can manifest as shame and self esteem issues, may not be worth it.

    • musing says

      That surprises me because the Big Book is about taking personal responsibility and not blaming it on others. In fact, the book is pretty hard on the drinker, which is meant to demoralize and humiliate them such that they admit to being powerless over alcohol. Share the links to stories if you know of any. If these are isolated cases, it may not be fair to pigeonhole the group. I can only write about what I know and found through research.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    A belief in God is optional but is probably harmless.

    That depends on context – specifically, whether anyone around wants to pull on the big nose-ring religion inserts.

  3. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    A belief in God is optional but is probably harmless.

    I admit gross ignorance on this topic, but it never made any sense to me. For someone who is “helpless” at controlling their own life and their addiction problems, the solution seems pretty clear to empower that person, raise their self-esteem, and help them gain control. The AA philosophy is the exact opposite – to teach addicts that they’re powerless, and they cannot help themselves, and only some external force can save them. I expect that kind of erosion of self-worth to have some serious negative repercussions which are not limited to substance abuse.

    • musing says

      This is a paradox, and I am so glad you articulated this. Everything you said is true under the assumption that the path you are on or struggle you are going through is winnable and doable. To convince you, let me take you on a detour first, but bear with me because it may not seem relevant although it is very much so.

      Putting aside CBT which only addresses the symptoms, not the root causes, depression is defined as a “failed struggle” (I can provide countless references to the experts who are not the therapists I assure you)—something that is unwinnable and something that can’t yield the fruits required for you to survive and reproduce.

      Picture an individual that is going down a path in life, a career path perhaps, that outstrips their abilities and they are constantly stressed because they can’t meet the standards put forth upon them. The individual becomes subordinated and in a state of braced readiness to defend off criticism and humiliation from peers. This is costly to our psychological and physical health.

      Depression is adaptive because it prompts the individual to change paths or strategies. In fact, the mood that we are in is an approximate reflection of our day-to-day wins and losses in our struggles to advance and cooperate in life. You either get new strategies and fight or admit to defeat and move on to more lucrative paths. Although admitting to defeat may be difficult because we want to save face, it may be the best option and ends up liberating the individual.

      That said, the founders of AA didn’t have a clue what “involuntary defeat strategies” were (which is what gets employed when we keep losing a struggle and become subordinated). But the point is that the strategies that the addict was employing were ineffective to solve their problem of addiction. So the idea is for them to admit to defeat, which opens the person up to new ideas and gets them out of a defensive state, and then learn new strategies to fight the disease.

      So the paradox is that the same ego that you surrender is the same ego that eventually learns new skills to fight the addiction.

      • GerrardOfTitanServer says

        Thanks for that. I wish I knew more about human psychology from reliable sources (AA is definitely not reliable).

        • musing says

          This is also a good point you bring up worth discussing. I don’t claim to be an authority as I’m still working on my credentials, but I am absolutely appalled by the different techniques, conclusions on causes of people’s problems, and advice given by practitioners. The field of psychology needs to be cleaned up from first principles all the way to application. The application is like a free-for-all. Practitioners lack basic critical thinking skills and can give harmful advice for various reasons: they don’t see problems on the system level, bias towards one level of causal explanation (e.g., it was all how Mommy and Daddy raised you), and rarely make qualifications.

          And as far as sources go, this is just as problematic though. Have you heard of the replication crisis in social psychology? This is partly because people are motivated to produce statistically significant results for journals and can easily get away with it because of ridiculous flexibility in data collection techniques. You have to be very smart and experienced to know what to accept and what not to. Even take the touted “empirically-based CBT”, which I don’t doubt in principle as thoughts affect feelings and behavior and vice versa, but it depends on which meta-analysis you want to trust. Therapists take CBT and apply it to all ailments, even problems with unconvincing data to support efficacy, like self-esteem.

          Not only that, CBT is ignorant of the underlying causes of, let’s pick the most important psychopathologies, mood disorders (anxiety, etc.) and depression, CBT tells you to change your dysfunctional thought processes, which works, but what is causing you to have negative thoughts in the first place? Well, there is a lot of research saying that CBT may be ignoring situational factors, and an evolutionary approach that looks at how a species functions in its social environment is key. Therapists don’t tell you this.

          Back to the comment, I view the Big Book (AA) as akin to the Bible, a relic that can reveal interesting things about how people think and feel about issues, but, as you state, is not where you want to look for what addiction is and how it should be treated. But it’s very interesting to read AAs literature because it reveals so much about folk psychology and, surprisingly, some of their intuitions on addiction turn out to be somewhat in the right direction.

          • GerrardOfTitanServer says

            Have you heard of the replication crisis in social psychology?

            Of course. Note that it’s not just social psychology. It’s all peer reviewed science. I bet that social psychology has it worse though.

          • musing says

            Excuse the ramble above as you, as usual, are keen to point out the topics that interest me most. I only read studies related to psychology, which has to be plagued the worst though for obvious reasons.

            I need to qualify something from above since I don’t want to give off the wrong impression. Therapists can certainly help people, especially when they stick with CBT/DBT, but it takes a very thorough and experienced one to hone in on causes.

            If you are looking for a book that explains a significant portion if not all of our psychological problems, then I would recommend Randolph Nesse’s easy-to-read book titled “Good Reasons for Bad Feelings”. It’s a great intro to how all of psychology needs to be framed.

            If you are not a fan of EP, as there’s certainly a lot wrong with it, I would put that hangup aside because this account is as close as we’ve gotten to what is really probably going on with problems that affect most, such as mood, depression, anxiety, etc.

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