Alcoholics Anonymous and the Golden Rule of Habit Change

Scientists have now studied it in the last decade or 15 years, and the reason why AA works is that it adheres to the Golden Rule of Habit Change.  

Alcoholics Anonymous is a perfect example of the Golden Rule of Habit Change.  AA was actually created essentially by a group of amateurs who were alcoholics themselves who had no scientific background, whatsoever.  And since then, AA has not really changed in 70 years. It’s been sort of frozen in time.  And for a long time, scientists dismissed it as kind of this cult or this fringe activity that they didn’t understand. Yet they knew that for a lot of people AA worked, it cured their alcoholism.  Scientists have now studied it in the last decade or 15 years, and the reason why AA works is that it adheres to the Golden Rule of Habit Change.  


So, for a lot of alcoholics, they essentially have a habit dysfunction where they get into this pattern.  They have a cue, which is, "I feel stressed at work" or it’s after work or "I’ve just become habituated to whenever I fight with my wife or whenever something happens in my life, I go to a bar."  Right?  And at the bar, I find a group of friends or I have a drink and I kind of have this social catharsis, and that’s the reward.  The cue is, I had a bad day at work, the routine is, go to a bar. The reward is, I feel so much better after discussing this bad day at work with my friends at the bar and relaxing a little bit.  

So what AA did is it kept the exact same cue and the exact same reward.  It said, "if you have a bad day at work, go to a meeting instead of a bar."  And at that meeting, talk to a whole bunch of your friends, unload all of your problems, have the same emotional cathartic moment.  We’re going to deliver the exact same reward and we’re going to trigger it with the exact same cue. We’re just going to change the behavior that happens.  So besides the fact that it wasn’t invented or created by people who have any background in science, AA's 12 Steps is one of the most effective ways of changing behaviors.  And it’s because they adhere to this Golden Rule of Habit Change.

In Their Own Words is recorded by experts in Big Think's studio. 

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