Does AA do More Harm than Good?

By A. Tom Horvath, PhD

Is this question sacrilegious? It should not be.

image of people sitting in a group to symbolize the question does aa do more harm than goodAA has done much good in the world, and I expect it will continue to do so, for those who freely choose to attend it. In this article I point out what harm AA can do and might continue to do. Any activity has a cost benefit analysis, and it is generally reasonable to consider that analysis.

The question this article asks has been discussed many times before. You can conduct an internet search for this title and get numerous hits. You might even find this one: (posted 10 years ago on 3/25/14).

For AA not to be harmful it might need to have more control over its discussions and what its members say (as SMART Recovery aims to do).

AA members should NOT be telling anyone any of the following inaccurate statements:

  • AA is the only solution to alcohol problems
  • AA is the best solution for alcohol problems
  • AA-based treatment is the best treatment
  • You have to believe you are an alcoholic to be successful
  • You have to believe you have a disease to be successful
  • Abstinence is the only solution to alcohol problems
  • Belief in a higher power is essential for positive change
  • Unless you keep coming back to meetings you will not be successful
  • Using prescribed medication is not real success
  • The rest of your life doesn’t matter, it’s your abstinence (sobriety) that counts

If you first attend AA because of recent alcohol (or other substance) problems, it is probably a vulnerable time for you. You likely have attempted to reduce your drinking and not been successful. If you had been successful, you would not be there! Given your recent lack of success it is easy to doubt yourself in a major way. At such moments an AA member who confidently utters any of the above statements may have a strong and negative over influence over you.

Many AA members have supreme confidence in their views, and they seem to believe that AA endorses them. How many have been harmed by these inaccurate statements? It is plausible that because these false statements have permeated the US and to some extent the rest of the world, on balance AA has done more harm than good. Many more people are influenced by AA than are directly helped by it. If that influence is negative, more people could be harmed than helped.

I am especially concerned about an individual who is told that “AA is the only way,” who has a deep sense AA would not work for them, and who then decides positive change is impossible. It’s not hard to imagine how this situation could lead to death by suicide.

We can note that the inaccuracy of some of the above statements has emerged over time. But their inaccuracy is clear enough now!

The next time you hear someone making statements such as the ones above, you might ask them if they are speaking on behalf of AA. Knowledgeable AA members know that “no one speaks for AA.” The problem then arises that because no one speaks for AA, in practice anyone can speak for AA, because no one has the authority to contradict them!

AA needs to make clear that the often-enlightened ideas in their documents need to be put into practice. Individual AA members should not be allowed to say much more than “I only know this worked for me; if it also seems to work for you, we’d love to have you join us.”

Will AA make the internal changes needed to assure that some AA members do not keep spouting nonsense? Should we hold this organization to a higher level of responsibility than it has previously held itself to?

Liked this article? You might also be interested in: Is AA Harmful?