Why 12-Step Approaches Are Not Evidence-Based as Addictions Treatment

When I read Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health [1], I was surprised to see Twelve-Step Facilitation (TSF) included as an evidence-based behavioral treatment for addiction. I had just done a literature review on the efficacy of 12-step-based interventions [2], and found the evidence insufficient to support the prescription of 12-step groups as treatment. TSF is a standardized form of therapy where professional counselors try to engage their patients in participating actively in 12-step groups, in part by emphasizing 12-step philosophy during therapy sessions [3].

12-step folding chair

Twelve-step philosophy stipulates that addiction is a spiritual disease born of defects of character, and that 12-step groups are the only cure, involving faith in a higher power, prayer, confession, and admission of powerlessness. In contrast, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines addiction as a disease of the brain – a medical condition requiring medical treatment [4]. A spiritual disease concept is not the same as a medical disease concept. Twelve-Step Facilitation treats addiction as a spiritual and biopsychosocial disease, retaining the spiritual emphasis of 12-step philosophy [5].

TSF was classified as a professional behavioral treatment in the Surgeon General’s Report. How can a professional, medical treatment be based on a definition of addiction as a spiritual disease? Baffled, I knew I would not be able to understand if I got stuck in bias against Twelve-Step Facilitation. I had studied the research on 12-step groups, but had only dipped my toe into the research on TSF. The Surgeon General’s Report cites hundreds of studies, and over a dozen in support of TSF. So, I did what all good scientists must do: I set aside my bias, knowing that if I want truth, I must assume first that I am wrong and dig deeper.

I conducted a preliminary literature review to investigate the effectiveness of TSF as a treatment, and then examined each of the sources the Surgeon General’s Report cited in support of TSF. I looked at the methodology, results, and conclusions for each. In this article, I define “evidence-based” to mean any treatment supported by numerous scientific experiments with rigorous methods that include control groups, randomization of patients to treatments, and bias-free samples. I use “12-step approaches” to refer to all 12-step-based rehab programs, TSF, and 12-step mutual help groups.

The key to understanding research on TSF is to know why the treatment was created in the first place. Researchers had documented an association between 12-step group attendance and abstinence, but association is not causation and research had been limited in several ways:

  • Studies evaluating the effectiveness of 12-step groups could not eliminate self-selection bias, which happens when group members are not randomly selected and participants opt in or select themselves, creating biased samples. The people participating in the studies had chosen to participate, and researchers could not determine whether successes observed were due to 12-step participation or qualities in the self-selected participants, such as greater motivation to enter recovery, more resources, or greater receptivity to messages of God, faith and/or acceptance. The people who chose not to participate, or who dropped out of the study, were not always accounted for. Researchers could not determine whether the association they observed between 12-step participation and abstinence was due to the treatment or to the characteristics of the people participating.
  • Twelve-step groups have no standardized methods or conditions. Leaders of the groups are often laypeople in recovery from addiction themselves. The quality of social support in the group depends on the people who are participating. The literature is interpreted by the members, who create their own cultures around the interpretation. Twelve-step cultures also pass around other information and advice, which may or may not permeate every group. Each sponsor is a different layperson in recovery from addiction, with different character traits. Researchers could not control for all of these variables all of the time.
  • Researchers struggled to maintain rigorous control groups throughout studies. At minimum, to determine whether 12-step groups have effect, researchers needed a no-treatment control group for each study. Ethically and logistically, they could not prevent people in the control groups from receiving treatment or from attending 12-step groups.

Twelve-Step Facilitation was developed by researchers working on Project MATCH, a well-known and extensive study funded by the National Institutes of Health. Project MATCH compared TSF to Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), seeking to establish what patient characteristics corresponded with the best results for each treatment. The study found there “was little difference in outcomes by type of treatment” based on the primary outcome measures of percent days abstinent and drinks per drinking day [6].

By standardizing methodology for TSF, Project MATCH made some headway on strengthening the quality of evidence, but they did not find a way around self-selection bias and they did not have a control group. Many patients, however, did drop out of the assigned treatments early on in the study. Two researchers later examined the outcomes of the zero-treatment dropout group, and found that “two-thirds to three-fourths of the improvement in the full treatment group was duplicated in the zero-treatment group” [7]. This means that the people in Project MATCH’s treatment groups did not have significantly better abstinence outcomes than the people who dropped out of the study. Importantly, we do not know whether the dropout group sought treatment on their own, and it seems probable that they did. Based on their analysis, none of the interventions in Project MATCH seem to be effective, but without an actual control group the results are equivocal regardless.

Some researchers have sought to re-analyze other parts of the Project MATCH data [8,9], but their findings, while supportive of TSF, are subject to the same methodological limitations of the parent study. Many other studies cited by the Surgeon General’s Report seem to support TSF as effective for improving abstinence outcomes [1014] and/or for relatively increasing 12-step participation compared to treatment as usual (TAU) [1520], but none of these studies had control groups. The Surgeon General’s Report cited one source in support of TSF that was actually an article reviewing information about 12-step programs to educate social workers, not an experimental study [21]. The Report also cited a study in support of TSF that examined two active referral interventions, 12-step peer intervention (PI) and doctor intervention (DI), compared to no intervention (NI). The study found that while the active referral interventions significantly increased participation in 12-step groups compared to no intervention, “abstinence rates did not differ significantly across intervention groups (44% [PI], 41% [DI] and 36% [NI])” [22]. This study was the only one cited in the Surgeon General’s Report in support of TSF that approximated a control group, and it does not actually support the efficacy of TSF in increasing abstinence outcomes. The NI pseudo-control group still received a list of 12-step group meeting times and locations, but was not encouraged to attend. The PI group attended meetings twice as much as the NI group, and yet the researchers found no significant difference in abstinence outcomes. The DI group, essentially TSF, was less effective than the PI group at increasing attendance, and again, did not significantly improve abstinence.

My own literature review turned up articles the Surgeon General’s Report did not reference, both in support of TSF [5,2328] and not supporting TSF [7,29,30], but none of the studies I found had control groups either. Results of my literature review, including my assessment of the Surgeon General’s report sources, were therefore as ambivalent as the 2006 Cochrane Review, a systematic meta-study of all 12-step-based programs that found that, “No experimental studies unequivocally demonstrated the effectiveness of AA or TSF approaches for reducing alcohol dependence or problems” [31]. A more recent systematic review by the Campbell Collaboration found evidence on 12-step approaches for other drug use disorders to be weak as well, with only 9 studies meeting all of their inclusion criteria. What evidence they did find indicated no difference between 12-step approaches and other psychosocial interventions in reducing illegal drug use, and some evidence that 12-step approaches have higher dropout rates than other interventions [32]. Researchers have not been able to methodologically eliminate self-selection bias, and most often fail to utilize adequate controls in their studies of 12-step groups and TSF.

One study to date attempted to use instrumental variables models, a recently developed statistical method, to determine what percentage of increased 12-step group attendance can be attributed to TSF without self-selection bias [33]. The researchers, Humphries et al. 2014, re-analyzed data from 5 randomized clinical trials, though none of these clinical trials had control groups. They determined that TSF did significantly increase participation in 12-step groups for people who had not previously participated much or at all, though not for people who already had high levels of participation. Their methods were inadequate for determining whether increased participation is causally linked to increased abstinence, or whether increases in abstinence occurred without self-selection bias.

My review answers a question that cannot be answered by simply counting the number of studies apparently supporting or not supporting 12-step approaches like TSF. Are 12-step approaches evidence-based for treating addiction – supported by numerous scientific experiments with rigorous methods that include control groups, randomization of patients to treatments, and bias-free samples? No, 12-step approaches are not evidence-based, because no studies decisively demonstrate their effectiveness. In fact, research on 12-step approaches faces insurmountable obstacles. Practically speaking, researchers cannot ethically design and conduct experiments that eliminate self-selection bias and utilize adequate controls.

In medical science, if a treatment is ineffective or faces prohibitive methodological challenges, the treatment is either revised or abandoned. Twelve-step philosophy prohibits either approach. Twelve-step literature is comparable to the Bible for Christians or the Qur’an for Muslims; if the literature is removed, the identity of the group goes with it. The same basic text has been used for AA since the publication of its “Big Book,” Alcoholics Anonymous, in 1939. Twelve-step literature also explicitly states that, “Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average” [34]. Twelve-step philosophy, by taking this position, is asserting that its methods can never be wrong. If the 12 Steps do not work for people, 12-step philosophy explicitly states it is their fault, and that the fault is inborn and irreversible. The 12 Steps and attendant literature, however, are not modified.

Research does support the concept that changing “people, places, and things” and finding a network of people with a culture of abstinence can improve chances of recovery [35]. However, mutual help groups other than 12-step groups do exist that may provide the social support needed by people in recovery. A study by Zemore et al. [36], compared the relative, personal satisfaction of participants in 12-step groups vs. 12-step alternatives: SMART Recovery, LifeRing, and Women For Sobriety. The study did not examine abstinence or drinking/using outcomes among participants, but interviewed all participants on demographics, level of participation in their mutual help group (MHG) of choice, and level of satisfaction and group cohesion they experienced in their MHG. They found that, “despite lower levels of in-person meeting attendance, members of all the 12-step alternatives showed equivalent activity involvement and higher levels of satisfaction and cohesion, compared to 12-step members.” The participants who engaged in alternative MHGs tended to be less religious, and to have higher levels of education and income. The study demonstrates that alternative MHGs not only exist, but are of comparable efficacy in terms of social support. People who are not religious may be able to make 12-step groups work for them as social support if they have no other choices [37], but other options will most often be available.

Social support may be subjectively helpful as an individual seeks medical treatment, but ultimately medical treatment is necessary to ameliorate disorder symptoms. Social support is also not sufficient to prevent addiction from developing. Researchers using statistical analysis to determine whether social support and social networks reduced the odds of developing AUD following stressful life events and chronic stressors, among other disorders, found no statistically significant effect of social support or networks on later rates or effects of AUD [38].

A study in 2001 by Humphreys and Moos [39] found that TSF may reduce health care costs for people in recovery by emphasizing reliance on free 12-step groups, as opposed to cognitive behavioral therapy. Yet their conclusions that the study indicates people should be diverted from CBT to TSF because it is ultimately cheaper amounts to advocating malpractice. TSF itself is not free and is not decisively supported by evidence; twelve-step groups, while free, are not evidence-based or treatment, and other available mutual help groups are equally free options for social support. Even if TSF were demonstrably effective at promoting abstinence for some people, 12-step philosophy is heavily spiritual (specifically Christian-based), so it would be unethical to recommend TSF simply because it might save money.

In Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction [40], Maia Szalavitz, citing Anne M. Fletcher’s Inside Rehab: The Surprising Truth About Addiction Treatment–and How to Get Help That Works [41], reports that 12-step approaches are “a required curriculum” in 80% of American addiction treatment programs. Many addictions treatment facilities state that that they are 12-step based. Based on my literature review, that means that these facilities are not offering effective, evidence-based treatment.

After extensive research, I assert with confidence that 12-step approaches are not evidence-based treatments. They may be strong recovery support options for people to choose in addition to a medical treatment plan, but 12-step approaches—including TSF—are not established as evidence-based for treating addiction. Due to the methodological limitations identified in this article, I question continuing to spend thousands of dollars, hundreds of hours, and limited expertise on researching a spiritually-based treatment for addiction that cannot be proven to be effective for most people most of the time compared to “spontaneous,” or natural, remission rates. It is time to relegate 12-step approaches to the realm of recovery support services (RSS, as defined in the Surgeon General’s Report) and allocate our research resources to promising treatments that can be studied rigorously and without such crippling methodological limitations.


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Laurel Sindewald is a writer and researcher for Handshake Media, IncorporatedAnne Giles contributed to this report.

A version of this report was originally published by The Fix as “AA Is Not Evidence-Based Treatment” on 3/16/17. We broaden the scope, update with the latest research, and provide full citations using APA style guidelines. We will continue to update the report as new research warrants. This report was last updated on 6/23/17.


  1. Jock Mackenzie says:


    How would you respond to the suggestion that you are restricting your notion of valid evidence too tightly.

    There are many categories of evidence for causation that have to be weighed up. For example Zenmore https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3140338/ uses the Mausner and Kramer (1985) framework that proposes 6 formal criteria for establishing causation namely (1) strength of the association, (2) dose-response relationship, (3) consistency of the association, (4) correct temporal ordering,(5) specificity of the association, and (6) coherence with existing information. You seem to be suggesting that only (5) specificity of the association, can be used as valid evidence of causation.

    Zenmore concedes that due to the methodological reasons that you describe the evidence for this criteria is ambiguous for TSF, yet for all others it is strong.

    My question is do you reject the other five criteria as evidence of causation and if so why? Do you accept that tobacco smoking causes cancer. For methodological and ethical reasons it is impossible to conduct RCT’s that could establish specificity of the association, but for all other criteria the evidence is overwhelming. However if you reject these other criteria, as you seem to, then I can only assume if you are consistent in your approach to evidence that you assert that their is no evidence that tobacco smoking causes cancer.

    • Laurel Sindewald says:

      Thank you for your comment! You are correct that the causal relationship of smoking tobacco and cancer was established without the use of RCTs. However, in the case of medical treatment, the first imperative is to do no harm. For medical treatments, if science is not able to establish causality via RCTs, anecdotal evidence or evidence from biased samples is not enough to support adoption of the treatment, particularly if it causes harm. Twelve-step approaches are explicitly religious in nature, and so they violate a person’s rights to freedom of religion or creed. Twelve-step groups, specifically, have also been associated with negative outcomes, including sexual harassment and even rape (50% of women experience “13th-stepping”).
      The harm alone is enough to disqualify 12-step approaches as treatment. But do recall that, in the case of smoking and cancer, researchers were able to use animal studies to show that compounds in cigarettes caused cancer in those animals. We do not have an animal model for addiction, nor could we administer 12-step philosophy to those animals. I’ll say again that there are prohibitive methodological challenges such that the way researchers are currently trying to prove the efficacy of 12-steps is pointless. They would need to dismantle 12-step approaches into their component parts to determine what, if anything, could be effective. They would need randomized samples and no-treatment control groups, as well as carefully-constructed placebo groups to control for known therapeutic relationship effects.
      In sum, because 12-step approaches can be harmful and because no research to date has established their efficacy in an RCT, I do not accept the conclusions of Krentzman et al. The standard of evidence for medical treatment is higher than for any other scientific hypothesis.

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