How You Were Duped, Why You Believed, The Reason You Stayed

Back in the late 1950s, a couple of researchers designed an experiment that was meant to measure a person’s cognitive dissonance. The subjects were put into a room, where they sat in front of a box full of a dozen spools, each sitting upright in rows of three. They were told to take the spools out of the box in a certain order, and then to put them back into the box as they were before. Then to do it over and over again until they were told to stop.

Next, the subjects had some wooden cubes placed in front of them in rows. They were asked to take each cube, and rotate it clockwise one turn. And then they were asked to do it over again with each cube, and to keep repeating that until they were asked to stop. Both tasks were by design boring and tedious, and took about an hour.

Finally, they were to fill out a survey on a questionaire about the experiment they had just performed, which asked them to rate the experiments on a scale of between -5 and 5. They were asked the following questions:

1- Were the tasks interesting and enjoyable?
2- Do you think the tasks have any scientific value?
3- Would you have any desire to participate in similar experiments in the future?

Just before they sat down to fill out this questionaire, however, the subjects were asked to bring in the next participant. They were told they needed to tell them certain things, and it was normally the job of someone else to do this, but that person was out sick. They were told to tell the next participant that the experiment was very enjoyable, very fun, very interesting and exciting. In a nutshell, they were told to lie. In exchange, they were given some money for doing this. Group A was given $20, and group B was given $1, and the control group — which performed the tasks and filled out the questionnaire — was not compensated at all.

Each participant brought the next person into the experiment room, told them what they were instructed to say, and then filled out the questionaire on what they themselves thought of the survey.

The results of the study were interesting. As expected, the group which received $20 gave a more favorable score than the control group. This makes sense, because it seems easy to rationalize a white lie for $20. Even if someone doesn’t believe what they are saying, it’s a victimless act. Still, one might have the need to rationalize this white lie, at least to a degree, and they convince themselves that it wasn’t really as boring as they had imagined.

The $1 group is the most interesting. They actually rated the experiment the highest in terms of how interesting, fun and exciting it was; and the difference between them and the the other groups was big. This doesn’t make a lot of sense on the surface, as it would seem that those with the greatest amount of compensation would have rated it highest. After all, a buck is hardly worth compromising one’s integrity to obtain, and it’s almost no different than receiving nothing. Logic would dictate they would have scored the experiment closer to those scores from the control group. So, what gives? Why was there such a stark difference between the $20 and $1 groups?

Remember, this experiment was designed to measure dissonance, not motivation. Stretching the truth for a price makes sense, and can even fit within the values that we have as a society. I mean, does anybody really believe Tiger Woods’ favorite car is a Buick, or Martha Stewart’s linens are the same ones she sells at K-Mart? Probably not.  I prefer Coke, but I’d happily do a Pepsi ad if someone paid me. Hell, I’d endorse the taste of warm piss if I were paid enough – and I wouldn’t feel too guilty about it, either. But that still wouldn’t convince me that Pepsi is better than Coke. I may not announce my preference in public, but I could confide my real preference to my friends. Those people making the $20 weren’t compromising their values, because they weighed the option of taking the money in exchange for the lie, and determined it was worth doing. They knew they were lying, but it was OK.

The $1 group had a different problem. Stretching the truth for a buck is like lying for no reason, and that made it difficult to fit within their value systems. So, if they couldn’t change the compensation amount, they did the next best thing — they changed the truth. They rated the tests as interesting because they believed it. Our natural inclination is to convince ourselves something must be true, even if reality is slapping us in the face. To paraphrase George Costanza, it’s not a lie if you believe it.

Informational social influence is the term used term to describe how individuals are influenced by social groups. A number of experiments have been done to demonstrate social influence. The Stanford Prison Experiment is one of the more famous ones, and illustrates how individuals are likely to conform to peer pressure in doing things they know are morally wrong. This type of pressure is illustrated in everyday life, from school bullying to the telling of racist jokes – and all of us are at least to some degree subject to its effects. But with these things, once we become detached from the immediate situation and take time to look at and evaluate our actions, we’ll most likely come to a “what was I thinking?” conclusion. Our values and beliefs don’t necessarily change, but we simply become subject to a moment of temporary insanity.

Another series of well-known experiments were the Asch conformity experiments, in which subjects were pressured into conforming to beliefs they knew were false. What is interesting about these experiments is not just the fact that people were made to change their opinion to something they knew to be false, but also how they conformed to the larger group and became part of those who influenced others with a dissenting (and correct) opinion. These subjects quite literally changed their perception to one which was false, so when they talked the others into changing their minds, they weren’t being duplicitous. Like George Costanza, they made themselves believe the lie. Informational influence turns peer pressure into conformity, which reverts to more to peer pressure, and insufficient justification turns doubt into true belief. By expressing a belief and having it reenforced by a larger group of peers, it eventually becomes our own. This explains how two million AAs can be wrong, and why the argument that there are so many believers (read: argumentum ad populum)  means nothing in terms of whether it is an effective program. Once a delusion reaches critical mass, it’s as likely to become common wisdom as it would if it were reality.

Religious groups use personal testimony as way to solidify personal belief, and as way to change the belief in others. AA’s version of doing so is with the drunkalog. Ilse wrote this awesome piece on the drunkalog, in which she equates it with the early American conversion narratives. She writes:

“These days, it seems, the conversion narratives is hardwired. We all know how it goes:

Innocence, Complacency, Debasement, Grace, Redemption, Transcendence .

And we no longer need a member of the clergy looking over our shoulders to make sure we get it right. The self-censorship within communities is extremely effective in making sure that these stories remain true to form. Furthermore, to this day, the conversion narrative serves exactly the same purpose as the old time Captivity Narratives: To instruct (and affirm the teller’s place in the community) and to redeem the teller, to bring him or her ‘home.'”

Those of you who have spent time in AA have witnessed this formulaic expression of transcendence many times, and have almost certainly used it in conveying your own experience. Those of you who have not (and who have a sadistic bent toward self-harm) can log into any AA speaker site and hear these testimonials. Drunkalogs are an essential tool in concretizing a spiritual awakening, and bringing hope to new members. That is, in fact, their stated purpose – but they do more than that. Their other —  and I think more essential — purpose is in convincing the storyteller of the truth, by which I mean the truth as the others in the group see it. Goebbels once famously said that if you repeat a lie enough times, it becomes the truth — and he was right.

Digging In

What the experiments on dissonance demonstrate is that the greater the amount of disbelief, the larger the lie — and the stronger the belief becomes once the belief is adopted. The dollar group were the strongest advocates of how enjoyable the experiment was because their lie was the most incongruent, and a mere dollar left no wiggle room to rationalize that lie. Once someone crosses the Rubicon to belief from disbelief, it’s difficult persuade them otherwise, and the more ridiculous the lie, the more more solidified they are in their opinion. As an example, this explains why it is so difficult to get an AA to admit that a program oozing with God and divine intervention into the lives of its individuals, is religious. What sounds to you like a lie is simply their truth.

If you were under the AA spell, it also became your truth. That truth, even when shown to be false, was difficult to shake. Here’s why:

If I were to ask you which personality trait makes a more effective firefighter, a maverick or a conservative, most of us would not know because we know nothing about fighting fires. We can guess, but it would be only that: a guess. When a control group was asked this very question, most had no idea, and the group leaned only slightly toward guessing it would be the risk-taking firefighter. Now, suppose you were handed a document with research showing the maverick firefighter was more effective. In that case, you would have a strong reason to believe the maverick would be the better choice, and a group that was asked this question after having read such a report did just that. They overwhelmingly chose the risk-taking personality. This makes sense, because the group had supporting data to justify their opinion.

Next, the group was told that the report they had read was a fabrication, and the data within it was written by an undergraduate student who pulled the information out of thin air. Then they were asked the very same question again. Now, logic would dictate that they would revert back to their default position of “I don’t know.” After all, they still know as little about the subject as they did when they were originally asked the question. So, did this affect their opinion? No. In fact, even after being given real supporting data showing that a more conservative firefighter is in fact the more effective type, the majority kept the opinion that was based on bogus data.

This phenomenon of sticking to our guns, regardless of any contradictory evidence proving our opinion to be false, is known as “belief perseverance.” Political pollsters exploit this with techniques like push-polling and negative advertising. Casey Anthony’s attorneys exploited it in their defense, when in their opening remarks (which are not allowed to be considered as evidence in the case) they stated that Casey’s daughter died as a result of a drowning accident, and that her father was somehow involved. No evidence showing this as a possibility was ever introduced by the defense, and their promise to do so was ignored by jury, some of whom cited an accidental drowning as the probable cause of the child’s death.

Belief perseverance is the glue for all kinds of crazy, from conspiracy theories and urban legends, to global warming denialists and the 9-11 truth movement. Its consequences aren’t always insignificant. For example, despite the fact that the link between autism and childhood vaccines has been debunked from every authoritative body, there is still a large percentage of the population who refuse to allow their children to be vaccinated. My wife, who is an infection control coordinator, is forever frustrated by parents who refuse to allow their children’s vaccines, even after being presented with the real data, and with the information showing the autism link was a fraud. These things can cost lives. Regardless of the truth, there will always be a contingent of people who will believe the world is flat.

Belief perseverance is more pronounced in those who state their opinions publicly, which makes the drunkalog such an effective tool in pulling a person further into the AA labyrinth. AA will advise people to “fake it ’til they make it,” and they do so for a reason. Not that most steppers even know the term belief perseverance, but they have seen displayed time and time again how easy it is to get someone to drink the Kool-aid if they can simply pretend to believe the dogma.

Connecting The Dots

Take a look at the video below. What do you see? If you’re like most people, you see some sort of story playing out between the circle and the triangle. Maybe it’s an affair between little triangle and big triangle that went horribly wrong. Maybe the big triangle is a landlord who is trying to get some rent from his deadbeat tenants, and in frustration tears up the house. There’s a number of stories which can be applied to the movements, but in actuality it’s nothing more than random movements of different shapes.


Our tendency to attribute human characteristics to such things is a process known as “anthropomorphization.” Personification of the external world is an inherent part of our nature, and is rooted in our social neurology. It’s perfectly normal, and in fact, when this video was shown to people with autism, they tended to describe it in terms of geometrical movements, and without attributing human qualities to the moving shapes.

So, what does this have to do with Alcoholics Anonymous? Remember, because we have a fundamental need for cognitive closure, and latch on to whatever explanation comes first – and as demonstrated in the study using the firefighters — it does not need to be the correct answer. Add to this our tendency to see the world in terms of emotionally motivated characters (as demonstrated in the Heider and Simmel experiments). In other words, we have an emotional need to explain things of which we are uncertain, with the conscious acts of human-like agents. Michael Shermer refers to this as “agenticity,” which he wrote about in recently published book, The Believing Brain.

Shermer also coined another term: patternicity, which is used describe our tendency as humans to find patterns in randomness. This happens both visually, as with the above picture of a sink, and in the pattern to the right – where you may think you see a rectangle, but what you’re doing is filling in the gaps with something that’s not there – and with our thinking processes.

Shermer wrote:

“Traditionally, scientists have treated patternicity as an error in cognition. A type I error, or a false positive, is believing something is real when it is not (finding a nonexistent pattern). A type II error, or a false negative, is not believing something is real when it is (not recognizing a real pattern—call it “apat­ternicity… our brains are belief engines: evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature. Sometimes A really is connected to B; sometimes it is not. When it is, we have learned something valuable about the environment from which we can make predictions that aid in survival and reproduction. We are the ancestors of those most successful at finding patterns. This process is called association learning, and it is fundamental to all animal behavior, from the humble worm C. elegans to H. sapiens.”

This tendency to see patterns is not a bad thing, at least in terms of survival. We think this way because we evolved this way. Those who were more inclined toward false positives were more likely to survive danger. The twig you hear snap behind you may be a false alarm ninety-nine percent of the time, but the one time it is really a predator, it helps to be prepared. Because of this, danger and fear help to heighten this instinct, which is why you’re less sensitive to footsteps behind you if you’re walking through the mall, than you would be if you were in a dark alley. If you’re fearful of a disease, for which a human form (human-like agent) has been applied (a guy doing push-ups in the parking lot), then your senses are heightened, and your inclination to see patterns of danger is more pronounced. Looking for validation from your AA brethren for your fears, is not difficult. You will find your patterns. Drinking patterns, disease progression patterns, patterns of fundamentally flawed behavior will all be there. They may not be real, but they don’t need to be.

The problem arises when we couple our tendency to see patterns of behavior when there is none, with our instinctive need to see human-like behavior where there is none. Convincing someone that good things are happening as a result of attending AA and utilizing the steps, and that it’s a result of turning things over to God as they understand Him (with human motivations and logic), is an easy sell. We’re hardwired to do this anyway, just as we’re hardwired to fill in the gaps of ignorance with the first explanation that comes along, and we’re hardwired to stick with our beliefs despite any contradictory evidence showing otherwise.


Consider the following experiment, where subjects were given feedback on their own psychological profile which rated them in terms of anger as either normal or angry. The profile itself was bogus, because what was important was not the subjects actual personality traits, but how they perceived themselves.

Next, the subjects were give a personality description of a guy named “Donald.” It was written to be intentionally ambiguous in terms of his anger profile. Then the subjects were asked to rate Donald on multiple personality traits, including ones which identify anger (hostile, irate, etc.). What were the results? As you could guess, the group which was identified as angry, also identified Donald as angry; and the group which was identified as normal, also identified Donald as normal.

This is a phenomenon is known as “projection.” To add insult to injury, not only does projection cause a person to project their own attributes onto others, but it causes the person doing the projecting to diminish their own shortcomings. It (ironically) creates denial.

How does this play out with human interactions?

Let’s take a look at another experiment which was given to test subjects just like the one on anger, only this one was about honesty. Subjects were given a psychological profile of themselves which described them as either high or low on the honesty scale. Then some of the subjects who scored high on the dishonesty scale were asked to evaluate another person’s ambiguous personality profile. Once again, this group projected their dishonesty onto the third person. Another part of the group who scored high on the dishonesty did not get to evaluate the third person, which meant they had no opportunity to project their traits onto the other person. Then each group was asked to self-evaluate.

The results were that the group which was allowed to evaluate another person on their honesty, and therefore allowed to project their traits onto others, scored much lower in terms of anger on their self-evaluation. In other words, the projection served its purpose as a defense mechanism, and in helping people feel better about themselves.

As an outside observer, projection is the psychological phenomenon I see played out most often among the members of AA. It explains why the craziest of steppers can be so self-righteous and judgmental, and it explains the findings in a study which showed that AA has a positive impact on those who sponsor, and a negative one on those who are merely sponsees.

It’s important to note that, in these experiments, the traits of anger and dishonesty which were applied to the subjects were given at random. They may or may not have been above average on the anger and dishonesty scales, but it doesn’t matter. What mattered was their self-perceptions, and whether or not they believed they scored high on these traits. In AA, it is presupposed that an alcoholic – a real alcoholic – possesses these same negative attributes. They are applied to individuals the moment that they walk through the door, because these character flaws are attributes of alcoholics. Once a person is led to believe that they are angry, resentful and deceitful – which they will be because these are symptoms of their disease – they will project these traits onto the new sheep, and cycle is continued. The second you walked through that door; you unwittingly become part of that cycle.

In AA, the anger which people are using the program to rid themselves is likely projected onto them by the very people who are offering up the 12-step serenity cure. It’s both the cause of and solution to what makes an alcoholic an alcoholic. The problem is that the solution to the anger, whether it is real or not, is projection. And projection can only be had if another sap comes along to serve as its recipient, and you will only have access to that solution if you stay in AA. It’s whacked-out circle-jerk of never-ending crazy.


  • Mark – Excellent article on the psychological factors that force you to believe you are an alcoholic by the mere attendance of a 12 Step Rehab or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for any length of time. The 12 Step recovery industry, using the Minnesota Model (Hazelden) relies on the repetition of Bill Wilson’s 12 Steps to convince anyone that steps foot in a Rehab that they will have the disease of Alcoholism for the rest of their lives, thereby assuring that they will “Keep Coming Back”, albeit with either insurance, a checkbook or a relatives assets. The followup care to Rehab usually always consist of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings once a day for 90 Days normally referred to as 90 meetings in 90 days which reinforces this repetition.

    As you may know, I was introduced to Alcoholics Anonymous through my wife. I drank, but not to the point of falling down drunk and in no way to the extent my wife did. I entered into the process that you have just described almost exactly and it did make me start to believe that I was an Alcoholic, as well as attempting to make the members of the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous believe I was an Alcoholic to “fit” in. It started simply enough, my wife, I believe was an Alcoholic that needed help, so I sent her to a $1000 a day Rehab for 28 days. I was not told about any other type of treatment and they told me that if she did not go she would end up in jails, institutions or death, so I gladly sent her.

    For people who are not aware of what 12 Step Rehab consists of, primarily it is the limiting of all outside contact to give the patient time to reassess their lives and stop drinking long enough to make changes. This is fine and I will admit needed to be done, but they also manipulated the thought processes of not only her, but my entire family to believe that we were diseased and would be in recovery forever, with multiple relapses and major medical bills because of it. By getting her to join AA, they sealed the diagnosis through the use of very dubious characters who had ulterior motives. Do the AA members she became involved with actually set out to do the harm they did? No, they evolved that way because of the conditioning they had been subject to, they do this to survive and because all they were allowed to do and follow is the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions of Bill Wilson, so everyone else must do it also because “it works if you work it” as the saying goes. The only problem with this treatment is that it has a nasty habit of causing suicides and relapses and when it does the recovery industry has twisted this to show that you need to “keep coming back” and force compliance to their new potential lifetime clients.

    I went through the suicide attempt, the multiple relapses, and it nearly did kill my wife. It also sent her further into the clutches of AA members and Rehabs that now rely on her to put new “prospects” for Alcoholics Anonymous through the same thing. She has “lost” people under her sponsorship care and her group has lost many due to suicide and relapse. These people, like my wife didn’t try to kill themselves before AA, it was after. They may have gotten drunk before AA, but the relapses after AA are the real dangerous ones and ironically they use these deaths to pull more people into the same program that is causing it.

    I may kid a lot about the cult aspects of AA and the coven status of the Home Group, but I am only doing it because I don’t want people to die because of the program of Alcoholics Anonymous and then their lives and deaths cheapened by a bunch of very sick people who are going to use these deaths as a reason to get more people to join. The members for the most part don’t mean to be forcing people to suicide and death by overdose and accidents, they just don’t understand what they are doing because of the reasons outlined in this article.

  • Swamibedpan

    I had suicidal thoughts for the first and only time in my life after almost 4 years exposure to the 12 step cult. I was alarmed and scared by this and that is when I got out. I will never go back.
    My ex wife and I separated at the time I started going to aa. I truly believe that the marriage was entirely salvageable at this time, in fact i have been told by other people that she has indeed confirmed that this was the case. For the first 2 years I drank the koolaid heart and soul, significantly 11 months was the longest amount of time up I got. Usually it was no more than a few weeks. During this time any chance of a reconciliation slid out of view.
    So aa did not keep me sober, made me suicidal and did not nothing to save my most important relationship.
    Do you think I might be a little pissed off about this? Maybe a lot pissed off.
    Articles like this excellent one above by Mark have helped me a lot to understand what happened to me. But it does not alleviate the pain.
    AA is by far the worst experience of my life.


    “Utilize, don’t analyze”, seems to fit here if one is an AAer. Thank you for this piece Mark, it goes a long way to show how intelligent beings can be folded into the flock. As you indicate, this phenomena is not restricted to AA, but with the severity of problems most have that walk through the doors, it is easy to see how ‘belief perseverance’ keeps most true believers in AA to keep coming back, and to carry that message. The AA saying of “You can be too smart for AA……..” is certainly true. Of course that part that is implied, one is doomed without AA, is certainly false.

  • Mona Lisa

    Mark, what a wonderful, beautifully written piece. It helps me understand what happened to me.

  • DeConstructor

    I think one could also add this process in the histories of the worlds other religions. As with AA, in many cases the religions do have people profiting, getting big political power, nearly always corrupt, and occassionly getting busted in sexual improprieties.

    Once again the real shame in all this is the deafening silence of the majority of the medical/scientific/academic community.

    Certainly the medical community shares some blame in this. The ‘disease’ thing is always miscredited to them, counseled to never be questioned, and supreme authority and credibility is gifted on the AA organization. AA deserves neither authority nor credibility, and organizations such as the AMA and WHO should be more critical of their name and credibility being stained as it is.

    Thanks for preparing this Mark. It is enlightening.

  • WatchSurvivingStraightInc

    Decon said that this applies to other world religions. I last went to Mass about three years ago. I never got into AA, but that was partly luck due to having been prewarned, many years before. But I can see a great deal in my Church attendance that mirrors AAs. For example, I was very well used to people being sceptical about my ‘belief’, and was pre-armed to smile at them, rather than take them seriously or listen to them for a second. Ftg wrote something along the lines of ‘and I would call out anyone who was a member of the Catholic Church, given the complicity of the Church in the cover up of child abuse’. (hope I am not misrepresenting her; it was along those lines)

    I was definitely taking what I wanted and leaving the rest. I took the comfort of the certainty and disregarded the rest. Which was very, very easy to do. I went on retreats and wallowed in the vague sense of mysticism and ascetism. Hmm. Sounds very familiar.

    The parallels between AA and Catholicism are legion. I have even, since I have moved to this area, treated Mass (with credulity) the same way that I treated AA (with incredulity), ie, not getting a home group or putting down any more than the slightest of roots or doing service, of any kind.

    I have felt, and do feel, incredibly scathing towards the middle of the roaders of AA, rather than the extremists; they are the acceptable face of AA who make it appear respectable. Did someone call them the Auntie Martha’s, or something. I was one of those in Church. It seems to me that a large number of AAs are able to slip into the theatre that is an AA meeting for a quiet bit of (self-congratulationary) peace and a bit of a hello. Well, I used to slip into Sunday evening Mass for a bit of the same. The familiarity of the same old rituals, knowing the words, knowing the form (although didn’t take communion; yet another reverence towards the great truth). And Catholics do relish a bit of the special people thing. The one true holy Catholic Apostolic Church. (Although this is probably true for all religions). There are great parallels with AA and I managed to keep my rational brain out of this. And I miss it a bit, but not enough to castigate people who keep the badship AA afloat whilst going along with this. The condemnation of AA attendees and my own enjoyment and comfort in attending Mass could not sit together.

    This is not meant to be very heavy and I am not having existential crisis. Leaving the Church is much easier than leaving AA, which does make me think that I must have been a bit of a lightweight/in it for the bells and smells and slight sense of superiority over the Church of England/childhood stuff sort of Catholic in the first place.

    Mark, just don’t touch Father Christmas, please.

  • zooromeo

    awesome article Mark.

    Yep, we are what we think we are…

    Tell yourself you are a selfish, self-seeking, resentful loser and guess what ?

    reminds me of when I was 7 years sober, travelling around the UK and met a fellow Aussie girl… I was going on about how “selfish” and “egotistical” I was. Well, she wouldn’t have it, she made a point of convincing me that this perception was way off – that I was a really generous soul who gave a lot of myself to people… She thought it was odd that I thought so lowly of myself and that I was convinced of such a wrong version of myself

    This was the point where the cracks started to appear and I began to see AA for what it truly was…

    That and:
    * my sponsor was unemployed and going downhill fast financially
    * my entire home group was practicing sex addiction on each other
    * one of my best mates started a rumor that I deliberately put porn on his 10 y.o. daughters computer
    * one of my other best mates started ****ing my ex girlfriend 2 months after we broke up

    didnt bother me until it started bothering me….

  • Sally

    Hi Mark,

    When I first saw the length of this article I thought, “Rut Roh, I’ll read it later”. I did, but gave up after the first paragraph. I was thinking, lol, that if you had wrote it as if you were talking to a teenager I might understand it better.

    This evening I decided to gitake another shot it. I read the entire thing and now I feel enlightened! I think I’m going to read it again tomorrow morning because I’d like to remember what I have learned 🙂 Sometimes it takes more than once for it to sink in.

    It’s helped me understand, what I beleive, is a further aspect of the brainwashing. Perhaps a clearer understanding of the depression members (I) encountered. I know in the past that I felt as if my drug counselor was very angry (she was wacked), but blaming me. I could never figure out exactly why, or if I was right.

    Anyway, as I said – I’m going to read it again. Thanks!


  • Betty

    Thank you for that article.
    I don’t think that I would be able to formulate an answer to this at the moment…The piece touched on so many points that I believe will help answer many of the questions bopping around in my head. I do know that my willingness to believe in AA began when I was a child and watched my mother stop drinking when she went to AA and achieve 15 or so years sober while she was there. I read the ACOA stuff she gave me and attended a couple Al-Anon meetings as ayoung adult. I was instructed to be very careful because it is, after all, genetic. Self-fullfilling prophecy? IDK. When she began drinking again I was so perplexed and frightened for her because of all that she had shared about her ‘disease’ and that she could never drink again. I thought she was going to end up dead. (she’s not-nor is she jailed or institutionalized) When I ended up addicted to alcohol myself years later and went to AA; the resentment and anger toward her was amped 100%. I blamed her for not staying in AA and therefore causing her own inevitable downfall and for enabling me and for not helping me. Wow. I think AA had me at hello.

  • disclosure

    The pieces Mark writes make me want to be a more significant contributor. The information in this post is completely pertinent to AA and human behavioral phenomenon. Upon completion of the piece I found myself adding new terms to my vocabulary.
    -Forced compliance
    -Informational social influence
    -Social conformity
    -argumentum ad populum Latin for “appeal to the people
    -Belief perseverance
    -And my favorite; anthropomorphization.
    I recall this last instinctual behavior phenomenon from my childhood. My mother would personify objects to teach me to respect them and control my destructive nature.
    What a great piece. If you are not already a PhD I hope you consider the pursuit. Your observational and communication abilities are acute. I do not know what you have to your credit so please do not take offense. I think you are capable of ground breaking original research.

    Thank You! The read was full of less obvious and seldom considered aspects of predictable behavior, all backed with experiments and evidence.

  • Ironic

    I believed in the false dichotomy. Not attending meetings = not sober.

    That is all I ever heard, and it took me a few months to question it. I may have not have sobriety down 100%, but my last three relapses (nine month period) have been one shot deals..literally 🙂

  • causeandeffect

    Mark, this was an excellent article. Like Sally, I’ll read it a few times. I believe it’s so good for us to understand how we were misled by AA. It will settle some of the confusion. There’s nothing worse than to have to fear your own judgment, first because AA tells you that you have to, then because you escape AA and wonder how in the hell you believed in it in the first place. You should put it on the essential reading list. You should also post it on the Orange forum. You may have to alter it a bit. Orange doesn’t know if the drupal is compatible with photos.

  • disclosure

    I can’t relapse from an imaginary disease. I’m on harm reduction where better is better. Cost benefit sets my drinking plan and eliminates any harm alcohol may cause. I am abstinent from alcohol but drink NA beer and take pain medication when needed. I may take a shot at some point if I feel the benefit outweighs the cost. I found that a modified belief system that included deceptive language and predictable psychological responses to be dangerous and unsustainable.

  • Ironic


    I was not talking about a shot of liquor.

    I really liked this article. It was very well written, and a reminder that we have to question many of the “truths” we have learned about “our disease.” Many of them are engrained and we don’t even consciously realize it.

  • Mark, Great post and greater topic. Jrh and Swami’s stories make me sad. My story is too long to tell here. But,
    Yesterday I attended a special service for an enshrinement for A Buddhist Temple about an hour away from me.
    As I sat there listening to the Japanese translation and staring at the gorgeously clean golden carpet on the altar I starting spacing out and getting angry at the hours I spent in AA around all those sick people. Wasted years. What would my life look like if I had left 20 years ago and studied Buddhism or became a lawyer then? OR went to film school?

    Then I remembered a tool a spiritual friend gave me. Ten years ago I was duped by a guy I was dating after my divorce and I used this tool on my anger with him. It worked really well. SO laugh if you want!

    So, I imagined that all the hours I spent in AA and all the hours of GSR work I did and all the hours I sponsored woman, speaking at meetings on and on…I imagined that I take a fishing rod. Throw it out there in space and then reeling it in taking back every second I gave away. Take it all back. Everything I gave back then through the many years. Then I give all of it into my loved ones today as merit I worked on. I did the service, but instead of being angry at my “WASTED YEARS” I apply to whom ever I want in my life “NOW”.

    What I did is mine. it was my time and my energy! Not AA’s! This is what just dawned on me yesterday in the temple. My free service that I gave I can spiritually take back and place wherever I wish. SO I did. AA doesn’t own me anymore so I get to do whatever I want. AA nutjobs don’t get to judge me anymore.


    I was too young when I found AA. I stayed for the fellowship. I was a spirit looking for a spiritual path like out of a Herman Hesse novel. I liked my friends from my early sobriety in Hawaii!

    I will do whatever I can to change how the world see’s 12 step and addiction forever and to keep children out of it.
    I don’t know if doing this one time will relieve my pain but I will do it more then once and see what happens. It can’t hurt.

    Thanks again Mark!
    Disclosure…I agree with so much you write.

  • Garry

    A/A is wonderful, it helped me to find the truth, i guess a lot of you people on here must be drinking/drugging as your views are so negative,i have some very good friends in my local groups and my sex life has never been better 🙂

  • Well Garry,

    I am glad that AA worked for you,but it doesn’t work for everyone. You are also incorrect, the people on this site aren’t drinking and drugging. What we are complaining about is people of the AA faith who choose to take the prejudice attitude that we are drinking and drugging because we choose not to chant Bill Wilson in church basements. You won’t find us glorifying the stories of our past exploits on this site, you only find that in AA meetings.

    Why do you find it necessary to chime in and cause trouble with a bunch of people that have stopped drinking and it is working for them? Did Bill Wilson tell you to do it? I don’t think so, go back to the church basement where you came from, you left your brain at the door.

  • SoberPJ

    Garry… will AA help you find the truth about it ? Will it help you find that it is really a deceitful, manipulative, nonsensical religion ? I guess it doesn’t really matter, because, hey, yer gettin laid and, well, what could be more important ?

  • Swamibedpan

    Hey Garry. Guess it depends on how bad your sex life was before eh? One in three of them have had an STD. Enjoy!

  • Swamibedpan

    Hey Garry. Why don’t you read Marks article above and then read some conference approved ‘literature’ and see if you can spot the difference. Oh and don’t worry about the accuracy of statistics aa has been making its own stats up for 75 years.

  • ez

    “i have some very good friends in my local groups and my sex life has never been better”

    gotta love that 13th step, eh?

    Seriously Garry, I would be interested in your counter argument to specifics in the article. Thanks in advance f0or a well resoned response.

  • Mona Lisa

    Oh, please guys, don’t waste your time. Garry’s just a drive-by.

  • Garry, you’re a living, typing cliche. Why, oh why (???) do religious converts of all stripes make a point of telling others how great their sex lives are? While commenting on others being derogatorily “angry” (or “negative”)? What is your point there, exactly, Garry, that just because AA helped you it must be perfect for everyone, and if not, we’re all still “drinking and drugging”? Consider that we’re not. Then actually read the above article and realize just how much you are projecting the linked identity (in your mind) of being critical with drinking/drugging. I PROMISE you, reading some of the truth out here will NOT damage your perfect sex life, and if it does, then you really do have bigger problems. K?

    Now what was I going to say about the post aside from how much I enjoyed it? I’m sure it was something about how at least a few sponsors I’ve known loved had the worst bottoms (as in criminal activity) imaginable, and how they seemed to be seeking validation in the group by stating constantly that somehow we’d all sold ourselves for drugs, or had 13 year olds run for us after getting them addicted, just as they did. I’m very sorry for them in thinking they need such constant validation, but it was nothing more than projection. The idea that anyone who becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol is going to slide down such a slope is pretty reprehensible idea. But ahhh, the validation!

    I hope, Garry, that that is not the idea of a sex life in the rooms you were talking about, the gratification via talking about past exploits and trying to get other group members to share their most sordid tales (“you’re only as sick as your secrets!”), because this is not actually sex.

  • disclosure

    Hey Gary,
    Yea, I gotta admit; there isn’t a sweeter sight in the world than a skinny user chick wearin’ stretchy cloth.
    Please just remember that AA is a “mental health” venue. You may not want to fall asleep next to someone with a razorblade in their purse and a bad daddy story in their 5th step.

    … I apologize for this next comment…
    The best slogan I ever heard in AA is…
    PUSSY spelled backwards is YS-SUP

  • Greta

    Thanks for an amazing post.. it really helped me understand what happened to me and why I sat around ‘in the room’s’ with this uneasy feeling the entire time.. and became more and more depressed.. and when the lightbulb finally went off, I got out and felt better.. It does make me angry though somehow.. makes me feel that I was literally sucked in to something without knowing what hit me.. Just glad it didn’t take me too long to figure out that I needed to leave! Anyway.. thanks again.. I am going to have to save this and come back to it to fully understand the whole thing..

  • disclosure

    I find anthropomorphization to be most interesting. It was easy for me to identify with the phenomenon due to my own experience. I clearly personify objects due to emotional or instinctual stimuli. I once experienced quite a success by subtly humanizing the design of a decorative object. It occurred to me that natural human shapes had an effect on my psyche. As a result I created a flowing design featuring birds descending in the outline of the female figure. It was the kind of thing that appeared very appealing when viewed and evoked a surprised response when explained.
    The personification of God was not obvious to me till I read the article. In AA the god choice is completely open to the creation of the member. The AA’s God may not take a human shape but always shares human characteristics. Similarly the disease has human character and is portrayed as an evil entity. The predictability of human behavior is a fascinating study!

  • lucy

    Thank you for your writing, Mark.

    A psychologist friend lost her brother a couple of years ago, and, on her pastor’s recommendation, went to a grief counseling group at her church. When I asked her if it helped, she said that, in all her professional career, she had never seen the variety of crazy that she saw in that group. She said that people were grieving everything from a kid going to college to a double homocide, but that the group discussion was dominated by a couple of histrionic individuals who confused grief counseling with a soap opera.

    AA (and every self-help group) always seems that way to me.

    The people who thrive are narcissists and they feed on the energy of the others in the room. They tell their narrative of recovery and the other people have to fit into that narrative.

    It’s exhausting.

  • Elisa

    There are grief groups for those that lost a pet as well. I wonder if people in this century spend more or less time on grief, does the modern world offer less in the way of positive endeavors to engage in? Sometimes it seems like, with the exception of activities related to jobs and family, people have to knock themselves out to be busy and be prepared to spend more and more money for simple things like movies and a dinner out, the old “buy a new hat” to cheer yourself up could set your budget back months. And then again, I probably spent so much time sitting around in AA I’m completely out of touch.

  • pencilneck

    I’m pretty sure Garry was being sarcastic — there’s even a smiley at the end. They call it “Poe’s Law” that often extreme fundamentalism is difficult to distinguish from a parody of extreme fundamentalism.

  • Mona Lisa

    I don’t quite know what to think about the whole support group thing. I feel as though they can be a good thing to a point, given that we are social creatures; but when they become a substitute for actually living one’s life, they can be very destructive.

    Or maybe it depends upon the underlying emotional health of the support group attendee and the members of the support group as a whole. I know a guy who started going to professional group therapy (professional therapy facilitated by a psychologist) following a divorce. 20 years later, he is still going to this group. He is a happy, healthy guy, happily married to his second wife for 16 years, very respected in his career, good relationship with his kids, but he seems to like going to this group even though nothing is wrong with his life. I can’t really find anything wrong with this picture. It wouldn’t be my own favorite pastime, but it doesn’t seem to hurt anything and I don’t get the sense that he thinks his world would fall apart if he stopped going.

    I don’t know the answer to any of this, by the way. Just musing.

  • Ben Franklin

    Geez Gary, finding the truth in AA whilst insinuating we are all drinking and drugging. What do they say about pointing fingers? Ya got 3 pointed right back at ya. Pretty spiritual of you to mention that and yer sex life (13 steppin). Prove our points much?

    Thank You! Drive Thru!

  • Luther Blissett

    Persephone has a point about the sex life comment. A scientologist was trolling my supermarket parking lot about ten years ago and i started making fun of her, i said something like ‘how much of yr $ goes to buy boats you’re not allowed on?’ and she started saying something like “do you have a sex? why would anyone have sex with you?” and 20 years ago i said something to a LaRouchian in an airport and she said “at least i can fuck!” so you see parallels here, the cult member wants us to think we can’t procreate but they can (cos they’re special). Notice that i’ve always been fascinated by cults and then i spent 15 years in NA! Who’s stupid now? At least i’m out. Notice that Garry said his sex life has never been better-well before AA he used to masturbate, now he’s with someone that no one else wants-uuuhh improvement? He also can’t handle the fact that anyone sober would dare contradict his version of reality-if you hate NA you must be on drugs right? Yet another loser is going to meetings-good, that way you won’t see him anywhere else! (and since i must say so, i do have a non-stepper girlfriend, she pretty cute). I hope everyone is well.

  • (yes, hopefully Garry was parodying, but just in case not, I had to respond)
    Luther, thanks, I was thinking actually about a clip from the documentary “Friends of God” about evangelical Christians in which Ted Haggard (pre-scandal) gets these men at his church to tell the interviewer just how much sex they have, how satisfied their wives are, etc. (it was kind of graphic, if I remember correctly) with the opening statement being something like, “Evangelicals have the best sex of anybody!”. I’ve heard the pitch many times, and if you really have to appeal to people who cannot get sex any other way, then it is a pretty sad pitch, not to sound harsh, but sheesh!

    Um, no, that is not how I was duped or why I believed anything. Just to clarify. However, considering that a good many comments here along with Massive’s entire blog deal with sexual and other abuses in “the rooms”, I find it a bit insensitive for someone to imply that sex in AA/NA is somehow so wonderful as opposed to sex lives outside of it when there are lord knows how many sexual assault victims reading this blog. Just seemed a bit insensitive, unless of course it was parody and that was exactly what he was implying. Which might be a long shot. (Sorry, I’m no web cop, just thought I’d call that one out as I saw it.)

  • Sally

    Thanks Persephone about making notice the sex comment of Garry’s post. I thought it really odd myself. Like OoooK. Is that how he is trying to sell AA?

    Another argument that is brought up by steppers is, “what’s wrong with having humility and making amends?”. For starters, it has nothing to do with drinking/not. I can’t say how many addicts I’ve seen get the chance to “start over” and lapse again despite being cleansed.

    And you don’t have to be a stepper to be thankful and spiritual – the list goes on. For me, and many others I am sure, that is a part of our nature. We don’t need to “check the list” and make sure we’re acting proper. I was loving, caring, honest, all that when I was addicted. It didn’t change me.

    It is a fallacy and an awful stigma of addicts. Like Persephone said, we didn’t all hump for a hit or influence our young neighbors. To put those traits on an “innocent’ damns them.

    So glad I’m out of the ‘I am a pile of poop and you are too….WE are…” nonsense.

  • I am always surprised by the entire phenomenon of belief perseverance as well, and was happy to read more about it here. The entire attitude in AA towards drinking (not to mention their ancestors in the temperance movement) is a great example of this (well, of that and of every single Southern Baptist granny out there whose yells of, “Told you so! See where that demon rum got ya now?” were somehow finally validated after news of anything bad every happening to any less abstemious relatives). Everyone knows that the drinking doesn’t actually cause these things. That everyone we knew in college didn’t progress also into drinking alcoholically. Etc. Ad nauseum. Ad infinitum. And some more etc. It doesn’t stop people from claiming the conventional wisdom over what is actually happening (hell, look at the comments on the post linked on this blog in the “I Was Right!” post, best example EVER!). Then after being fed temperance BS for a lifetime, people are shuttled into yet another bit of suspension of disbelief with the 12 steppers? It does boggle the mind……only in that it is still going on, though…..

  • Sorry, had to add the link there from that post here (previous to this one, link below), which was:
    Read the comments, is this not a great example of belief perseverance? (And thanks again for the wonderful posts, both of them!)


    A bit off topic, but WSS mentions the similarity of the church and AA. This link (the video I’m referring to is “Oklahoma Freethought Convention” {the first one} ) shows, to me, much of the same mentality described in the article. I found the video be very funny and tragic at the same time. Not for everyone I admit (being an atheist helps 🙂 ), and the length 45 minutes can be a deterrent to some, but it held my interest. He even mentions the ole “Gawd saved me a parking spot” bit.

  • Elisa

    I listened to part of the Halloween episode, something to listen to while doing straightening up or to fall asleep to. I’ll have to check out the one you mention here. I used to hate the whole parking god thing, considering so much of the meeting was announcements, one or two shares about the parking god and the meeting was over. Ugh, stupid place.

  • Lucy

    I agree, Mona Lisa and Elisa.

  • Jonny Quest

    There is another part of the puzzle to this: AA is the embodiment of the desire for the pleasure produced by alcohol. The AA deity is addictive desire itself, and every single word of 12-Step recovery sounds just like that little voice in a drunk’s head telling them to never say never to more alcohol. This explains why AA, with its plan for tentative, one-day-at-a-time sobriety, is so uniquely appealing to addicted people.

    Alcoholics Anonymous: The Embodiment of The Beast

  • Jill

    Thank you so much for this. I read your article on Projection before I started attending my mandatory meetings. It got me through many meetings of negative “When I was new……”
    comments. While I’ve managed to fend off the cult recruitement tactics, I’ve always wondered, “How did these people get sucked in?” “Do these people really believe this crap?” and “How is it possible that they believe this crap?”. Thank you for the education, you’re saving my sanity.
    (blows my Stepford Wife theory right outta the water, though)

  • Mark

    Jill, I’m glad this resonated with you and some others.

    My academic background is in logic and philosophy, not psychology. I try to be a rational thinker, but I also get sucked into a personal belief system in the same ways that some have been pulled into the AA dogma. I don’t think any of us are impervious such things, and I don’t believe anyone should feel embarrassed about having fallen into the trap. I see a lot that, though.

    What is great is, all of us have an ability to detach ourselves and examine why we believe how we believe. All of us are products of evolution, and our psychology is as much of that product as our eyes and thumbs. It’s all interesting stuff.

    • Ah, an evolutionist. Now it all makes sense.

      • It blows my mind that people will deny the very science that has provided them with the resources they use to express their idiocy all over the internet.

  • Walt

    All I can say is that Alcoholism is definitely a mental illness

  • JuneBug

    When I first started attending AA, I thought it sounded like total bullshit. But I ignored my gut instinct and attended meetings for a year before getting off the crazy train. Thanks for this article, which explains why I bought into the dogma despite an initial reaction that turned out to be correct! I now attend LifeRing meetings, which help me stay sober but don’t make me spout crap that I don’t actually believe.

  • Carmen

    Thank you so much for your website… I was duped for 4 years… No more, I say, no more.
    I look forward to reading more!

    • You only duped yourself. If you thoroughly follow the path you recover.

  • touchmonkey

    i’ve been a member of aa for 22 years, and been sober the whole time
    lately i’ve been investigating the anti-aa sites on the web
    some of them make very good points about the less savory aspects and elements in the fellowship
    however, the basic premise of the program – find god (whatever that word may mean to you), clean house, help others – still seems to me to be an unassailable intention.
    the fact that it is often used by some fucked up people to get over on some other fucked up people is regrettable, but in no way an indictment of the basic effort.

    the fellowship and the program are two different things, and the fellowship is no hotbed of mental health.

    my personal belief is that alcoholics and drug addicts suffer from some level of common mental illness, and treat it with their substance of choice. take away the substance, and the mental illness often remains, and sometimes, bolstered by a savvier mind now devoid of the haze of the substance, people can often act out their worst transgressions sober, far worse than anything they have ever done sober.

    i’ve been that guy.
    i’m a little better now.
    the program of alcoholics anonymous has helped.
    a lot
    the fellowship of other alcoholics has helped, too
    but it’s the program
    the program
    the program that i swear by

  • tonyagogo

    I was just wondering why you are investigating other “anti AA sites” if the Program is your end all be all. Are you finding yourself uncertain that there may be and have been other ways to abstain from liquor other then AA and their illusion that you have many friends until you start thinking a different way. I would rather have free advice from college students studying psychology in a clinical setting then free advice from strangers white knuckling it till the meeting stops to go have coffee and a cigarette gossip…

  • matt

    Is this an online support group of sorts? I stumbled onto this site a few hours ago after seeing a documentary about an mysterious murder of 20 yrs suddenly being solved because the killer told her sponsor. Talk about buying into the bullshit! Ive read several articles/posts and its interesting but i just dont understand why the authors are putting SO much time and effort into convincing their followers that AA is a bunch of malarky. Ur preachin to the choir. They already feel that way. I do as well. I was initially excited to find a place/people that, like me, disliked AA. I went thru years of unnecessary extra crap cuz my mom bought into the whe enabling idea. She wouldnt lift a finger to help and once even went out of her way to get others to follow suit. I have as much reason as anybody to despise the whole business, but even with all that, i still believe it helps people. There are those that just find it to be a good fit. And they arent necessarily narcissists. Or even weirdos. SOME ppl just go to meetings and enjoy seeing friends. I understand the anger ppl have tho. I first went only because if i didnt, i wouldnt have a place to live. But for that, i was angry with my mom…not AA. I guess im just lost as to WHY such animosity exists for AA. I stopped going to meetings because even tho i refused to get a sponsor and do the step shit from the beginning, i got tired of hearing blowhards talk to hear themselves talk. I didnt stay after it got old. If i had, well i guess i would be mad at AA too, even if it was own fault.

  • tladybug

    wow. now I understand how the sober “alcoholic” I live with is always telling ME I’m negative and every time he acts like a complete jerk, excuses himself with the fact that being selfish, manipulative and controlling is simply personality traits of someone in AA.

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  • John S

    Global warming proponents have more in common with conspiracy theories, urban legends, and the 9-11 truth movement than global warming denialists. Not only has the earth been cooling for the last ten years, despite what global warmists have been predicting for decades, but the “scientists” that have been most strongly pushing the global warming agenda have been outed as frauds by the East Anglica emails. Either the author tainted an otherwise interesting article by injecting his political beliefs into the article or the author inadvertently demonstrated his own flawed “belief perseverance.”