Research on Alternatives to AA: New Study Shows Benefits of Non 12-Step Support Groups

A new study finds that Alternatives to AA like SMART Recovery foster better cohesion, higher satisfaction among group members

For decades, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other 12-Step groups have served as the most widespread support group network for people struggling with addiction. Recent estimates show AA has over 60,000 active groups and over 1 million members nationwide. Unfortunately, this has contributed to a disproportionate allocation of resources for research on such programs, leaving alternatives not based on the 12 Steps—such as Women for Sobriety, LifeRing, and SMART Recovery—with sparse funding and little public attention. Add this to the fact that AA’s success rate has been shown to be abysmally low at 5 to 8 percent, and the need for more awareness around its alternatives becomes as clear as day. Thankfully, a new study in the reputable Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment compared alternatives to AA to 12-Step groups and the results look especially promising for the alternatives (Zemore, 2017).


Alternatives to AA groups have great efficacy


In a survey of 651 active members of 12-Step groups like AA and non 12-Step alternatives like Women for Sobriety, LifeRing, and SMART Recovery, researchers found that members of non 12-Step groups experienced better cohesion, meaning they reported a stronger sense of belongingness and connectedness with their group, and higher satisfaction than members of 12-Step groups. All three alternative support groups out-performed the traditional 12-Step methods. They also found that those who seek alternatives to AA are usually less religious, have higher income and education, and are less likely to be less committed to lifetime abstinence. These findings are especially important for the following 3 reasons:

1. While many people who go to AA will admit that is not based on science, they’ll often come to its defense by saying that its strength is in the “community” it has to offer. While this may be true, this research suggests that non 12-Step groups offer an even stronger community through better cohesion. Also, if they’re anything like SMART Recovery, they are founded on evidence-based practices like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

2. It is also worth noting that, despite having looser attendance requirements and lower overall attendance rates than AA, the non-12 Step alternatives fostered a better sense of connection and belongingness among members. Many people that go to AA have a steadfast devotion to the group, attending meetings on a daily or near-daily basis, so the better cohesion among the less intensive alternatives is a huge plus for busy folks.

3. Finally, the secular approach of alternatives to AA may appeal more to people with no particular religious affiliation who do not want to be subject to AA’s faith-based demands. Within the first 5 of the 12 Steps, members are asked to recognize a “Higher Power,” turn their will over to Him, and admit to Him their moral failings. While this is not only at odds with the science of addiction, it may also be a huge deterrent for people who have a different sense of spirituality or want it left out of their recovery altogether.

Overall, research of this kind helps to get more people the assistance they need for addiction. Only 1 in 10 people seek treatment for addiction, owing much to the one-size-fits-all approach of the 12 Steps that dominate treatment and recovery. The more we do to make alternatives to AA available, the better we can do to meet people where they’re at on their unique journey to recovery.

Here at Alternatives, we believe in the non 12-Step approach. We host SMART Recovery and SMART Family & Friends meetings up to 7 times a week.

If you’re interested in attending a meeting, click here to see the latest schedule or contact us directly at or


Zemore, S. E., Kaskutas, L. A., Mericle, A., & Hemberg, J. (2017). Comparison of 12-step groups to mutual help alternatives for AUD in a large, national study: Differences in membership characteristics and group participation, cohesion, and satisfaction. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment,73, 16-26. doi:10.1016/j.jsat.2016.10.004


  1. 12 Step groups will ALWAYS COME UP SHORT in having research done on or about them because they are NOTHING MORE THEN “FAITH-BASED” ideas! ALL THE SCIENCE IN THE WORLD cannot change that mentality anymore then it can change the STUPIDITY OF ISLAM, and all other religions!

    - atheisticallyyours



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