Prolonged Abstinence and Changes in Alcoholic Personality?
When I came into AA I remember hearing the words “the need for a psychic change” which was the product of a spiritual awakening (as the result of doing the 12 steps).
The big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous clearly states this need “The great fact is just this, and nothing less: That we have had deep and effective spiritual experiences* which have revolutionised our whole attitude toward life, towards our fellows and toward God’s universe.”
This is the cornerstone of AA recovery; thinking, feeling and acting differently about the world to when we were active drinkers. Otherwise one does the same things and ends up in the same places, doing the same things, namely drinking. It is a behavioural revolution; a sea change in how we perceive and act.
In line with this thinking, we came across this French study which measured via questionnaire the very same changes that occur in recovery. The French study uses different term for alcoholics and recovery but is saying the same things – it is we that need to change, not the world.
This study aimed to examine whether personality traits were modified during prolonged abstinence in recovering alcoholics. Groups of both recovering and recently detoxified alcoholics were asked via questionnaire to see if they differed significantly from each other in three personality domains: neuroticism, agreeableness and conscientiousness The recovering alcoholics were pooled from self help groups and treatment centres and the other group, the recently detoxified drinkers were pooled from various clinics throughout France.
Patients with alcohol problems who were administered the NEO PI-R had previously obtained a high “neuroticism” score (emotions, stress), associated with a low “agreeableness” score (relationship to others; Loukas et al., 2000). In the same vein, low “conscientiousness” scores (determination) were reported in patients who had abstained from alcohol for short periods (6 months to 1 year; Coëffec, Romo, & Strika, 2009)
In this study, recently detoxified drinkers scored high on neuroticism. They experienced difficulty in adjusting to events, a dimension which is associated with emotional instability (stress, uncontrolled impulses, irrational ideas, negative affect). Socially, they tend to isolate themselves and to withdraw from social relationships.
This also ties in with what the Big book also says “We were having trouble with personal relationships, we couldn’t control our emotional natures, we were prey to misery and depression, we couldn’t make a living, we had a feeling of uselessness, we were unhappy, we couldn’t seem to be of real help to other people-“
In contrast, regarding neuroticism, they found that recovering persons did not necessarily focus on negative issues. They were not shy in the presence of others and remained in control of their emotions, thus handling frustrations better (thereby enhancing their ability to remain abstinent).
Regarding agreeableness (which ties back into social relationships), the researchers also found that recovering persons cared for, and were interested in, others (altruism). Instead, recently detoxified drinkers’ low self-esteem and narcissism prevented them from enjoying interpersonal exchanges, and led them to withdraw from social relationships.
Finally, regarding conscientiousness, they observed that, over time, recovering persons became more social, enjoyed higher self-esteem (Costa, McCrae, & Dye, 1991), cared for and were interested in others, and wished to help them. They were able to perform tasks without being distracted, and carefully considered their actions before carrying them out; their determination remained strong regardless of the level of challenge, and their actions are guided by ethical values. Instead, recently detoxified drinkers lacked confidence, rushed into action, proved unreliable and unstable. As a result, lacking sufficient motivation, they experienced difficulty in achieving their objectives.
Recovering persons seemed less nervous, less angry, less depressed, less impulsive and less vulnerable than recently detoxified drinkers. Their level of competence, sense of duty, self-discipline and ability to think before acting increased with time.
The authors of the study concluded that “these results are quite encouraging for alcoholic patients, who may aspire to greater quality of life through long-term abstinence”.
However, in spite of marked differences between groups, their results did not provide clear evidence of personality changes. While significant behaviour differences between the two groups were revealed, they were more akin to long-term improvements in behavourial adequacy to events than to actual personality changes.
This fits in with the self help group ethos of a change in perception and in “taking action” to resolve issues. In fact, 12 steps groups such as AA are often referred to as utilising a “program of action” in recovering from alcoholism and addiction and in altering attitudes to the world and how they act in it.
The authors also noted the potential for stabilization over time by overcoming previous behaviour weaknesses, i.e. in responding to the world. Hence, this process is ”one of better adequacy of behaviour responses to reality and its changing parameters.”
In fact, treatment-induced behaviour changes showed a decrease in neuroticism and an increase in traits related to responsibility and conscientiousness.
In line with our various blogs which have explained alcoholism in terms of an emotional regulation and processing disorder, as the Big Book says ““We were having trouble with personal relationships, we couldn’t control our emotional natures” the authors here concluded that “rational management of emotions appears to be the single key factor of lasting abstinence”
Boulze, I., Launay, M., & Nalpas, B. (2014). Prolonged Abstinence and Changes in Alcoholic Personality: A NEO PI-R Study. Psychology, 2014.
Alcoholics Anonymous. (2001). Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th Edition. New York: A.A. World Services.