One constant in studies on addiction and in alcoholism, in particular is the fundamental role played by impulsivity in these disorders. It is seen to be present in early use but appears to be more distress based (i.e. more negative urgency based) as the addiction cycle becomes more chronic. This impulsivity has obvious consequences for propelling these disorders via impulsive behaviours and decision making difficulties.
Thus it then follows that any treatment of these addictive disorders must have treatment of impulsivity at the core as it appears to a fundamental pathomechanism.
Here, we review a study that on links AA attendance and reduced impulsivity using a 16-year prospective study of men and women, who were initially untreated for their drinking problems. Across the study period, there were significant l decreases in impulsivity, and longer AA duration was associated with reductions in impulsivity.
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is linked to improved functioning across a number of domains [2,3]. As the evidence for the effectiveness of AA has accumulated, so too have efforts to identify the mechanisms of change associated with participation in this mutual-help group .
This study concluded that help-seeking and exposure to the “active ingredients” of various types of help (i.e., AA principles/practices, sponsors), which, in turn, leads to improvements in reduced impulsivity.
Impulsivity is typically higher among individuals in AUD treatment than among those in the general population  and, impulse control deficits tend to predate the onset of drinking problems [6-9].
Contemporary research has revealed that traits such as impulsivity can change over time . Mutual-help groups like AA may promote such changes, given that they seek to bolster self-efficacy and coping skills aimed at controlling substance use, encourage members to be more structured in their daily lives, and target deficits in self-regulation .
Such “active ingredients” may curb the immediate self-gratification characteristic of disinhibition and provide the conceptual grounds to expect that AA participation can press for a reduction in impulsive inclinations. In turn, given the range of outcomes related to impulsivity (e.g., legal, alcohol-related, and psychosocial problems), decreases in impulsivity may account for part of the association between AA participation and improvements in these outcomes.
AA’s vision of recovery as a broad transformation of character , and explores individual differences in emotional and behavioural functioning as potential mechanisms of change (13,14).
Such groups encourage members to be more structured and goal-directed, which may translate into greater efforts to delay gratification of one’s impulses and to improve clients’ general coping skills (e.g., reduce avoidance coping).
Given that impulsivity is a risk factor for a host of problematic behaviors and outcomes beyond drinking-e.g., criminality , drug abuse , reckless driving and sexual practices , lower quality of interpersonal relationships , and poor health  this reduced impulsivty is beneficial in other aspects too.
Notably, this effect was buffered by a higher quality of social support-a probable active ingredient of AA. Thus, the impact of reducing impulsivity may be widespread across a range of outcomes that are critical for long-term sobriety.
Our main caveat on this study is that it does not distinguish between different types of impulsivity and does not mention negative urgency (or distress-based impulsivity) which is more commonly seen is this sample group.
AA’s “active ingredients” may reduce distress, via a new found emotional regulation gained via the steps and use of a sponsor (acting as an external prefrontal cortex to help us inhibit our impulsive and distress based responses) which in turns reduces our tendency to impulsive decision making and behaviour.
It would have been interesting in this study to have also measure how emotional dysregulation changed in the time span of 16 years (using the DERS scale) and to have used a different impulsivity scale i.e. used the UPPS-P scale which would both have helped more specificallylook at the interaction of how emotional regulation and impulse control changed over the 16 year period.
1. Blonigen, D. M., Timko, C., & Moos, R. H. (2013). Alcoholics anonymous and reduced impulsivity: a novel mechanism of change. Substance abuse, 34(1), 4-12.
2. Humphreys, K. Circles of recovery: Self-help organizations for addictions. Cambridge Univ Pr; 2004.
3.. Tonigan JS, Toscova R, Miller WR. Meta-analysis of the literature on Alcoholics Anonymous: Sample and study characteristics moderate findings. Journal of Studies on Alcohol. 1995
4. Kelly JF, Magill M, Stout RL. How do people recover from alcohol dependence? A systematic review of the research on mechanisms of behavior change in Alcoholics Anonymous. Addiction Research & Theory. 2009; 17(3):236–259.
5. Conway KP, et al. Personality, drug of choice, and comorbid psychopathology among substance abusers. Drug and alcohol dependence. 2002; 65(3):225–234. [PubMed: 11841894]
6. Caspi A, et al. Behavioral observations at age 3 years predict adult psychiatric disorders: Longitudinal evidence from a birth cohort. Archives of General Psychiatry. 1996; 53(11):1033. [PubMed: 8911226]
7. Cloninger CR, Sigvardsson S, Bohman M. Childhood personality predicts alcohol abuse in young adults. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 1988; 12(4):494–505.
8. Elkins IJ, et al. Personality traits and the development of nicotine, alcohol, and illicit drug disorders: Prospective links from adolescence to young adulthood. Journal of abnormal psychology. 2006; 115(1):26. [PubMed: 16492093]
9. Sher KJ, Bartholow BD, Wood MD. Personality and substance use disorders: A prospective study. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 2000; 68(5):818. [PubMed: 11068968]
10. Caspi A, Roberts BW, Shiner RL. Personality development: Stability and change. Annual Review of Psychology. 2005; 56:453–484
11. Moos RH. Active ingredients of substance use focused self help groups. Addiction. 2008; 103(3):387–396. [PubMed: 18269361]
12. White WL. Commentary on Kelly et al. (2010): Alcoholics Anonymous, alcoholism recovery, global health and quality of life. Addiction. 2010; 205:637–638. [PubMed: 20403015]
13. Kelly JF, et al. Mechanisms of behavior change in alcoholics anonymous: does Alcoholics Anonymous lead to better alcohol use outcomes by reducing depression symptoms? Addiction. 105(4):626–636. [PubMed: 20102345]
14. KELLY JF, et al. Negative Affect, Relapse, and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA): Does AA Work by Reducing Anger? Journal of studies on alcohol and drugs.
15. Krueger RF, et al. Personality traits are linked to crime among men and women: Evidence from a birth cohort. Journal of abnormal psychology. 1994; 103(2):328. [PubMed: 8040502]
16. McGue M, Slutske W, Iacono WG. Personality and substance use disorders: II. Alcoholism versus drug use disorders. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 1999; 67(3):394. [PubMed: 10369060]
17. Caspi A, et al. Personality differences predict health-risk behaviors in young adulthood: Evidence from a longitudinal study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1997; 73(5):1052. [PubMed: 9364760]
18. Ozer DJ, Benet-Martinez V. Personality and the prediction of consequential outcomes. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 2006; 57:401–421. [PubMed: 16318601]
19. Bogg T, Roberts BW. Conscientiousness and Health-Related Behaviors: A Meta-Analysis of the Leading Behavioral Contributors to Mortality. Psychological Bulletin. 2004; 130(6):887. [PubMed: 15535742]