AA helps to reduce Impulsivity


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 [4].

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 [5] 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 [10]. 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 [11].


impulse control.preview


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 [12], 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 [15], drug abuse [16], reckless driving and sexual practices [17],  lower quality of interpersonal relationships [18], and poor health [19] 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]

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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]









Measuring the “Psychic” Change

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.


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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. Psychology2014.

Alcoholics Anonymous. (2001). Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th Edition. New York: A.A. World Services.