AA and other 12 step programs - "culty" or not?

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Mona Pereth
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02 Oct 2023, 3:39 am

I wrote here, in the separate Alcoholics Support Group thread:

Mona Pereth wrote:
TwilightPrincess wrote:
AA seems pretty culty from what I've observed.

"Culty" in what specific ways?

My own impressions, based on several people I've known (including romantic partners of mine) who were in AA:

12-step programs have some superficially "cultlike" aspects, but in general are far from being the kind of authoritarian, totalizing ideology that I associate with the word "cult."

12-step programs definitely do foster ongoing dependence on the group/program. But they don't stop people from making friends outside the group too. Nor do they dictate most aspects of a person's life. Nor do they demand that members contribute large amounts of money.

Also, at least in major metropolitan areas like NYC, there are enough different AA groups that if a person doesn't like the way one local group is run, they can easily find plenty of other conveniently nearby groups. Furthermore, newcomers are specifically encouraged to attend multiple local groups rather than just one. This in itself probably goes a long way toward keeping potential abuses in check.

So it seems to me that the group-dependency fostered by 12-step programs is a far less harmful dependency than what it is deliberately intended to replace (dependence on alcohol, or on whatever the focus of the particular 12-step program is).

Have you personally known any members of 12-step programs? If so, does it seem to you that they were harmed in any specific ways by their groups?

(I'm not a member of any 12-step program myself.)


I am moving this discussion here because one of the replies, by the OP of that thread, contained a request that we not "get any more off-track or turn this into a debate."

So let's discuss/debate here the question of whether and how "culty" AA and other 12-step groups/programs are. I figure PPR is the appropriate place for this because, although AA is not a religion per se, it does encourage reliance on a "Higher Power."

In one of her replies, Twilight Princess posted a link to an interesting page on the "Freedom of Mind" website of Steven Hassan: 12 Step Programs. In another reply, she linked to BITE Model of Authoritarian Control, also on Steven Hassan's website.


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Mona Pereth
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02 Oct 2023, 5:12 am

On the 12 step programs page of Steven Hassan's website I found Is AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) a Cult? An Old Question Revisited (PDF) by L. Allen Ragels, which contained the following:

Quote:
In 1979, sociologist Robert Tournier raised a ruckus in professional circles when he noted that Alcoholics Anonymous has come to dominate alcoholism both as ideology and as method. . . . So successful have AA members been in proselytizing their ideas that their assumptions about the nature of alcohol dependence have virtually been accepted as fact by most of those in the field. In making this assertion, Tournier touched on an important point. AA cannot be viewed as existing in a vacuum. It is not now, and never has been, an independent standalone organization. It has always covertly supported, and been supported by, a powerful cartel of organizations that make up what historians and sociologists call the Alcoholism Movement. The original triumvirate leading this movement was AA, the National Council on Alcoholism, and the Yale Center for
Alcohol Studies. Like all successful social movements, it has expanded to include many additional organizations. For greater clarification, the Alcoholism Movement could be called the Twelve Step Alcoholism Movement, after the fact that its basic philosophy is closely aligned with, and in many cases openly expressed by AAs recovery program, the venerated Twelve Steps. To speak of AA outside of the context of the Twelve Step Alcoholism Movement is almost certainly to invite confusion. It is not just a coincidence that many organizations adhere to the same view of alcoholism and the same Twelve Step creed. It is the result of a coordinated social movement. Viewed as the Twelve Step Alcoholism Movement, rather than as a single isolated organization, the Program actually looks more cult-like and sinister. For example, AA per se does not seem to exploit its members financially, but AA-styled treatment facilities sometimes do. Witness the case of a family faced with having to sell their home in order to pay for the mothers long-term addiction treatment after she had already been through nine expensive Twelve Step treatment regimens in just two years.

Hmmm. I question whether it's accurate to view the spread of 12-step ideas outside of AA itself as a "coordinated" effort, rather than just a consequence of the 12th step and the belief that one's own continued recovery depends on helping other alcoholics recover by bringing them into AA.

AA itself officially discourages the professionalization of the 12-step program. One of AA's Twelve Traditions is that "Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever non-professional."

Be that as it may, I do see a lot more potential for abuse in 12-step-based alcoholism treatment centers -- and similar drug abuse treatment centers -- than in AA itself.

I do know that the practices of at least some (probably many?) drug abuse treatment programs creep me out a bit. They seem extremely controlling, beyond what should be necessary to fulfill their purpose. For example, at least 10 years ago (I'm not sure whether this is still the case), it was common for in-patient drug abuse treatment clinics to forbid their clients from having Internet access during their stay.

Back to AA itself. I would expect AA groups to have a more "culty" flavor in the Bible Belt than here in the NYC metro area. Around here, groups need to appeal to people from a wide variety of religions and to people of no religion, whereas, in the Bible Belt, I would expect groups to have a much more distinctively evangelical Christian flavor.


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TwilightPrincess
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02 Oct 2023, 5:35 am

I do not live in the Bible Belt and found AA culty (mildly on the cult spectrum).

Since people don’t usually open links, I thought I’d post this:

They fit some characteristics of the BITE model - behavior, information, thought, and emotional control. These are some that I've noticed, observed, or read about concerning AA although there may be more.

https://freedomofmind.com/cult-mind-control/bite-model/

- Major time spent with group indoctrination and rituals and/or self indoctrination including the Internet
- Discourage individualism, encourage group-think
- Impose rigid rules and regulations
- Rewards and punishments used to modify behaviors, both positive and negative
- Instill dependency and obedience
- Extensive use of cult-generated information and propaganda, including:
a. Newsletters, magazines, journals, audiotapes, videotapes, YouTube, movies and other media

- Require members to internalize the group’s doctrine as truth
a. Adopting the group’s ‘map of reality’ as reality
b. Instill black and white thinking
c. Decide between good vs. evil
d. Organize people into us vs. them (insiders vs. outsiders)

- Use of loaded language and clichés which constrict knowledge, stop critical thoughts and reduce complexities into platitudinous buzz words
- Teaching thought-stopping techniques which shut down reality testing by stopping negative thoughts and allowing only positive thoughts, including:
a. Denial, rationalization, justification, wishful thinking
b. Chanting
c. Meditating
d. Praying
e. Speaking in tongues
f. Singing or humming

- Make the person feel that problems are always their own fault, never the leader’s or the group’s fault
- Promote feelings of guilt or unworthiness, such as:
a. Identity guilt
b. You are not living up to your potential
c. Your family is deficient
d. Your past is suspect
e. Your affiliations are unwise
f. Your thoughts, feelings, actions are irrelevant or selfish
g. Social guilt
f. Historical guilt

- Ritualistic and sometimes public confession of sins


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TwilightPrincess
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02 Oct 2023, 5:42 am

According to Steven Hassan (a cult expert):

Quote:
Disclaimer: We are of the opinion that AA has helped many individuals in their fight against alcoholism, but we include this group because we believe there are other points of view; vital information, and experiences that should be shared. We do not advocate to anyone that they adopt a static identity based on past problematic behavior, nor do we wish to tell anyone that they are powerless to help themselves make needed changes. We believe in empowering people to think for themselves and make independent decisions. We believe people should have the ability to exit any group or program with their dignity intact and not treated as a failure. Likewise, we do not believe addiction is an actual disease but rather a physical as well as a psychological reality. Habits can be changed without any group pressure or requirement to constantly attend meetings.


https://freedomofmind.com/resource-link ... -programs/

If someone finds AA helpful, they shouldn’t stop using it, but they might want to research programs and weigh the pros and cons, including critical information, before going with a specific treatment program.


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Mona Pereth
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03 Oct 2023, 4:51 am

TwilightPrincess wrote:
I do not live in the Bible Belt and found AA culty (mildly on the cult spectrum).

Now that you've said "mildly," we may have less disagreement than I thought we did.

TwilightPrincess wrote:
They fit some characteristics of the BITE model - behavior, information, thought, and emotional control. These are some that I've noticed, observed, or read about concerning AA although there may be more.

https://freedomofmind.com/cult-mind-control/bite-model/

- Major time spent with group indoctrination and rituals and/or self indoctrination including the Internet

Certainly, AA members, especially newcomers, are encouraged to spend a lot of time attending AA meetings. Traditionally, at least before the Internet became popular, newcomers were advised to attend "ninety meetings in ninety days" (while old-timers typically attended maybe two meetings per week). I'm not sure what the expectations are these days, in terms of online meetings vs. in-person meetings.

TwilightPrincess wrote:
- Discourage individualism, encourage group-think

Every human group requires some "group-think" in order to hold it together and accomplish any shared goals. So the question is whether AA entails excessive groupthink, to the detriment of people's individuality.

This doesn't seem to me to be the case among the AA people I've observed. Except on the general AA principles, AA encourages respect for individuality, as far as I can tell. "Live and Let Live" is a common slogan in AA.

TwilightPrincess wrote:
- Impose rigid rules and regulations

Not a lot of them, as far as I can tell, beyond basic principles like the Twelve Traditions. Every group needs some rules in order to function.

TwilightPrincess wrote:
- Rewards and punishments used to modify behaviors, both positive and negative

What specific kinds of rewards and punishments are you referring to here?

TwilightPrincess wrote:
- Instill dependency and obedience

"Dependency," yes. Dependency on a "Higher Power" and/or the group is a core principle of AA and other 12-step programs.

As for "obedience," it seems to me that any drug or alcohol addiction recovery program would require "obedience" to at least its basic principles in order to work. So the only question is whether AA is excessive in terms of the amount and kinds of things that it needs to be obeyed.

Hopefully more and more effective treatments will emerge -- and/or become more widely available -- that will require "obedience" to nothing more complex than taking a pill at a specific dosage on a specific schedule. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, there seems to be quite a bit of institutional inertia in the realm of professional substance abuse counseling. But even when other treatments become more widely available, it is unlikely that any treatment will work for everyone. And it is likely that, for many people, some combination of treatments, e.g. a medical treatment plus psychotherapy, will be better than just one. It is also likely that, for many people, 12-step programs will still have a key role, even after their current near-monopoly (at least here in the U.S.A.) is finally broken.

It also seems to me that AA and other 12-step programs, even though they may not be the best possible addiction recovery programs for many people (at least on their own, without accompanying medical treatments), do have other benefits besides just recovery from their targeted addictions.

For example, attending all those meetings gives people the opportunity to make lots of friends in an environment where people aren't drinking (or whatever).

Another benefit is that 12-step programs encourage members to acquire "the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

Although I'm not a 12-stepper myself, I've always liked the Serenity Prayer (or at least the short version thereof). It concisely reminds people to take what seems to me to be the reasonable middle ground on personal responsibility, as distinct from both the problematic extremes of blaming oneself vs. blaming other people for all of one's problems.

Anyhow, it doesn't seem to me that AA puts excessive restrictions on people's lifestyles.

TwilightPrincess wrote:
- Extensive use of cult-generated information and propaganda, including:
a. Newsletters, magazines, journals, audiotapes, videotapes, YouTube, movies and other media

I would expect this of any addiction recovery program that isn't purely medically-based. Whatever its principles might be, the person would need to be taught them and taught to apply them.

TwilightPrincess wrote:
- Require members to internalize the group’s doctrine as truth
a. Adopting the group’s ‘map of reality’ as reality

Hmmm. Seems to me that AA manages to accommodate multiple maps of reality, e.g. multiple interpretations of who/what one's "Higher Power" is.

Also, AA doesn't claim to be the only program that works for all people with a drinking problem, but only that there exists a set of people for whom AA is necessary. They officially refrain from taking stands on other treatment options.

TwilightPrincess wrote:
b. Instill black and white thinking

The AA members I've known have seemed quite capable of nuanced thinking.

TwilightPrincess wrote:
c. Decide between good vs. evil

Among the AA people I've known, "good" and "evil" are conceived of in a down-to-Earth practical sense, e.g. the need to make amends for specific harms that one has caused to other people, rather than in terms of, say, obedience to the arbitrary demands of a "jealous God," or in terms of choosing sides in a cosmic battle.

TwilightPrincess wrote:
d. Organize people into us vs. them (insiders vs. outsiders)

Every group has insiders and outsiders. So it seems to me that the important questions here are whether the group cultivates hostility toward outsiders, or an attitude of superiority to outsiders, etc.

I haven't noticed AA members having an adversarial or elitist attitude toward the rest of the world, at least here in NYC. Perhaps they might tend to have a more adversarial attitude in locales where people are under greater social pressures to drink?

(Here in NYC, while many people do drink, it's not as ubiquitous as it apparently is in many other places, according to what I've been told by people from various other places. Also, NYC has an unusually strong mind-your-own-business ethic, at least among adults. I've always been a teetotaler and have never felt pressured to drink.)

TwilightPrincess wrote:
- Use of loaded language and clichés which constrict knowledge, stop critical thoughts and reduce complexities into platitudinous buzz words

Seems to me that this is something the vast majority of people (indeed, probably all people) do, to one extent or another, even if they aren't members of any organized group of any kind. If people don't get their knowledge-constricting loaded language and platitudinous buzz words from an organized group, they usually get them from the mass media and/or from parents or peers. Those who join an organized group (of whatever kind) in adulthood at least have to think a little more about their loaded language. platitudinous buzz words, in-jokes, etc., than people who just keep using the same ones they were raised with as children.

As far as I can tell, every culturally distinct demographic group has some unique terminology of its own, with meanings and connotations unique to the group.

Also, since human brains aren't infinite, all of us necessarily filter out some stimuli and some potential sources of knowledge. And our language choices necessarily have a role in how we filter information.

So the question is not whether AA people use knowledge-constricting loaded language and platitudinous buzz words at all, but whether they are especially egregious offenders in this regard, relative to ordinary culturally mainstream folks. I have not gotten the impression that they are. YMMV.

Truly independent thinking is rare, as far as I can tell. It helps to be educated in scientific methodology. It also helps to be a person who has experienced multiple paradigm shifts.

TwilightPrincess wrote:
- Teaching thought-stopping techniques which shut down reality testing by stopping negative thoughts and allowing only positive thoughts, including:
a. Denial, rationalization, justification, wishful thinking
b. Chanting
c. Meditating
d. Praying
e. Speaking in tongues
f. Singing or humming

What is your source for the above, regarding AA?

Most of the items on this list are not standard practice in AA groups. Perhaps some AA groups/meetings do them, if a particular group/meeting happens to be dominated by adherents of some specific religion in which a given practice is standard? But I've never heard of any AA groups/meetings that involved speaking in tongues, for example, nor did Googling "Alcoholics Anonymous speaking in tongues" turn up any info about any such AA group or meeting.

Group prayers are standard practice in AA, primarily the Serenity Prayer. While some people might use this in a thought-stopping way, it does not seem to me to be intrinsically thought-stopping. On the contrary, it seems to me that acquiring "the wisdom to know the difference" would require a person to think more, not less, than they otherwise might.

TwilightPrincess wrote:
- Make the person feel that problems are always their own fault, never the leader’s or the group’s fault

Hmmm, it's not my impression that the AA people I've known would have difficulty recognizing that some AA groups aren't as well-led as they could be. As for problems being "always their own fault," as I mentioned earlier, it seems to me that the Serenity Prayer promotes a sensible middle-ground attitude on the question of personal responsibility, i.e. it recognizes that there are some things we can change and other things we can't change.

Where/how have you gotten the impression that AA leads people to feel that problems are always their own fault?

TwilightPrincess wrote:
- Promote feelings of guilt or unworthiness, such as:
[...]
e. Your affiliations are unwise

Are you aware of any specific instances of this?

I'm not aware of any attempts by AA members to dictate each other's "affiliations," beyond obvious advice such as that hanging out in bars is probably not a good idea if you want to stop drinking.


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JamesW
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15 Apr 2024, 6:22 am

I'm qualified to speak on this. 31 years sober. I spent the first 4 years of those in AA. And I was culty.

The group I was in practised a version of AA heavily infused with a particular flavour of Christian doctrine. I came to realise that this wasn't a pure Twelve Step program, and that we had harmed a lot of people rather than helped them.

A few things we encouraged people to do, which were wrong:

- Pray to God on their knees
- Abandon existing partnerships or relationships
- Don't socialise with people outside of AA
- Don't go to other AA groups which aren't affiliated with this one
- Stop taking medication prescribed by accredited professionals for recognised conditions

This isn't a description of AA as a whole. This is just the group I was in, and of which I was an active part. I'd encourage anyone with a drink problem to seek help - either from AA or elsewhere (e.g. your doctor, therapy, CBT, secular recovery groups, etc.). Just watch out for red flags like the above.


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MatchboxVagabond
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15 Apr 2024, 6:54 am

Speaking as a recovered alcoholic, it's worth noting that any group program is going to be more cultlike than necessary for the simple reason that when one quits drinking, there's a decent chance of losing a good chunk, if not all, of their friends.

It's also worth noting that it's unlikely for any of these programs to be particularly secret about what's going on with them. They may discourage socializing outside the group, but it's unlikely that there'll be any issues with spreading the actual word of what you're doing as these programs don't benefit from secrecy the way that a cult would.

So, probably not that culty, although I'm sure there are examples that are.



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15 Apr 2024, 3:46 pm

I smell cultism in the very name. I see no scientific justification for only writing protocols that have exactly 12 steps, and I think they must mostly do that for culty reasons and because it sounds a bit buzzy to people who aren't all that rational or well-educated. No doubt the number 12 is derived from religious numerological tradition such as the 12 apostles, 12 tribes of Israel, and 12 imams of Islam. So as a highly secular, scientific type, the name itself would discourage me from trusting them. When I also read that they use notions of moral and ethical growth, I was further put off because I wonder who decides the morals. And I gather they work best on people who are willing to surrender to a higher spiritual power, which would be anathema to me. I think what we have here is a religious, culty thing for religious people.

But I don't doubt that they benefit the right kind of person, so although I view many of their ideas with disdain and would seek a different method if I were addicted to something harmful, ultimately it's about whatever gets you through the night. As long as the particular program you get is harmless. So I would advise caution, and I don't see how caution could be maintained without rejecting the unconditional surrender thing.

I've never been an alcoholic but I was addicted to smoking for a long time. I kicked that habit by myself with the help of nicotine gum and vaping. I'm still addicted to nicotine (gum), and am having difficulty keeping it down to safer levels.



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21 Apr 2024, 5:06 am

Mona Pereth wrote:
I wrote here, in the separate Alcoholics Support Group thread:

Mona Pereth wrote:
TwilightPrincess wrote:
AA seems pretty culty from what I've observed.

"Culty" in what specific ways?

My own impressions, based on several people I've known (including romantic partners of mine) who were in AA:

12-step programs have some superficially "cultlike" aspects, but in general are far from being the kind of authoritarian, totalizing ideology that I associate with the word "cult."

12-step programs definitely do foster ongoing dependence on the group/program. But they don't stop people from making friends outside the group too. Nor do they dictate most aspects of a person's life. Nor do they demand that members contribute large amounts of money.

Also, at least in major metropolitan areas like NYC, there are enough different AA groups that if a person doesn't like the way one local group is run, they can easily find plenty of other conveniently nearby groups. Furthermore, newcomers are specifically encouraged to attend multiple local groups rather than just one. This in itself probably goes a long way toward keeping potential abuses in check.

So it seems to me that the group-dependency fostered by 12-step programs is a far less harmful dependency than what it is deliberately intended to replace (dependence on alcohol, or on whatever the focus of the particular 12-step program is).

Have you personally known any members of 12-step programs? If so, does it seem to you that they were harmed in any specific ways by their groups?

(I'm not a member of any 12-step program myself.)


I am moving this discussion here because one of the replies, by the OP of that thread, contained a request that we not "get any more off-track or turn this into a debate."

So let's discuss/debate here the question of whether and how "culty" AA and other 12-step groups/programs are. I figure PPR is the appropriate place for this because, although AA is not a religion per se, it does encourage reliance on a "Higher Power."

In one of her replies, Twilight Princess posted a link to an interesting page on the "Freedom of Mind" website of Steven Hassan: 12 Step Programs. In another reply, she linked to BITE Model of Authoritarian Control, also on Steven Hassan's website.

AA has been culty in my experience because I used to have a friend but AA made him cut me off and never talk to me again because of my thoughts on booze which is text book cult behavior. My friend also lived with other addicts so that kind of reminds me of a cult where members live together.



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