The Power of Habit on Why AA Works

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by Screedler on April 6, 2012

Coming in at number four on the New York Times Non-Fiction Best Sellers  – “THE POWER OF HABIT“, by Charles Duhigg explores the impact both good and bad habits have on individual, organizational, and societal levels; and how we can change and use habits for improvement.

The first part of the book focuses on the role that habits play in our personal lives. In it he explains the habit loop consisting of cue, routine, and reward, and how the elements in this loop can be manipulated to help modify our habits (say from crashing on the couch with a bag of chips, to heading out for a run). We also learn about the power of particular habits called keystone habits (which include exercise, as well as eating together as a family) that help initiate a domino effect that touches all of the other aspects of our lives.

In this excerpt he writes about the power of belief—and the importance of social groups in helping create this belief—that stands behind successful habit transformation programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

The Importance of Belief and Communities of Support

As mentioned above, when you are trying to change your habits, small wins can provide an important sense of belief that this change is in fact possible. And the power of belief should not be underestimated, for it has been shown to be a particularly effective tool when it comes to making change—and specifically when the habits you are trying to change are especially stubborn, such as alcoholism. In the case of alcoholism (and those like it), times of deep stress can easily derail any progress that an individual may have made in replacing their old habit with a new one, and send them right back to their old ways. If, however, the individual has developed a strong sense of belief that they will be able to cope with their stress without the use of alcohol, then this seems to make all the difference (loc. 1497). As the researcher Scott Tonigan of the University of New Mexico explains, “belief seems critical. You don’t have to believe in God, but you do need the capacity to believe that things will get better. Even if you give people better habits, it doesn’t repair why they started drinking in the first place. Eventually they’ll have a bad day, and no new routine is going to make everything seem okay. What can make a difference is believing that they can cope with that stress without alcohol” (loc. 1500-04).

The program Alcoholics Anonymous has always made excellent use of this fact. AA was once considered to be somewhat of a cult organization among scientists, due to its heavy reliance on spirituality in its approach. Recently, however, scientists have begun to take AA more seriously. Part of the reason why Alcoholics Anonymous has been so successful, it seems, is because the program makes the belief that things can change an important part of their meetings. Tonigan argues that “by putting alcoholics in meetings where belief is a given—where, in fact, belief is an integral part of the twelve steps—AA trains people in how to believe in something until they believe in the program and themselves. It lets people practice believing that things will get better, until things actually do” (loc. 1507).

And a big part of why AA seems to be so effective in engendering belief among its members, is because the program takes place in a social setting, where the matter of belief becomes a group experience. “There’s something really powerful about groups and shared experiences,” claims Lee Ann Kaskutas of the Alcohol Research Group, “people might be skeptical about their ability to change if they’re by themselves, but a group will convince them to suspend disbelief. A community creates belief” (loc. 1510).

So, putting it all together, then, Duhigg sums things up this way:

we know that a habit cannot be eradicated—it must, instead, be replaced. And we know that habits are most malleable when the Golden Rule of habit change is applied: If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted. But that’s not enough. For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible. And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group (loc. 1627).

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