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of Psychology and Theology, Vol. 15 (2), 124-131, 1987
Success of Alcoholics Anonymous:
Locus of Control and God's General Revelation
by Laird P. Bridgman and William M. McQueen, Jr.
may be the oldest and most cross-culturally persistent problem
man has had to face. It can be found in every culture that
knows alcohol, and it
is no respector of age, race, social status, income, or
sex. Certainly every
generation has felt that the problem of alcoholism is worse
in their decade than
in previous generations. The present generation is no exception.
reports that alcohol-related accidents are the leading cause
of death in the
15-24 age group in our nation, and that 5%, or approximately
Americans are at risk for serious health and social consequences.
directed toward treating the problem of alcoholism have
been varied and
wide-ranging with little success in reforming the alcoholic
Alcoholics Anonymous, however, is one exception to this
poor success rate.
Anonymous (A.A.) is a fellowship of "alcoholic men
and women who
have banded together to solve their common problems"
1984a, p.15). World wide membership in 1976 was estimated
at more than one
million members from only 28,000 groups meeting at that
time. In 1984, more than
58,000 groups were meeting in 114 countries (Alcoholics
Anonymous, 1984c). A.A.
literature reports recovery rates up to 75% of members who
really use their
methods. For example, Geary (1980) found continued sobriety
among 50% of 56
alcoholics from an A.A. inpatient program at a 24 month
follow-up. As the
research shows, Alcoholics Anonymous can be a very effective
of the A.A. Program
origins of Alcoholics Anonymous are of special importance
to our topic,
as most people are unaware of the evangelical foundations
of the A.A. program.
The story began with the struggle for sobriety of a man
named Bill Wilson, a
one-time Wall Street success story whose career was ruined
by his alcoholism.
While Bill was searching for ways to stay sober he met Ebby
struggling alcoholic, and through him was introduced to
the Oxford Group, a
"non-denominational evangelical movement streamlined
for the modern world." It
was the principles of the Oxford Group, originally called
the First Century
Christian Fellowship, which were to have a profound influence
in the latter
formation of the A.A. program. Bill Wilson describes the
was heard of theology, but we heard plenty of absolute honesty,
absolute purity, absolute unselfishness, and absolute love.
restitution, and direct guidance of God underlined every
conversation. We were
talking about morality and spirituality, about God-centeredness
A.A. members stayed with the Oxford Group for several years
became obvious that the alcoholic members had a different
focus from the
non-alcoholic members. According to Bill, "From our
point of view, we felt very
sure we couldn't do much about helping the Oxford Group
to save the whole world.
But, we were becoming more certain every day that we might
be able to sober up
many alcoholics." So, in 1937 the alcoholic members
left the Oxford Group and,
feeling "like a nameless bunch of alcoholics,"
soon adopted the name "Alcoholics
May of 1938, Bill began attempting to set down the principles
of A.A. He
soon realized that although the suffering alcoholic needed
awakening" to reach sobriety, the religious terminology
of the day and
especially the authoritarian method with which it was often
presented tended to
hinder many alcoholics from receiving it. Eventually three
within A.A. The atheists and agnostics did not want the
word "God" to appear in
any of the writings. The liberals (the largest group) had
no objections to the
use of "God, " but they objected to any other
theological propositions. The
conservatives felt that A.A. was a Christian group from
the beginning and ought
to say so up front. After much compromise and heated debate
the principles were
slowly and painstakingly formed. In April, 1939, the "Big
Book" was published.
It, and the 12 Steps it contained, was expressed "in
terms that anybody - anybody at all - could accept and try.
Countless A.A. members have since
testified that without this great evidence of liberality
they could never have
set foot on the path of spiritual progress or even approached
A.A. in the first
of the A.A. Program
A.A. program of treatment for the alcoholic individual is
based on the
philosophies found in the Twelve Steps. They are as follows:
We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives
had become unmanageable.
Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could
restore us to sanity.
Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the
care of God as we understood Him.
Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being
the exact nature of our wrongs.
Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects
Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing
to make amends to them all.
Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except
when to do so would injure them or others.
Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong
promptly admitted it.
Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious
contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for
knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that
Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these
steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and
to practice these principles in all our affairs.
core of the A.A. program is based on the first two steps.
alcoholics are willing to admit powerlessness over alcoholism,
and that only a
Power greater than the individual can restore them to "sanity,"
reach recovery. Because of the progressive and lethal nature
of their problem,
alcoholics believe that acceptance of these two facts leads
to life and that
denial eventually leads to death.
members refer specifically to a "Higher Power"
to whom they must turn
over their lives if they are to continue to live (Step 3).
The terminology they
use and the spiritual base itself are constructed to purposefully
"religious" terminology which might alienate some
individuals. Atheists and
agnostics are encouraged to "keep an open mind"
regarding the concept of a
Higher Power, and, if nothing else, to consider the group
itself as the "Higher
Power." The concept of "God" or "Higher
Power" is defined only by the group or
individual's understanding of him, and not as someone else
or some church might
describe him. A.A. members credit their Higher Power with
maintenance of their sobriety. As they turn their lives
and wills over to his
care, he gives members the power not to drink.
Learning Theory and Locus of Control
to Rotter's (1954) social learning theory, reinforcement
strengthens the expectancy that similar behavior will take
place in the future.
The potential for a given behavior to occur is a function
of the reinforcing
value of the behavior's results and the individual's expectancy
behavior will result in such reinforcement. The latter concept,
expectancy of the outcome of behaviors, is referred to as
locus of control
(LOC). Lefcourt (1976) described it as a "generalized
across a large number of situations, which relates to whether
or not the
individual possesses or lacks power over what happens to
LOC has been defined as a bipolar construct, with internal
LOC and internal LOC being the opposite poles. Individuals
with an internal LOC
are those who feel that they are masters of their own fate.
They have control
over what happens to them in life. Individuals with an external
LOC have the
opposite perspective. They feel at the mercy of the situation
recently, researchers have suggested that LOC is a multidimensional
rather than a unidimensional construct. Lefcourt (1972)
suggested that external
control could be separated into two dimensions: the influence
of powerful others
and the effects of chance and luck. Levenson (1974) constructed
and validated a
multidimensional LOC scale to measure expectations influenced
mastery, control by powerful others, and chance.
(1975) suggested that expectations in a specific situation
function of the expectancy peculiar to that situation, as
well as being a
function of generalized expectations. The balance between
expectancies and generalized expectancies is determined
mostly by the novelty of
the situation - and the generalized expectation increases
in importance as the
situation becomes more ambiguous or novel. Rotter therefore
responses in familiar situations can most easily be estimated
by using a measure
that relates directly to the expectancy in that situation.
and Tumility (1981) argue that an alcoholic's internality
engendered by the use of the drug itself and may, therefore,
have little of its
origins in the individual's social reinforcement history.
They suggest that what
is needed is a measure directly relevant to the sense of
control experienced by
alcoholics over their drinking. The data from the research
(e.g., Donovan &
O'Leary, 1978), as well as arguments such as Worell and
Tumilty's have led to
the development of LOC measures specifically designed to
individuals' perceived LOC regarding their drinking behaviors.
and Locus of Control
use of drinking-specific LOC measures has not adequately
or resolved, the confusion that exists in the research.
Part of the problem may
be a reluctance on the part of science to change old ways
of thinking in spite
of conflicting evidence. Traditionally, and logically it
seems, alcoholics have
been viewed as having an external locus of control. All
too often alcoholics
have been heard to insist that they need a drink because....Maybe
they had a
hard day at work, or maybe their spouse nags them all the
time. Whatever the
"reason," alcoholics always appear to be drinking
because of something that
someone else did. One A.A. author aptly summarizes: "looking
back at this kind
of thinking and our resultant behavior, we see now that
we were really letting
circumstances outside ourselves control much of our lives."
This is what is
thought of as an external locus of control. Researchers
have proceeded to search
their data to find statistics supporting their stated or
implied hypothesis that
alcoholics have an external locus of control prior to treatment
will result in
the alcoholic's developing an internal locus of control.
Much to the
consternation of these researchers, they have continued
to find that their
pretreatment alcoholics have a significant internal locus
orientation. Not satisfied with these results, they have
continued to explain
away the problem data by attributing it to confounding variables
such as age,
socio-economic factors, and variability on cut-off scores
Internal-External scales (Butts & Chotlos, 1973; Costello
& Manders, 1974:
Naditch, 1975; Oziel, Obitz, & Keyson, 1972; Robsenow
& O'Leary, 1978).
members of A.A. will insist that it is an internal locus
control regarding their drinking which causes them the problems.
persist in maintaining their drinking behavior in the face
of strong social,
financial, and personal health pressures to change - a trait
of the internally
oriented individual. As A.A. notes, "He, the alcoholic,
is and must be the
master of his destiny. He will fight to the end to preserve
if one accepts the A.A. model that an alcoholic has an internal
that still does not account for the conflicting research
data. The problem is
that the general measures of LOC often yield different information
measures of LOC in the same study (Pyle, 1984). However,
the variance in the
data may be accounted for if, as Pyle suggests, one allows
for the possibility
that the individual is able to substain two distinct loci
of control; one for
life events in general and the other for drinking behaviors.
This would account
for much of the conflicting research regarding alcoholism
to treatment, alcoholics LOC tends to be internal (Distefano,
& Garrison, 1972; Gols & Morosko, 1970; Gozali &
Sloan, 1971; Pyle, 1984; Worell
& Tumility, 1981). They view themselves as having the
ability to control their
own drinking. They drink because they "want to."
However, alcoholics are unable
to control their drinking by their own willpower or resources.
As A.A. points
out, "It is now well established that willpower all
by itself is about as
effective a cure for alcohol addiction as it is for cancer."
To reach and
maintain sobriety, alcoholics must surrender to the fact
that they cannot
control their drinking. Tiebout, according to Brown (1985),
defines surrender as
"the moment of accepting reality on the unconscious
level," and sees a
difference between "surrender" and "compliance"
in that compliance is a
temporary submission to abstinence with an unconscious intention
to return to
drinking." Brown states that "the individual who
has accepted the reality of
loss of control can proceed to live with that reality, beginning
the process of
recovery...Rather than an abnegation of responsibility,
the admission of
powerlessness is the first step in the assumption of responsibility."
surrender represents a shift in locus of control orientation
from internal to
example of this shift in locus of control is found in Pyle's
study with a male Veterans Administration inpatient population.
were, for the most part, in keeping with those of previous
example, he predicted that successful treatment would result
in an increase in
internality, and the pretreatment internality would be positively
with successful treatment. However, his results did not
support his hypotheses.
His data illustrated a significant shift across treatment
from an internal to an
external LOC. Also, success at follow-up was significantly
externality at post treatment. This development of an external
surrendering the will to a Higher Power is the principle
mechanism behind most
of the success of A.A. That is, there are positive psychological
surrendering to a Higher Power regardless of the actual
power of the particular
god. Brown (1985) quotes one A.A. member's description of
the key to his
recovery: "I could not have maintained a comfortable
sobriety without having had
a spiritual awakening and the resultant radical shift in
my beliefs and my
entire being in the world." There are obviously other
factors, such as social
support (Donovan, 1984; Lefcourt, Martin, & Saleh, 1984),
which play into the
successful treatment of an alcoholic in the A.A. program,
but the principle
mechanism is A.A.'s central theme of a Higher Power.
the Twelve Steps are carefully examined it will become apparent
A.A. teaches its members two distinct attitudes. The first,
as discussed above,
is that they must accept the fact that they are "utterly
helpless" to control
their drinking. The second, which is drawn from Steps 3-12,
is that they must
become responsible human beings. Note particularly Steps
8 and 9, which instruct
individuals to make a list of everyone they have wronged
and to make direct
amends wherever possible. A.A. teaches that members must
take charge of their
own lives; no one is going to do it for them. These attitudes
coincide with the
hypothesis stated earlier by Pyle (1984) that it is possible
for the individual
to sustain two distinct loci of control, one for life events
in general and the
other for drinking behaviors. O'Leary, Donovan, Hague, and
Shea (1975) argued
that increased internality is associated with accountability
responsibility for decision-making , and acceptance of consequences.
is more desirable for individuals to be and act responsible
for themselves than
to be irresponsible, and researchers have persistently asserted
alcoholic needs to develop more internality and to be a
more responsible person.
The problem is that the researchers have tried to generalize
that principle to
the alcoholic's behaviors, and as discussed above, that
is not the cure, but the
problem. However, helping alcoholics to develop an external
LOC regarding their
drinking behaviors and an internal LOC regarding life in
general seems to be the
who examine the principles of the A.A. program are most
struck by the absence of any reference to Jesus Christ.
They will notice a
considerable amount of energy being spent on the concept
of God or a Higher
Power. In fact, Royce (1985) suggests that if one were to
remove the concept of
God, A.A. would no longer be an effective program. How are
reconcile the obvious success of many A.A. members with
their lack of a
relationship with Jesus Christ? How can an individual who
does not profess Jesus
Christ as Lord have a personal relationship with God? This
is a particularly
important question where it appears that God is indeed providing
some sort of
help to that person.
Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Christians in Rome, writes,
have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Romans
3:23). His point is
that all humans are sinners and therefore lack the ability
to have a personal
relationship with God. In spite of humanity's condition,
God loved them enough
to reach out and provide the means whereby humankind and
God could once again
enjoy a personal relationship. That means was the sacrifice
of God's only son,
Jesus Christ, so that "whoever believes in Him (Christ)
should not perish, but
have eternal life" (John 3:16). In the Gospel According
to John, Jesus says, "I
am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to
the Father, but
through me" (John 14:6). Therefore, no one can have
a personal relationship with
God unless they come to God through Christ Jesus.
our point is not to deny that God is at work in the recovery
process, but that he is working more in a general revelatory
sense rather than a
special revelatory sense (Narramore, 1985). When general
discovered through science or nature which apply to all
people, then that is a
demonstration of God working through naturalistic laws,
which are a part of his
general revelation to man. For example, Narramore uses the
example of the
healing of a broken leg to illustrate this concept. If the
doctor sets the leg
in a cast and three months later the leg is mended, then
that is an example of
God working through the natural healing processes he created
in the human body.
This natural process is a part of God's general revelation.
If God performs a
miracle and supernaturally heals the leg, then that would
be an example of God
working through special revelation. With respect to the
A.A. program, it is
through God's general revelation (the A.A. principles) that
achieves sobriety through the development of an external
locus of control. Also,
much of the success of secular psychotherapy could be explained
in terms of God's general revelation.
for Future Research
research and issues just discussed raise many important
future research. First, research should pursue the hypothesis
that it is
possible for an individual to sustain two distinct loci
of control, one for a
specific behavior such as drinking and the other for life
in general. Secondly,
research is needed with which begins with the hypothesis
that alcoholics are
more internal with respect to drinking at the start of treatment,
shift to an
external locus of control across treatment, and that success
at follow-up is
correlated to externality at posttreatment. Long-term research
is needed to
investigate the relationship between continued sobriety
and locus of control, as
well as the relationship between relapses and changes in
locus of control.
members maintain that individuals must reach their own "bottom"
point at which they are willing to admit that they cannot
control their drinking
before they can ever maintain sobriety. What are the factors
involved in this
process? For instance, not all alcoholics had to lose their
job, wife, family,
and freedom (jail) before they reached "bottom."
A big part of the A.A. program
is the tradition of older A.A. members sharing their "stories"
at meetings. Part
of the rationale behind this tradition is the idea that
new to the A.A. program) might identify with the speaker's
story, and thereby
see where they are headed if something does not change.
Once these factors have
been identified, what interventions can be developed to
individuals find bottom?
(1984) raises the question of what role the locus of control
plays in a patient's decision to leave treatment against
medical advice. The
answer to this question would prove useful in predicting
the likelihood that an
individual will complete treatment.
further research clarifying the relationship between denial
social desirability is needed. Denial is a defense mechanism
obviously used by
alcoholics, and social desirability is considered a key
factor by many
researchers. However, as Pyle (1984) points out, previous
research has been
unable to determine the relationship between these two constructs.
summary, the success of the A.A. program for non-Christian
members is a
source of cognitive dissonance for Christians. Where does
the power to change
come from for these individuals since A.A. does not emphasize
relationship with Christ? Even though these individuals
may not benefit from
God's special revelation through Jesus Christ, they can
benefit from God's
general revelation through science and nature. This article
has proposed that
this happens through a change from an internal to an external
alcoholics' drinking behaviors. That is, they must come
to accept the fact that
they cannot control their own drinking. Research on alcohol
shows that successful maintenance of sobriety is related
to an acceptance of the
inability to control drinking. The results indicate that
abstinence is the only
effective method of maintaining sobriety (Abbot, 1984; Alcoholics
1975; Fry, 1985; Rozensky & Honor, 1984). The solution,
as found in the
principles of A.A. is to help alcoholics develop an external
LOC regarding their
drinking behavior and an internal LOC regarding their life
in general. It is
this development of an extenal LOC regarding drinking behaviors
which is seen
as the principle mechanism for the success of the A.A. program.
some issues for future research were presented.