Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Why AA Works. The 12 Steps Translated.

Lately I've been obsessed by the difference between short and long term thinking. Heavy drinkers need to get control of their short term behavior. It is very very simple.  The admission--the 12 step program--is a program to gain long term values and goals and make short term thinking and acting concur while pushing away tempting flairs of pleasure.  It is at base a psychological self-control system.  That much is clear.  Why does it work?  The architecture behind the system is impulse control, and the re-training of psychological orientation (away from acting on impulse).

Look, here are the 12 steps translated:

  • Step 1 - We admitted we were powerless over our addiction - that our lives had become unmanageable 
Step 1 Translated: We cannot control our short term pleasure seeking mind, even to the point of  consequent self-destruction later.
  • Step 2 - Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Step 2 Translated: Come to believe in long term goals of self-preservation through the realization of abstract goodness and long term sustainability.
  • Step 3 - Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God
Step 3 Translated:  Make a decision to concentrate only on long term goals.
  • Step 4 - Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves
Step 4 Translated: Understand that we are weak and fallible short term pleasure seekers with little control over our actions when not given firm consequences.
  • Step 5 - Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs
Step 5 Translated: Admit that we have previously not held ourselves to longer term values, like family, respect, consistency, clear communication, and survival based priorities, like responsible financial practices.
  • Step 6 - Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character
Step 6 Translated: That we can forget about the short term pleasure and, in place of it, dynamically concentrate on our long term goals to remember their importance over and above other pleasure.
  • Step 7 - Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings
Step 7 Translated: Try harder to get rid of motivations for short term pleasure gain than we originally told ourselves to try, because short term pleasures can be really really exciting and make you feel alive -- i.e. they can masquerade as longer term priorities.
  • Step 8 - Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all
Step 8 Translated: Figure out who we harmed and take responsibility for our previous selfishness.
  • Step 9 - Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others
Step 9 Translated:  Go tell those people how our short term interests became paramount to our survival, and that we screwed up and feel bad about it, and want to apologize to take responsibility, further solidifying long term goals.
  • Step 10 - Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it
Step 10 Translated: Make sure that short term responses don't come back to dominate our communication and interaction with others--be open to their perspectives.  Be able to learn by admitting imperfection.
  • Step 11 - Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God's will for us and the power to carry that out
Step 11 Translated: Keep on thinking about long term sustainability and goals.  Live a value-laden life, not a pleasure-seeking one.
  • Step 12 - Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs
Step 12 Translated: Try to help others see how their short term pleasure fucks up their long term happiness.


Anonymous said...

On the assumption that AA works, your analysis misses the most important reason why it does, which is external commitment. A person with time-inconsistent preferences cannot change them by themselves; their short-term self will always sabotage all attempts at impulse control. It's interesting that none of your translated steps contains anything one cannot do on their own, without meetings, sponsors etc. Why, then, is AA an organization in the first place?

The reason is simple: people join a group to commit with at least partial external enforcement. It's sort of like the reason people invented externally enforced contracts: you're giving up some of your control over your own actions, but the reason you're doing it is because you recognize that you benefit fro it: if, due to your tendency to act too much on short-term preferences you are unable to credibly commit to certain actions that are bad for you in the short run but very goon in the long one, then the only way you can overcome that lack of credibility is by showing everyone that you placed control over some of your short-term actions outside of yourself.

In short, if AA works it's because the only way to solve time-inconsistency problems is external commitment. This fact is also the reason why we have civil law and courts, legally binding contracts that people enter voluntarily, why in every democracy the institution which is allowed to print money is independent from the government, why no-drop laws of prosecuting domestic abuse (i.e. laws which say that once charges have been filed they will be investigated even if the victim changes their mind and wishes to drop them) actually increase rates at which victims report abuse, etc.

hmm said...

Thanks for the thoughtful and thorough comment. I certainly agree that external commitment can aid many people in transferring their short term pleasure seeking behavior into longer term sustainable values that they can be reminded of when short term impulse crops up. External commitment is a tool toward this change, not the change itself.