The Habit Loop

How Alcoholics Anonymous has achieved brilliant success as a support group...

Support groups are essentially what one can assume from the name: a congregation of people in mutual understanding of a common problem and goal.

In essence, a support group is a fellowship of people performing story telling of the manifestations of their heart-level vulnerabilities. Not much about either the technical definition nor the profound crux of support groups alludes to the realm of science. However, scientific inquiry has an incredible stake in one of the necessary elements of support groups - behaviors, i.e. habits. Charles Duhigg, award winning New York Times business reporter and author of the book, The Power of Habit, brings understanding to the psychological drive behind habits and shows us how Alcoholics Anonymous, the most notable support group of the 20th century, has changed their user’s habits for the purpose of healing.

Why, so often, do well-intentioned resolves to change your nasty behaviors fail? According to The Golden Rule of Habit Change, it is because you can’t extinguish bad habits, you can only change them. This is easily visualized by the habit loop: an initial cue, subsequent routine, and reward, with the entire process being driven by a craving. They way that habit change works is by using the same cue and providing the same reward, but changing the routine. Duhigg’s central thesis is simple: by confronting the roots of our behaviors, accepting our habits as intractable, and channeling those cravings into different patterns, we are capable of change.

In 1935, Bill Wilson began one of the largest and most successful attempts at wide-scale habit change. An alcoholic and agnostic, Wilson entered rehab in the winter of 1934 and while floating in and out of consciousness and hallucinations, he experienced what he describes as “a wind not of air, but of spirit was blowing… I was in another world, a new world of consciousness.” After this, he never drank again and founded Alcoholics Anonymous to support others in their paths to sobriety. Alcoholics Anonymous aims to change their members’ addictions by providing them with the support needed to change their routines. As seen below, the cue for an alcoholic may be the need for emotional release and while the routine was previously reaching for a drink, that is now talking with their sponsor. Ultimately, both loops result in relief from the originally triggered cue.

The power of Alcoholics Anonymous goes beyond just support or changing habits, but also gives people the power to persist. It was easy enough for them to change their habits until the greatest stresses of life began to buck their progress and they were likely to fall off the wagon. So what was the other element to this that enabled long-term success? Many alcoholics said the secret was God. Now, it is important to note that AA does not give people religion. Rather, by giving them something bigger than themselves to believe in, they strengthened their own belief in their ability to change and solidified altered habits. For change to occur, it is essential to believe in your own coping skills.

At CEI, we think a support group is created around the basis of three things: common concerns, mutual support, and coping to experience recovery- one could not exist without the others. Typically, it begins with a common concern, bearing the necessity of a group. This could be grief, parenting, addiction, health concerns, anything shared among many that weighs heavy on the heart. And where there is one, usually there are many. From that mutual support, people begin to cope and experience recovery in a cyclical motion, with no step preceding the other, but in a manner that is continual with no eventual end. The belief that you and others may heal is what enables a person to continue on, despite nagging struggles. Consider AA in this context, and it becomes easy to understand their notoriety and brilliant success. If other support groups were to embrace how members’ habits affected healing and use that alongside powerful belief-enabling behaviors embedded within existing support systems, efficacy measures may be more evident.

For those interested in Charles Duhigg and his book The Power of Habit, you can learn more about both on his website. The IMPACT Center at CEI also maintains an extensive online database that provides access to hundreds of local and national support group resources available in Kansas. The link to that database and other excellent tools for persons interested in starting, growing, and/or leading a support group can be found here.