You might be asking yourselves, what on earth does Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), have to do with community. What does it have to do with Autodesk user groups and user communities? And I might have had the same opinion but on a plane a few weeks ago, I was reading an article in Wired Magazine about the history of AA (The Secret of AA, Brendan I. Koerner. Wired Magazine, July 2010) which made me think again.
One of the main themes of the article is that although AA and many of the 12-step programs have been very successful, nobody really knows why or how they actually work. One of the main reasons that , despite its longevity, because the participants in AA by definition are “anonymous” then it’s been very difficult to do any large-scale long-term studies. However, there is a growing feeling that the program might be working because of something very fundamental: the power of the group.
“Psychologists have long known that one of the best ways to change behavior is to gather people with similar problems into groups rather than treat them individually.” The article points to a physician, Joseph Pratt, who back in 1905 organized weekly meetings of patients suffering from tuberculosis. The meetings were designed to teach his patients better health habits, but he noticed that by sharing their stories, they were also very effective at lifting each other’s “emotional spirits”. Koerner also points to a pair of Stanford researchers who reviewed over 200 articles on group therapy who concluded that group therapy works so well because “members find the group to be a compelling emotional experience; they develop close bonds with the other members and are deeply influenced by their acceptance and feedback.” Is this starting to feel familiar?
Another study showed that in treating post-traumatic stress order (PTSD) over 80% of those in group therapy stopped displaying signs of PTSD as opposed to 31% who had one-on-one treatment. AA members who more commit to the group also do better. Studies at the University of Mexico show that AA members who are involved in activities like becoming a sponsor or mentor to other members are more likely to stay dry than people that just attend meetings. This activity and engagement in the group should also resonate with all of us involved in community.
The article goes on to point out that addiction specialists are often concerned that medical professionals are not involved in AA and are not permitted at meetings. However, “there is evidence that this may actually help foster a sense of intimacy between members since the fundamental AA relationship is between fellow alcoholics rather than between alcoholics and a the therapist.” Similarly in community, we know that the majority of purchasing decisions are made on the basis of recommendations from friends and peers and not from so-called experts.
AA clearly has a lot to teach us about community. We might also be able to give something back and contribute to the body of knowledge through our experience and expertise in fostering engagement, deepening relationships, the wisdom of crowds, and the power of the peer. I wonder what other collections of individuals exhibit the power of the group?