Positive Affirmations and the Placebo Effect

By bob k

To the average AA member, the hardcore nonbeliever poses a conundrum. In the words of Sir Winston, most appropriately spoken in 1939, he “is a riddle. wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Fred, or Jane, or Tom, in a sincere effort to assist in overcoming the encountered “belligerent denial,” offers up, “I was a militant atheist when I got here. Don’t worry.”

Of course, Fred, or Jane, or Tom, is the owner of an odd dictionary that defines “militant” not as “combatative; engaged in warfare,” but more as “I went home that night, got down on my knees, prayed, and cried like a baby.” As the years go by, through countless retellings, a “Then a voice told me everything was going to be okay,” gets added.

When Bill Wilson was a child of 10 or 11, he was teased relentlessly over his parents being divorced. Abandoned by BOTH of these key people, he felt unloved, and got angry at God, even calling himself an atheist for a while. A lot of AA’s ranks of formerly militant atheists will tell you what had made them resentful toward God.

The real atheist is poorly understood outside of our small circles.

Fine folks who almost finished high school may volunteer irrefutable evidence of God’s existence. Though their “proofs” may be simplistic, or even mangled, to them, they are compelling. Memories of Philosophy 101, or of personal study might be evoked, but your friendly question, “Have you been studying Aquinas?” or “Did you know that one’s called the ‘teleological argument?'” will be met with a vacant stare. After all, you are – that’s right – a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

It’s all a bit serendipitous that none of the converts encountered these inarguable truths during their “militant” phase.

Letting Go

It’s difficult to deny that AA is more effective for believers. There are several advantages. For one, it’s FAR easier to fit in – no special meetings required. Some non-specific, God-centered spirituality is all that’s required to be safely in the center of the boat. Pick a God, any God, but don’t forget the capital “G.” Secondly, there must be a great deal of comfort in the belief that the All-Powerful Creator of all that is seen, and unseen, is one’s ally, a partner in sobriety.

In the world of philosophy, there is age-old wisdom in the act of “letting go.”

“People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.” Thich Nhat Hanh

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them. that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”–Lao Tzu

“Be like water.”–Bruce Lee

AA is BIG on letting go.

Surely someone would have an easier time with all this if, previously, he had “come to believe that a Power greater than himself could restore him to sanity,” and had “made a decision to turn his will and his life over to the care of God as he understood Him.”


Dear Mr. Bob K,

We regret to inform you that you have been delisted for changing the wording of the steps.


Toronto Intergroup

The Power of Belief in the Power

Even absent a “power,” there is power in belief. The belief in belief comes to AA from the New Thought Movement, and Mary Eddy’s Christian Science, via William James. There is a repeating pattern in the conversion stories that are retold in his book,Varieties of Religious Experience. AA has its ABC’s (see BB P. 60), as did James. his were:

(a) calamity;

(b) admission of absolute defeat;

(c) appeal to a higher power for help.

More revealing, is his philosophy of Pragmatism. The Harvard academic defined true beliefs as those that were useful to the believer. The Will To Believe essay offers a doctrine allowing one to assume belief in a god, and prove its existence by what the belief brings to one’s life. James sought to ground justified belief in an unwavering principle that would prove more beneficial.

“Beliefs were ways of acting with reference to a precarious environment., and to say that they were true is to say they (were efficacious) in this environment.” (Pragmatism, Bruce Kuklick, P. xiv)

Pragmatists contend that most philosophical topics are best viewed in terms of their practical uses and successes, rather than in terms of representative accuracy. James had been willing to compromise truth in his desire to overcome debilitating clinical depression. Perhaps, he faked it ’til he made it.

When Bill Wilson stood at the edge of death, or alcoholic insanity, he conjured a spiritual experience remarkably similar to that of his grandfather. In the speaking style of the Wall Street hustler, belief had “cash value.” It was useful.

When he related the story to Dr. Silkworth, the physician responded, “You have been the subject of some great psychic occurrence…” (Pass It On, P. 123)

psychic = “of the soul or mind” (Oxford Dictionary)

psychic = “You’ve had a visitor” (Fred, or Jane, or Tom Dictionary)

Mark Twain

Before Mary Eddy and her less famous predecessor, New Thought founder, Phineas Quimby brought to America, healing through the power of positive thinking, masked as miracle, in Europe, Anton Mesmer was performing “miraculous” therapy through hypnosis. A Royal Commission investigated the “cures” wrought by a Mesmer disciple, and concluded the cause to be “imagination.”

The wise, but cynical Mark Twain addressed the claims of New Thought, and Christian Science, groups that were at a peak of popularity in his time. He attributed all of their miracles, not to intervention by the Supreme One, but to “the same old powerful instrument–the patient’s imagination.”

“The power of suggestion, the optimism of the healer, the strong motivation of the sick to be rid of their various ailments (many of them psychological), the faith in the patient in the cure of the healer, the rituals and the theater of the healing all combine to produce what we now loosely call the ‘placebo effect.'” (Skeptic’s Dictionary)

The resemblances to Alcoholics Anonymous need not be belabored.

The Placebo Effect

Placebo effect: Also called the placebo response. A remarkable phenomenon in which a placebo — a fake treatment, an inactive substance like sugar, distilled water, or saline solution — can sometimes improve a patient’s condition simply because the person has the expectation that it will be helpful.

“One of the most common theories is that the placebo effect is due to a person’s expectations. If a person expects a pill to do something, then it’s possible that the body’s own chemistry can cause effects similar to what a medication might have caused. For instance, in one study, people were given a placebo and told it was a stimulant. After taking the pill, their pulse rate sped up, their blood pressure increased, and their reaction speeds improved. When people were given the same pill and told it was to help them get tosleep, they experienced the opposite effects.

“Experts also say that there is a relationship between how strongly a person expects to have results and whether or not results occur.”(WebMD)

One can quickly see the value in AA’s cakes, chips, medallions, and speaker testimonials. “It works if you work it!” “God can do for you what you can not do for yourself.”

“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path.”

Maybe, it REALLY IS God

William James referred to the healing through religious conversion, not as “divine intervention cure,” but as “mind cure.”

The very astute Frank M. in California likes to remind me that at places of great miraculous healing, such as Lourdes, dozens of unneeded crutches and canes have been left behind, but not a single prosthesis.

The most poorly understood paragraph in the big book is the first one on Page 58. I used to wonder why “Rarely have we seen a person fail…” wasn’t good enough for some folks, and why some fictitious tale has Bill W., after the fact, regretting not writing “Never have…”

Of course, there is a good reason. Why would God, were he providing the “cure,” score less than 100%? He’s GOD, for heaven’s sake. Why are there “those who do not recover?..There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault.”

Who is at fault? One wonders.

Would Lazarus NOT have been raised from the dead had he been “constitutionally incapable of being honest with” himself? Who is responsible for a person “being born that way?” The Creator, one would suppose. It’s pretty cool that our own sacred book hints at the “mind cure” aspect of the rehabilitation. Surely Almighty God could cure a psychopath, if He wanted to. However, if it is indeed a mind cure, some damaged conditions of the mind may stand in the way of recovery.

“There are, of course, the psychopaths who are emotionally unstable…They are always ‘going on the wagon for keeps.’ They are over-remorseful and make many resolutions, but never a decision.” (BB, P. xxx) AA, and other therapies, do not do well with psychopaths, sociopaths, psychotics, etc.

Positive Affirmations

Are there positive affirmations in, and around AA? Yes. Tons. The famous tenth step promises are pretty awesome.

“And we have ceased fighting anything or anyone-even alcohol. For by this time sanity will have returned. We will seldom be interested in liquor. If tempted, we recoil from it as from a hot flame. We react sanely and normally, and we will find that this has happened automatically. We will see that our new attitude toward liquor has been given us without any thought or effort on our part. It just comes! That is the miracle of it. We are not fighting it, neither are we avoiding temptation. We feel as though we had been placed in a position of neutrality—safe and protected. We have not even sworn off. Instead, the problem has been removed. It does not exist for us. We are neither cocky nor are we afraid. That is how we react so long as we keep in fit spiritual condition.” (BB, PP. 84-85)

I hear these a lot – an awful lot. And generally from people with LOADS of sobriety. “If the problem has been removed, why are you talking about it every day? Do you run around saying ‘Ex-wives do not exist for us,’ having gotten divorced in the 80s?”

Not all positive affirmations have religious overtones. “My name’s Bob, and I’m an alcoholic.” Say that often enough, and you’ll carve through any layers of denial. Don’t even get me started on the theory of cognitive dissonance!

Of course, positive affirmations work sometimes, and the placebo effect is a real thing. Both are rife in AA, and they have efficacy. That it works is hard to debate. HOW it works is something else, and there is no question that we heathens are missing out a bit.

Even if there is no Power, there is power in belief.

About the Author, Bob K

Key-Players-Front-Cover1-e1422583040318Bob K. lives in the Metropolitan Toronto area, and has been a sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous for 24 years, and an out-of-the-closet atheist for that entire time. He has been a regular contributor to the AAAgnostica website for almost 5 years, and in January, 2015, published “Key Players in AA History” In 2013, he cofounded the Whitby Freethinkers meeting.

Audio Story

The audio story was recorded and narrated by Len R. from Jasper, Georgia. Len is interested in starting a secular AA meeting in his community. If you would like to join him, please send an email to lenr.secularsobriety@gmail.com

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Mark C.
Mark C.
4 years ago

“Of course, positive affirmations work sometimes, and the placebo effect is a real thing. Both are rife in AA, and they have efficacy. That it works is hard to debate. HOW it works is something else, and there is no question that we heathens are missing out a bit. Even if there is no Power, there is power in belief.” Yes, these may have “efficacy” for something or other. There is no question that even delusional belief  can, or may,  for some, take them along a better path in life. At an “All Too Human,” natural, horizontal level, it is not… Read more »

Mark C.
Mark C.
4 years ago

Another enjoyable and humorous romp through some of the Intellectual History that ever-present yet hardly ever recognized.

Bob, if you have not read Daniel Dennett  exploration of “faith in faith,” it would put a further shine on this line of insight. 🙂

A great many former believers find that analysis to be quite insightful. Here’s an example.

5 years ago

Great essay, thanks. An AA friend rcently pointed out Samuel Butler’s line in Erewhon, “As luck would have it, Providence was on my side”. I feel very lucky that I stumbled into AA in 1976 and stuck around and haven’t died of alcoholism. Not sure what the had the “curative” effect but I don’t think it was The Sky Man. I feel a lot more comfortable with my belief in AA since I quit pretending to believe in God.

steve b
steve b
5 years ago

I very much doubt that believers in god–placebo effect or no–stay sober any more readily than atheists. Where’s the proof? I for one do not rely on an imaginary higher power–or any other kind, for that matter. I rely on myself and get a little help from my friends in AA.

Rob McCormick
Rob McCormick
5 years ago

I belong to a Pragmatist school of thought:  The cup is not half full, and it is not half empty. But it is twice as big as it needs to be! When a person prays, it is guaranteed that at least one person is listening.  Did you say, “cognitive dissonance?” I attend a conventional, “God” fearing (I mean God loving) meeting on a daily basis, and find it most useful to reflect on the divergent viewpoints.  If I never hear and consider ideas that contradict my own, I would never have opportunity to test mine against others, and that is where I… Read more »