Reactance Theory, Worldviews &Twelve Step Interpretations (part 1)

How can 21st century psychology helps us understand how each of us interprets the 1939 Twelve Step? View or downlaod the PDF

Americans were polled by Harris[i] in 2009 and asked to indicate, for each category, if they believed, didn’t believe or were not sure. Some of the 2009 beliefs by category are: God: 82%, Miracles: 76%, Survival of the soul after death: 71%, Astrology: 26% and Reincarnation: 20%.
 see the report Believe Don’t Believe Not Sure
God 82% 9% 9%
Miracles 76% 13% 12%
Soul survives death 71% 10% 19%
Darwin’s Theory of Evolution 45% 32% 22%
Ghosts 42% 38% 20%
UFO 32% 39% 29%
Astrology 26% 52% 22%
The USA, of course, is the most theistic of developed-world countries. Even throughout America, “God as we understand Him,” helps include those who worship different concepts of Gods but still excludes 18% of Americans who aren’t convinced of the presence of any supreme being. To 56.5 million Americas (18%), an intervening, prayer answering God is no more real than Zeus, Mother Nature, unicorns, Santa Claus and Spider Man. If we talk of miracles, some will nod approvingly in the rooms but this language excludes a quarter of any Twelve Step room. In Canada, the UK, Australia, Asia and Europe, a worldview that includes an intervening higher power is even more exclusive than in the USA. In Europe, less than half the population believes in God.
“God-conscious” recovery is the preferred choice in Twelve Step rooms so what’s wrong with majority rule? Consider that A.A. has a credo. Our Responsibility Declaration has us saying that we want our message to reach anyone, anywhere. Our message is one of recovery from “a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body.” While obedience to “God as we understand Him,” comes with the territory for most, it isn’t demanded, it isn’t obligatory and it isn’t necessary. Sober atheists have been A.A. members since the beginning.
How do we talk about the Steps without marginalizing anyone? Can atheists take the 1939 “God” out of their Twelve Step program without offending the religiously sensitive? Will this godless process be the same modality or a completely new modality?
I believe that the Twelve Step exercise is the same experience for the atheist and theist—it is merely articulated in a different language. Just like the Punjabi and Swedish Twelve Steps sound foreign to the Anglophone, we know it works for them and their experience is essentially the same as our experience.
Michael Shermer, in his book, The Believing Brain, looks at the science of why humans believe stuff. Some of it is early cause and effect association. One caveman hears a rustle in the grass and immediately believes it’s just the wind and consequently, there’s nothing to fear. Another caveman fears that a rustle is a predator readying to pounce and impulsively retreats. Either could be wrong, of course. To some, the environment is a strange and dangerous place, to others it is our playground to tame. To what extent do we each feel in control of our surroundings?
We all try to make sense of the world, whilst commanding just a fraction of the information and context available in the universe. Addicts or alcoholics may drift away from meetings for a period of time and then relapse. A connection can be made between not going to meetings for a few months (the cause) with relapse (the effect). She or he tells this story in a meeting and reassuring nods convert this possibility to a reality, a socially constructed reality. In truth, we never hear back from those who leave the rooms, get on with their life and never give in to temptation again. There may be a truth-based probability that continued abstinence is positively correlated with going to more meetings. Certainly, this is the experience for so many of us. But this is anecdotal evidence—hardly scientific or unbiased. Some call this intuitive knowledge.
One Twelve Step member may relate that she or he tried over and over again to stop doing cocaine. They recall how a sponsor said, “Pray for help to abstain in the morning and give thanks to God in the evening.” They stay clean and this cause and effect—praying and recovery—are, in their minds, inescapable proof of God’s grace.
Another may go the other way, praying sincerely for help from relapse to relapse, never finding long-term recovery until their faith was shattered and a more secular modality breaks the curse, say, the cognitive behavioral method. The coke-head may compare their post-theism success vs. their previous faith-filled recidivism. Would this be proof that God does not exist?
Michael Shermer calls this tendency to find meaningful patterns—sometimes in meaningless noise—“patternicity.” Drawing upon a post-Big Book, 1966 study of environmental factors, self-determination and the conclusions we draw upon to construct our reality,[ii] Shermer supports his patternicity and control theory. Here he draws upon what is called in psychology, “locus of control.”
“People who rate high on internal locus of control tend to believe that they make things happen and that they are in control of their circumstances, whereas people who score high on external locus of control tend to think that circumstances are beyond their control and that things just happen to them.”
Some of the patterns we see—the dots we connect—are a credit to our deduction skills but will also lead us to false conclusions, what Shermer calls, “apatternicity.” In the rooms, people with an external locus of control (LOC) say, “That’s my disease talking,” “No human power could relieve our alcoholism,” and “Nothing happens in God’s world by mistake.” People with an internal LOC will say, “Faith without works is dead,” “Easy does it, but do it,” or “If nothing changes, nothing changes.”
Words like powerless and unmanageable mean different things, depending on one’s LOC. A “power greater than ourselves,” might have obvious but different definition to internal and external LOC types. While the power of example in the rooms might be the miracle of God to a theist external LOC, to a non-theist external LOC, the influence, example and teachings of others is powerful, yet hardly a miracle. An internal LOC theist will feel God’s guidance in their gut. To a nonbeliever internal LOC, they may describe “the personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism” (as Appendix II of Alcoholics Anonymous put it), as tapping into “an unsuspected inner resource.” They may call it their power greater than themselves to placate the majority in the room but they may not; instead, they may call this guiding force their value system, higher-self or common sense. To the internal LOC, especially a skeptic, the whole idea of willpower being an agent of relapse but not an equally critical ingredient of recovery, seems to be more dogmatic than dependence on a supernatural being. Willpower is a neutral term to those of us with an internal locus of control. It is the root of all good and all evil.
Early recovery language suits an eternal locus of control type addict or alcoholic. Understanding is warranted for some internal LOC addicts who say, “Forget the Twelve Steps—they are a design for planned dependency.” Finding a non-Twelve Step modality is certainly an option. The Steps don’t corner the market in recovery. There are secular self-help options like Life Ring and Secular Organizations for Sobriety. They may not offer meetings every day in every city, face-to-face, but these communities and principles are readily available on the Internet.
Internal LOC translations of the Steps are out there, although harder to come
 by. For instance, in Roger C’s The Little Book: A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps, “Gabe’s 12 Steps” are written from an internal locus of control perspective. Step Six, in the literal translation, helps ready the alcoholic for God’s removal of character defects. Gabe’s internal LOC version reads: “We accepted our moral and personal weaknesses, and accepted that they needed to change.” No divine intervention needed here, just a greater clarity and the application of personal responsibility.
The Twelve Step principles are universally grounded, even if we find the 1939 tone tainted with Abrahamic morality and theism. After all, Bill and Dr. Bob were Yankees, not Tibetan Buddhists. The language was limited to the realities of the day, place and time. A Tibetan Bill and Guru Bob would have yielded a somewhat different sounding solution on noble truths.

Calab Lack http://
Caleb Lack, Ph. D. is clinical psychologist and professor, working in areas such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and posttraumatic stress. He also studies what and why humans believe. Lack points out that by the age of two we have imprinting that renders us naturally wanting to believe things that aren’t necessarily backed by the evidence—think boogie-men, tooth-fairies and Hercules.
 “That certainly helps contribute to our belief in supernatural things, later in life,” Lack says.
Sometimes, in working the program with others, we see tragic flaws in someone else’s beliefs or reasoning. We might be quick to set them straight. Picture if you will an atheist and Big Book thumper trying to help enlighten the other. Yuck! Why doesn’t either side give in?
Lack explains that when we feel compelled to say, “Hey, you’re wrong,” something called psychological reactance triggers the other to dig their heels in. Any self-doubt they may have entertained is abruptly cast out. Lack explains how we get the opposite result that we are seeking. Instead of “Oh my, you are right and I was wrong—thank you,” the reaction we inspire instead is, “Hey, screw you; now I am doubly right.” One who was once open to new ideas becomes stubborn with unyielding certainty. Lack says that we ought to “engage them in discussion: why do I believe what I believe, and why do you believe what you believe? . . . I am a huge fan of the scientific method. I think one of the best things our culture has produced over the last 400 years is the scientific method. It takes all these biases, all these heuristics that we are naturally prone to, and helps eliminate them... so we don’t fool ourselves which is the key to any real understanding of things. It’s not just, ‘Here is my evidence,’ but ‘here is my unbiased evidence.’ For me, personally, it’s about seeing the world for how it is—not as I want it to be.”
This reactance theory, or psychological reactance as Caleb Lack says, is defined by the Psychology Dictionary as:
The theory describing a motivational state consisting of distress, anxiety and desire to restore freedoms taken away when an individual responds to a perceived threat or to loss of a freedom. According to the theory when an individual feels forced into a certain behavior, they will react against the coercion. This reaction is often exemplified by an increased desire for the behavior that is now restrained. This resentment may manifest in doing the exact opposite of what the power authority wanted.
REACTANCE THEORY: “Reactance theory states that people will often resent the loss of a freedom and will rebel by doing the opposite of what they're told.”

Psychology Dictionary:
So where does all this leave us when we are talking to each other about the Twelve Step program? Let’s continue to share our experience and dispense with what we think is our expertise. As we work with another suffering addict, our role is to help them find their salvation, not ours. If we are working with an atheist and we can’t imagine being clean and sober without God, let’s remember that our description of the events leading to recovery, that we articulate as divine providence, may not be taken seriously by the newcomer. At worst, she or he may feel preached at, making the whole Step process very unattractive.
Conversely, an atheist can still help a believer find recovery. “Just the facts, Jack, just the facts.(Dragnet’s character Jack Webb)” We keep our story to what we heard and learned, how we reacted, how we felt and what we did. Who will disagree with our experience? Our opinions are a whole different matter. The meaning that we assign to events in our life, what Shermer calls patternicity, might sound misguided to someone else. If we can tell our story to someone who holds a divergent worldview, and we don’t make
them defensive, we have likely done a good job at keeping our experience, strength and hope to just-the-facts. Recovery is pan-cultural. We can do more good if we can describe the process in neutral (or agnostic) language.
What would happen if the believer told the atheist, “The only reason we work the Steps is to find God”? The same result would come from the atheist telling the believer, “While you are coming to terms with the fact that you are an alcoholic and you can never drink normally again, why not lose that silly Santa-God delusion, too? You don’t need it; it won’t help.” Either way, if we describe our experience through the lens of our own worldview only, we are going to inspire the psychological reactance described by Lack.
What Bill Wilson wrote at the conclusion of Step Three (turning our wills and our lives over), was “The wording was of course quite optional, so long as we expressed the idea, voicing it without reservations.” Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 63.
We can remind ourselves and others of this when we each describe our own process. One of us may describe our recovery experience as, “God was going to be our Director. He is the Father, and we are His children.” (p. 62). This might jive with our worldview but we may describe the same transformation as “what psychologist William James calls the ‘educational variety’ because (it developed) slowly over a period of time.” (p. 567).
People in need, need to feel heard; no one likes to be told. Let’s leave our personal views at the door, as much as we can. If we put down someone’s beliefs as second-rate, that is bullying. Why tell them to keep an open mind and then trigger them into slamming their mind shut (psychological reactance)? We need not create a mimicking parrot that feeds back what we want to hear in order to carry the message. After all, they are addicts and their skills at telling us what we want to hear are probably sharper than our bull-shit detector can read. Wouldn’t it be better to help them define and describe their process in their words—a language that they already buy into?
In our next Rebellion Dog Blog post, we will look at the Steps and examples of more inclusive, less binary language. We will look at the evolution of the Twelve Steps from fellowship to fellowship through the years. Every new fellowship gets the advantage of starting fresh, talking the language of the day without dogma inhibiting the discussion. Fellowships like Online Gamers Anonymous and Teen Addiction Anonymous are new to the 21st century. As we would imagine, the language of their program is more progressive than fellowships that started in the mid-20th century.
We can each review our own language to test how inclusive we describe this process. Do I describe my experience in a secular way or is my recovery inspired by the grace of God? When I write down or tell my own story do I describe an internal or external locus of control? How could I describe my own experience in a more inclusive way that more people could relate to it?

FYI, here are all of Gabe S's interpretation of the Twelve Steps:
  • 1: We admitted we could not control our drinking, nor do without it, that our lives had become unmanageable.
  • 2: We came to believe that others who had had or understood our problem could help us return to and maintain sanity.
  • 3: We decided to accept what they said and act on their suggestions.
  • 4: We made a searching inventory of our bad feelings, of those aspects of our character that had contributed to these and of the harms we had done. We note occasions where we had done well and were glad of these.
  • 5: We showed the inventory to at least one other person and discussed it with them.
  • 6: We accepted our moral and personal weakness, and accepted that they needed to change.
  • 7: We became willing to admit those weaknesses to others, where appropriate, and to heed any advice that they might offer
  • 8: We became willing to make amends to those we had harmed.
  • 9: We mad direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  • 10: We continued to take personal inventory, when we were wrong promptly admitted it and when we had done well, recognized this.
  • 11: We adopted a practice of meditation and one of reflection upon our place in the world and how we could contribute to it.
  • 12: Having experienced a psychic change as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

[ii] J.B. Rotter, “Generalized Expectancies for Internal Versus External Control of Reinforcement,” Psychological Monographs, 80, no. 1 (1966): 1 – 28.
[iii] Gabe’s 12 Step are printed with permission from C., Roger, The Little Book: A Collection of Alterative 12 Steps 2013

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