I first learned this statistic from the Bufe volume, reviewed here. Bufe attributed it to AA's own Membership Surveys. However, I drew a blank -- and some hostile looks -- when I visited the AA library up on Riverside Drive in 2005 and asked to see the original survey reports. Since Bufe might be accused of anti-AA bias, I wanted a less impeachable source. Thanks to a very knowledgeable psychology Ph.D., I now have it, and it's very interesting.
Don McIntire of Burbank CA was given access to the AA membership surveys from 1968 through 1996. He is a staunch defender of AA and cannot be accused of negative bias. His article "How Well Does A.A. Work? An Analysis of Published A.A. Surveys (1968-1996) and Related Analyses/Comments" in the Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly (Vol 18, No. 4, 2000) centers on the 5 per cent one-year retention rate and attempts to explain it.
The 95 per cent dropout rate is anything but a statistical fluke. AA's own membership surveys demonstrated the identical pattern, give or take trivial variations, in five successive triennial data collections spanning twelve years. McIntire depicted the trends in a graph (inset) showing a fairly tight braid whose strands are the data sets from different years. The five per cent figure is the average of the five studies.
Most of the attrition, McIntire's analysis shows, comes during the first 30 days. This is not obvious from the graph. The graph begins at 30 days. If you can read the tiny numbers on the x axis, you will see that the bundle of line graphs begins at around the 20 per cent mark. If the graph began at Day One and 100 per cent, the lines would drop almost like a rock.
- McIntire found that an average of 81 per cent of AA first-time attendees dropped out during the first 30 days.
- At the end of 90 days, 90 per cent of newcomers have dropped out; only ten per cent are left. (This gives a new dimension altogether to the "90 in 90" slogan, doesn't it?)
- The attrition curve from 90 days to a full year is, by comparison, rather gentle: from ten per cent to five percent, a relative loss of "only" fifty per cent.
The author's apologetic argument is that the FTA's (first time attendees) who drop out quickly aren't really alcoholics, or aren't really trying to get sober, and so they shouldn't count. Although that has a ring of plausibility for some cases, the author presents no data as to percentages.
AA co-founder Bill W., looking at numbers of this type, asked "What happened to the 600,000 who approached AA and left?" (Reported in White, Slaying the Dragon, p. 139) Despite Wilson's concern, apparently nobody in AA has ever, yet, bothered to try to contact any of the 95 per cent to try to find out their reasons for leaving.
We know from other data that alcoholics who don't do AA can nevertheless succeed in achieving long-term sobriety. In fact, the AA Grapevine has conceded that the majority of alcoholics who achieve the milestone five-year mark do it without using AA. (Vaillant., 1996, 2001)
Consequently, it's extremely unlikely that lack of motivation to get sober accounts for the 95 per cent AA dropout rate. Lack of desire to get sober is undoubtedly a part of the picture, but there has to also be a healthy percentage of the 95 per cent dropouts -- perhaps a majority -- who want to get sober but drop out of AA for other reasons.
McIntire's article never looks at this bigger picture. To do so would be to confront the reality that AA is driving people away who have a sincere desire to get sober (and many of whom will achieve that aim).