Ask a recovering alcoholic how the 12-step program Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) works, and he or she is likely to quip, “It works just fine.” And in fact, it does work just fine—but the way it works depends on whether the alcoholic is a man or a woman, a new study reveals.

The new study: The study participants included 1,726 adults—76% of them men and 24% women. All were treated for alcohol use disorder (commonly known as alcoholism) in a 12-week outpatient program, then followed for 15 months. During the study, they responded to questionnaires about factors that affect people’s drinking and recovery, including their networks of drinking and nondrinking friends…ability to cope with negative feelings and high-risk social situations that involved drinking …symptoms of depression…and spirituality.

The researchers then evaluated the data and determined that, while men and women benefit equally from AA, they benefit through different mediators (mechanisms of change) in response to participating in AA. Specifically…

Men in AA tend to get and stay sober by learning to avoid hanging with friends who encourage drinking…by adopting new, sober friends…and by getting a boost in confidence in their ability to remain sober in social situations (such as sporting events) that involve drinking. According to the study data, the proportion of AA’s total effect that is attributable to this particular mediator, for men, is 35%.

Women in AA also benefit from avoiding social situations and friendships that revolve around drinking, but not to the same extent—this particular mediator accounts for just 17% of AA’s effect on women. Far more important for women was gaining confidence in their ability to avoid drinking when feeling sad or depressed—this mediator accounts for 19.4% of AA’s effect for women, but less than 1% of its effect for men.

Why is this study valuable? The new understanding can help potential and current AA members approach the program with a more constructive attitude and stronger belief in AA’s ability to help them.

Beyond that, these insights may be useful to anyone who wants to drink less or stop drinking—by encouraging men to stay away from the people with whom they usually drink…and by encouraging women to recognize that they have alternative ways (besides drinking) of successfully coping with negative emotions.

Keys to recovery: There are no dues or fees for AA membership…there are no requirements, only suggestions on how to recover from alcoholism. The program works well for many people. If you know or suspect that you have a drinking problem, visit the AA Web site or phone 212-870-3400 for more information and to find AA meetings near you. Note that, while most AA meetings are open to both men and women, many areas also have men-only and women-only meetings for members who prefer those.

Help for family and friends: If someone you love is affected by alcoholism, get information and support by visiting the Web site of Al-Anon or phoning 757-563-1600. Al-Anon is a fellowship of relatives and friends of alcoholics who share their experiences, strength and hope in order to solve their common problems. Like AA, Al-Anon is a 12-step program and meetings are a central component.