Stockholm syndrome is a condition in which hostages develop a psychological alliance with their captors during captivity. Emotional bonds may be formed, between captor and captives, during intimate time together, but these are generally considered irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims. The FBI’s Hostage Barricade Database System and Law Enforcement Bulletin indicate that roughly 8% of victims show evidence of Stockholm syndrome.
This term was first used by the media in 1973 when four hostages were taken during a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden. The hostages defended their captors after being released and would not agree to testify in court against them. Stockholm syndrome is paradoxical because the sympathetic sentiments that captives feel towards their captors are the opposite of the fear and disdain which an onlooker might feel towards the captors.
There are four key components that characterize Stockholm syndrome:
- A hostage’s development of positive feelings towards the captor
- No previous relationship between hostage and captor
- A refusal by hostages to cooperate with police forces and other government authorities (unless the captors themselves happen to be members of police forces or government authorities).
- A hostage’s belief in the humanity of the captor because they cease to perceive the captor as a threat when the victim holds the same values as the aggressor
Stockholm syndrome is a “contested illness” due to doubt about the legitimacy of the condition. It has also come to describe the reactions of some abuse victims beyond the context of kidnappings or hostage-taking. Actions and attitudes similar to those suffering from Stockholm syndrome have also been found in victims of sexual abuse, human trafficking, terror, and political and religious oppression.
Stockholm bank robbery
In 1973, Jan-Erik Olsson, a convict on parole, took four employees of the bank (three women and one man) hostage during a failed bank robbery in Kreditbanken, one of the largest banks in Stockholm, Sweden. He negotiated the release from prison of his friend Clark Olofsson to assist him. They held the hostages captive for six days (23–28 August) in one of the bank’s vaults. When the hostages were released, none of them would testify against either captor in court; instead they began raising money for their defense.
Nils Bejerot, a Swedish criminologist and psychiatrist coined the term after the Stockholm police asked him for assistance with analyzing the victims’ reactions to the 1973 bank robbery and their status as hostages. As the idea of brainwashing was not a new concept, Bejerot, speaking on “a news cast after the captives’ release” instinctively reduced the hostages’ reactions to a result of being brainwashed by their captors. He called it Norrmalmstorgssyndromet, meaning “the Norrmalmstorg syndrome”; it later became known outside Sweden as Stockholm syndrome. It was originally defined by psychiatrist Frank Ochberg to aid the management of hostage situations.
Olsson later said in an interview:
It was the hostages’ fault. They did everything I told them to. If they hadn’t, I might not be here now. Why didn’t any of them attack me? They made it hard to kill. They made us go on living together day after day, like goats, in that filth. There was nothing to do but get to know each other.
The case of Patty Hearst
Patty Hearst, the granddaughter of publisher William Randolph Hearst, was taken and held hostage by the Symbionese Liberation Army, “an urban guerilla group”, in 1974. She was recorded denouncing her family as well as the police under her new name, “Tania”, and was later seen working with the SLA to rob banks in San Francisco. She publicly asserted her sympathetic feelings towards the SLA and their pursuits as well. After her 1975 arrest, pleading Stockholm syndrome did not work as a proper defense in court, much to the chagrin of her defense lawyer, F. Lee Bailey. Her seven-year prison sentence was later commuted, and she was eventually presidentially pardoned by Bill Clinton, who was informed that she was not acting under her own free will.
Physical and psychological effects
- Cognitive: confusion, blurred memory, refusal to accept the reality of events, and recurring flashbacks.
- Emotional: lack of feeling, fear, helplessness, hopelessness, aggression, depression, guilt, dependence on captor, and development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Social: anxiety, irritability, cautiousness, and estrangement.
- Physical: increase in effects of pre-existing conditions; development of health conditions due to possible restriction from food, sleep, and exposure to outdoors.
Through a psychoanalytic lens, it can be argued that Stockholm syndrome arises strictly as a result of survival instincts. Strentz states, “the victim’s need to survive is stronger than his impulse to hate the person who has created the dilemma.” A positive emotional bond between captor and captive is a “defense mechanism of the ego under stress”. These sentimental feelings are not strictly for show, however. Since captives often fear that their affection will be perceived as fake, they eventually begin to believe that their positive sentiments are genuine. The conception of Stockholm syndrome has grown to include victims of kidnappings or hostage instances, domestic or child abuse, human trafficking, incest, prisoners of war, political terrorism, cult members, concentration camp prisoners, slaves, and prostitutes. It is believed that women are especially prone to developing the condition.
Typically, Stockholm syndrome develops in captives when they engage in “face-to-face contact” with their captors, and when captors make captives doubt the likelihood of their survival by terrorizing them into “helpless, powerless, and submissive” states. This enables captors to appear merciful when they perform acts of kindness or fail to beat, abuse or rape the victims. Ideas like “dominance hierarchies and submission strategies” assist in devising explanations for the illogical reasoning behind the symptoms of those suffering from Stockholm syndrome as a result of any oppressive relationship. Partial activation of the capture-bonding psychological trait may lie behind battered woman syndrome, military basic training or fraternity hazing.