The Stockholm Syndrome

   “Men, when they receive good from whence they expected evil, feel the more indebted to their benefactor.” – Machiavelli


What is the Stockholm syndrome?

How did the expression Stockholm syndrome originate?

What other situations does this syndrome cover?



        Slavery and Bondage

        An interesting aside


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What is the Stockholm syndrome?

The Stockholm syndrome is a psychological state in which the victims of a kidnapping, or persons detained against their free will, develop an emotional attachment, a bond of interdependence with their captors.  This is enhanced when the captive is placed in a life-threatening situation and is then spared.  The relief that results from the removal of the threat generates intense feelings of gratitude which, combined with the fear, makes the victim reluctant subsequently to cooperate with those seeking to prosecute the oppressor.

The defining characteristic of Stockholm syndrome is the tendency to react to threatening circumstances not with the usual fight-or-flight response, but by "freezing," as some animals do by playing dead in order to fool predators. Stockholm syndrome is a position of passivity and acquiescence that works in a similar way as a strategy for survival.

This situation was summed up well by one of the hostages of the TWA Flight 847 hi-jack in June 1985: “They weren’t bad people.  They let me eat, they let me sleep, they gave me my life.”


How did the expression Stockholm Syndrome originate?

In August 1973, a 32 year old named Jan-Erik Olsson, having escaped from prison, attempted to rob a Stockholm bank.  His attempt went awry and, in the best Hollywood tradition, he held four employees hostage in a vault for six days.  Despite Olsson’s threats to kill them, the four bank workers bonded so thoroughly with him that they refused to denounce him and, indeed, criticized their rescuers.

Jan-Erik Olsson and hostages

Click here for The Name is Bond, a detailed description of the event.


What other situations does this syndrome cover?


It is now accepted that there are a number of situations where people, held in thrall by forces they feel helpless to resist, seek to appease those forces and work with them. This is no more than a basic survival instinct.  It applies, for example, to “battered women” who display a strange need to be loyal to their husbands or partners and often resist appeals to escape or take other defensive action.  

Both hostages and battered women share psychological and emotional responses to their victimizers. Hostages are overwhelmingly grateful to their captors for giving them life; battered women are inordinately grateful to their abusers for giving them love.  Each focuses on the victimizer's kindnesses not their acts of brutality. Both feel fear, as well as love, compassion and empathy toward someone who has shown them any kindness.  Such acts of kindness help to ease the emotional distress that has been created and sets the stage for emotional dependency.  Battered women may assume that the abuser is a good man whose actions stem from problems that she can help him solve.

Women Against Domestic Violence (WADV) states that: "battering is a pattern of behavior used to establish power and control over another person through fear and intimidation, often including the threat or use of violence. Battering happens when one person believes they are entitled to control another. Assault, battering and domestic violence are crimes.

"Battering may include emotional abuse, economic abuse, sexual abuse, using children, threats, using male privilege, intimidation, isolation, and a variety of other behaviors used to maintain fear, intimidation and power. In all cultures, the perpetrators are most commonly the men of the family. Women are most commonly the victims of violence. Elder and child abuse are also prevalent.

"Acts of domestic violence generally fall into one or more of the following categories:

"Physical Battering - The abuser’s physical attacks or aggressive behavior can range from bruising to murder. It often begins with what is excused as trivial contacts which escalate into more frequent and serious attacks. Sexual Abuse - Physical attack by the abuser is often accompanied by, or culminates in, sexual violence wherein the woman is forced to have sexual intercourse with her abuser or take part in unwanted sexual activity.

"Psychological Battering -The abuser’s psychological or mental violence can include constant verbal abuse, harassment, excessive possessiveness, isolating the woman from friends and family, deprivation of physical and economic resources, and destruction of personal property. Battering escalates. It often begins with behaviors like threats, name calling, violence in her presence (such as punching a fist through a wall), and/or damage to objects or pets. It may escalate to restraining, pushing, slapping, and/or pinching. The battering may include punching, kicking, biting, sexual assault, tripping, throwing. Finally, it may become life-threatening with serious behaviors such as choking, breaking bones, or the use of weapons."

Differences between hostages and battered women *


Battered Women

Typically male Typically female
Involuntary initiation of relationship Voluntary initiation of relationship
Emotional attachment to captor begins after abuse begins Love for abuser begins before abuse begins
Short period of victimization: days, weeks or months. Long term victimization.  Can last for decades.
Public authorities sympathetic to plight, seeing them as having little control over their situation. Media attention. Victim-blaming: "They like/want/cause and/or deserve abuse.  All they need to do is leave.
Outsiders likely to negotiate for release.  Hostages generally released from captivity or rescued by authorities. Battered women negotiate with abuser on own and their children's behalf.  Victim thrown on own devices for leaving.
Negotiations for release not dependent on proving they are targets of physical violence nor wanted or provoked it. Outsiders reluctant to intervene unless a battered woman can prove she was subject to life-threatening violence.
Authorities attempt to capture and punish hostage-takers. Abusers rarely punished unless women or children killed.
Hostages who kill captors are regarded as heroes. Most battered women who killed their abuser have been convicted and punished.
Hostages are known to visit imprisoned captors and refuse to testify against them. Victims will often drop charges and/or return to their abuser after having left.
Hostages report feeling that their captors, even those who are jailed, will return to capture them again. Battered women who return often report doing so from fear they will be killed, or believe abuser has or can be reformed.



    (a) Patty Hearst

Patricia (Patty) Hearst was a millionaire’s daughter, granddaughter of the American publishing baron William Randolph Hearst, who was kidnapped and tortured by a group called the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA).  

In February 1974 she was abducted from her Berkeley, California apartment and extortionate demands from the SLA led to donations by the Hearst family of six million dollars-worth of food to the poor of the San Francisco Bay Area.  But of, or from, Miss Hearst there was no word.

In April 1974, however, she was photographed wielding an assault rifle during the course of a robbery of the Sunset branch of the Hibernia Bank.

Patty Hearst


Later communications from her revealed that she had changed her name to Tania and was committed to the goals of the SLA. A warrant was issued for her arrest and in September 1975 she was arrested in an apartment with other SLA members. 

At her trial, which started in 1976, Hearst claimed she had been locked blindfolded in a closet and physically and sexually abused, which caused her to become a convert to the SLA,   A clear analogy exists here between the case of Patty Hearst and the bonding that had occurred in the Stockholm bank incident of two years earlier, albeit that this was a rather more extreme example of the syndrome.

    (b) Elizabeth Smart

Elizabeth Ann Smart was kidnapped in June 2002 from her home in Salt Lake City, Utah.  She was five months short of her 15th birthday.

Nine months after her abduction Elizabeth was found with two homeless adults, Brian David Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee, in Sandy, Utah, when they were stopped by police.  At that time she refused to reveal her true identity, nor had she earlier run for help when the opportunity had been available to her.  Mitchell had earlier done handyman work at the Smart house.



The case inevitably provoked comparison with Patty Hearst and evoked references to the Stockholm syndrome, although the generally expressed opinion of her family and friends was that she must have been brainwashed by her captors.

Mitchell's lawyer has told a television station that his client considers the 15-year-old his wife and "still loves her".  He added that he did not consider Elizabeth's disappearance a kidnapping, but a "call from God."

"He wanted me to tell the world that she is his wife, and he still loves her and knows that she still loves him, that no harm came to her during their relationship and the adventure that went on," 

Mitchell, an excommunicated Mormon and self-style prophet, wrote a rambling manifesto last year espousing the virtues of polygamy. The Mormon church has long distanced itself from polygamy and excommunicates those who practice it.  His lawyer suggested that giving a light sentence to his client could send a signal to kidnappers that they should keep their captives alive.

"As a doctor, it's amazing to me that you can become so brainwashed that you identify with your captor," grandfather Charles Smart said. During her time with her abductors, "Elizabeth had the chance of escaping. One day she was completely by herself, but she didn't try to run away," he added. He did not elaborate on circumstances in which the girl was left alone.




It applies also to the reluctance or refusal to escape from political or economic bondage.  In the area of racial, ethnic or geographical slavery, the oppressed usually appear blind to the reality of their enslavement after long periods (sometimes generations) of subjugation to political and economic forces.  They may complain or agitate, but seem strangely incapable of comprehending the precise nature of their situation in order to escape.

Slavery, it has been said, has been the fate of almost everyone during the whole history of human political activity. If you think that you are not caught up in some form of slavery (in particular, slavery to implanted beliefs) then you are either captivated and blinded by your situation and the deceit of your oppressors, or you have had a life of miraculous good luck. If the latter then you must feel quite lonely and frustrated at not being able to convey the truth of their situation to others.”


 This may be a time to recall the wisdom of Thomas Szasz:


"Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one's self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all.


“It is so difficult to face the sacrifice of ideas to which we have adapted our lives. But it may become possible, even easy, if we understand that it is our human ability to self-sacrifice that creates the food of wisdom and a healthy mind. Self-sacrifice (of belief to better information) is the fuel of our intellectual progress.”


It could be postulated that the willingness of many people to accept the abuse of goods and service providers is merely a variant on the Stockholm syndrome, akin to that of battered wives.  In order to justify bad choices, people will often rationalize and defend their decisions.  Mobile telephone companies, TV satellite suppliers, internet service providers . . . no matter how much we may complain directly to them, we tend to defend them when speaking to others.  To denounce them would be to admit to our own insufficiency


An interesting aside

Here’s an interesting variation on the theme.

 Dr. Helen Smith, in her TCS essay on the book by David Frum and Richard Perle, An End to Evil: (Random House, 2004) writes: 

“. . . some Americans seem to believe that if we can "feel our enemies' pain," then we will be on the path to enlightenment and peace. This belief could not be further from the truth. In my private practice, I don't work with terrorists but I do work with violent people. I used to believe (as many of my colleagues still do) that empathizing with my patients and increasing their self-esteem would help them on the path to self-actualization.   

Of course, for some anxiety-ridden patients who need faith in themselves, the technique of empathy and support works. However, for those patients with serious violent tendencies, just the opposite is true. With those patients, I've found that setting clear boundaries and making judgments about their immoral behavior works like a charm.   

Those patients who threatened me backed down only when I got up in their face and told them forcefully to stop -- the slightest hint of fear or intimidation (or sympathy!) on my part was met with increased threats. In the real world of private practice, confronting real murderers, I learned to act in ways that were different from what I had been taught in graduate school. 

“Unfortunately, there are still those in the ivory tower who have not learned this valuable lesson. They continue to believe that to humanize and to empathize with violent students, professors, and terrorists is the only way to treat those who wish to do them harm. In fact, however, the old saw "give them an inch and they'll take a mile" applies. Without clear boundaries, and a sense of consequences, their behavior will spiral out of control until they injure themselves and others.” 

“In our attempt to be overly-tolerant and empathetic, we start to identify too much with the enemy (very much like those suffering from Stockholm syndrome) and start to dehumanize the victims of terror.”  


Thomas Strentz spend 20 years as a Supervisory Special Agent with the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit.  He was a former marine, an expert in hostage situations, negotiation and survival, and stress management in correctional environments.  Also, as a crime scene assessor and profiler, he conducted worldwide research for the FBI on terrorist activities, and was responsible for much of the original research on the Stockholm syndrome.

In 1980 he commented that "the victim's need to survive is stronger than his impulse to hat the person who has created his dilemma."  The victim comes to see the captor as a "good guy", even a saviour.  This situation occurs in response to four specific conditions:

1.  A person threatens to kill another and is perceived as having the capability to do so.

2.  The other cannot escape, so her or his life depends on the threatening person.

3.  The threatened person is isolated from outsiders to that the only other perspective available to him or her is that of the threatening person.

4.  The threatening person is perceived as showing some degree of kindness to the one being threatened.

For example, battered women assume that the abuser is a good man whose actions stem from problems that she can help him solve.  Hostages are overwhelmingly grateful to terrorists for permitting them to live; they focus on the captors' kindnesses, not their acts of brutality.



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* Based on details provided by the site of Women Helping Battered Women (WHBW)

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LINKS TO SITES OF INTEREST - English translation of Swedish website. - From the website of AFRA (American Family Rights Association) - Domestic Stockholm Syndrome in Violence Against Women - English version from a Spanish university site . - Post-trauma page from The Real Dark Side site.