What is Stockholm Syndrome?
Stockholm syndrome is a psychological condition related to hostages and their captors. This syndrome results from being captured and held hostage. It refers to the tendency for hostages to identify with and feel sympathy for their captors. The hostages develop a “psychological alliance,” feeling connected with their captors and not wanting them to come to harm.
Stockholm syndrome was first formally recognized in 1973. Four people were taken hostage during a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden. The hostage situation lasted for five days and was finally ended by a teargas attack by the Stockholm police. Afterwards, the hostages were unwilling to testify against their assailants. During their time together, the hostages had formed personal bonds with their assailants and didn’t want to see them punished for their actions. One of the hostages, Kristen Enmark, was in communication with the police during the crisis. She stated that she was not afraid of Olsson or Olofsson, the two robbers, but was afraid of police actions that could lead to escalation. In a later call, she asked the police to let the robbers and hostages to leave unmolested. In the years that followed, Kristen Enmark and Olofsson, whose charges were dropped, became good friends. Their families even became close to one another.
This highlights the difference between roles and human connections. In a hostage situation, the assailants take the role of captor and the hostages take the role of victim. However, if the assailants and victims are given time to connect, the lines between these roles begin to blur. Instead of a captor and an assailant, two people come together, learning about one another’s lives, needs, and internal experiences. They connect, they talk, and they establish the natural human connections that form whenever we connect with others.
The result of this is that the hostage begins to care for his or her captor and wants to ensure the captor comes to no harm. The other side of this situation is that the captor also begins to care for the hostage. However, given the context of the situation, the captor cannot admit this to the authorities without losing his or her leverage. This side of the Stockholm syndrome has received relatively little attention, but the trust and affection that has been developed goes both ways.
This is an excellent example of the effect of personalization. We have long recognized the effects of objectification. When we objectify another, or treat them as if they were an object rather than a person, it is easier to use this person for our own needs. To objectify someone makes them a thing instead of a person, making their needs and desires immaterial. Personalization is the opposite. When we personalize the individual that we interact with, we are forced to recognize their needs, their desires, and their value as a human being. This is a natural result of interacting closely with another person. We begin to let go of our stereotypes, heuristic assumptions, and other dehumanizing factors. We begin to actually see the person in front of us.
Another interesting aspect of Stockholm syndrome is the impact of stress upon human perception and human interaction. Though the captors are in a position of power and the hostages are the victims in the situation, both are equally in a position of stress. Adrenaline runs high, danger is looming on the horizon, and the people involved in the situation begin to see one another in a different light. The normal social divisions slip away. What remains is the fact that both are human beings, both equally challenged by the situation. It’s the same kind of bonding that can happen in a P.O.W. camp or behind enemy lines. Outside onlookers can’t understand why the connection is so strong because they haven’t been stripped of these conventional categories by the threat of danger.
Stockholm Syndrome Examples
One of the most widely-recognized examples of the Stockholm syndrome is the case of Patty Hearst. She was a newspaper heiress captured in 1974 by revolutionaries. Over the course of the time she was with her captors, she developed sympathy for them and eventually joined them in a robbery. She helped them, seemingly of her own volition. Hearst was captured during the robbery and received a prison sentence for aiding and abetting. However, her lawyer was able to get the charges dropped by showing that she was under the influence of her captors and was experiencing Stockholm syndrome.
Another, more recent, case also demonstrates Stockholm syndrome. Natascha Kampusch was kidnapped when she was just 10 years old and was held captive for the next eight years before being rescued. After her rescue, she still felt affection for her captor, even lighting a candle for him and honoring his life when he died.
Stockholm Syndrome Symptoms
The Stockholm syndrome is also apparent in abused wives or abused children, prostitutes, war captors, and a range of other people that have been subject to captivity, either on a physical or emotional level. In any of these cases, the victim can develop a sense of sympathy and empathy for his or her captor. This is an effect that can keep victims of domestic abuse with their partners and even lead to them defending their abusive partners at trial. It causes children to support their parents, even when those parents have subjected them to the most heinous physical and emotional abuse. Stockholm syndrome can occur any time a person’s power is taken away and he or she begins to develop trust and affection for the person that has taken it.
Implications of Stockholm Syndrome
Some researchers have interpreted the Stockholm syndrome as an aspect of survival impulse. They say that this effect is the result of a hostage’s desire to survive overshadowing their hate for their captor. Other researchers say this is incorrect and that if were true, then the desire for the victim to protect the captor would dissipate after the situation had been resolved. However, it has been shown, time and time again, that the sympathy and fondness of the victim for the captor persists long after the crisis situation has been resolved. The story of Kristen Enmark makes it clear that these feelings do persist, and can even become more powerful, long after the hostage situation has been resolved.
There is another interpretation that carries a bit more weight. This is that the appreciation of a hostage for his or her captor is a matter of context and contrast. From the background of a life-threatening situation, the captor shows small kindnesses to the hostage. One example of such a kindness is sparing the hostage’s life when they might otherwise kill them. Other actions can also be received with immense gratitude by the hostage, such as the captor providing food, water or other comforts. These small acts of kindness are seen as gestures that make the captors worthy of appreciation. In the mind of the captives, the fact that the captors have put them in this situation to begin with is forgotten.
This reflects the way that we as human beings respond to power. When our own power over our situation has been taken away, our first response is to fight to regain that power. If we are then shown that we are unable to do so, we are “broken”, much in the same way that a wild horse is broken before it is made fit to ride. The hostages then interpret the actions of the captor in the same way that we would interpret those of a figure of absolute authority. We know that we have no influence over the situation, so any acts of kindness are gratefully received. Those in control of the hostage situation have become the stand-ins for archetypal authority figures.