What Is Stockholm Syndrome?

Stockholm syndrome is a condition in which hostages develop a psychological alliance with their captors during captivity. Victims form emotional bonds with their captors and become sympathetic toward them. 

They may not escape when given the chance, and they might even try to prevent their captors from facing consequences for their actions.

Origin

The term “Stockholm syndrome” was created to describe what happened to victims during a 1973 bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden. Throughout the six-day ordeal, the bank robbers worked on negotiating a plan with police that would allow them to leave the bank safely.

During this time period, the majority of bank employees who were being held hostage became unusually sympathetic toward the robbers. 

Even after being set free, the hostages refused to leave their captors and later defended them. They also refused to testify in court against them and even helped raise money for the robbers’ defense.

The criminologist and psychiatrist who were investigating the event coined their condition “Stockholm syndrome” as it became clear the bank employees had developed some sort of affection toward the people who held them captive.

Prevalence

Stockholm syndrome is rare. The Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates that fewer than 8% of kidnapping victims show evidence of Stockholm syndrome . 

Causes

No one knows the exact reasons why some victims develop Stockholm syndrome and others don’t. 

When FBI investigators interviewed flight attendants who had been taken hostage during airplane hijackings, they concluded that there were three factors necessary for Stockholm syndrome to develop:

  • The crisis situation had to last for several days or longer.
  • The hostage-takers had to remain in close contact with the victims. (The victims couldn’t be placed in a separate room.)
  • The hostage-takers had to show some kindness toward the victims or at least refrain from harming them.

Evolutionary psychologists suspect that Stockholm syndrome can be linked back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Their theory is that women in those societies faced the risk of being captured by another tribe.

Their lives were often at risk, and sometimes their children were killed. Developing a bond with the tribe holding them captive ensured their survival. The frequency of these abductions developed into an adaptive trait in the human population.

Developing a relationship with a captor is actually encouraged. Forming a bond with the perpetrator can increase hostages’ chances for survival.

Interestingly, however, victims who develop Stockholm syndrome often later refuse to cooperate during the subsequent investigation or during legal trials.

Symptoms

Individuals with Stockholm syndrome often report symptoms similar to those with PTSD. Symptoms may include:

  • Being easily startled
  • Distrust
  • Feelings of unreality
  • Flashbacks 
  • Inability to enjoy previously pleasurable experiences
  • Irritability
  • Nightmares
  • Trouble concentrating

Additional symptoms (dissimilar to PTSD) may include:

  • Inability to engage in behavior that could assist in their release
  • Negative feelings toward friends, family, or authorities who try to rescue them
  • Positive feelings toward the captor
  • Support of the captor’s behavior (and the reasoning behind it)

Diagnosis

Stockholm syndrome doesn’t appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is used to diagnose the entire spectrum of mental disorders. Instead, it’s more of a descriptive term for a pattern of behaviors that are used to cope with a traumatic situation.

Individuals with Stockholm syndrome often also meet the criteria for acute stress disorder or PTSD.

Treatment can involve psychotherapy and/or medication. Psychotherapy may address specific symptoms that appear after the traumatic event, such as nightmares or flashbacks. It might also teach individuals healthy ways to cope with their traumatic experience.

Through treatment, they may grow to recognize how sympathizing with the perpetrator was a survival skill and that their thoughts about the perpetrator do not serve them once they are safe.

Examples

Recognizing instances of Stockholm syndrome isn’t always clear. In some cases, people have been accused of having it when they insist they don’t.

For example, some experts have argued that Elizabeth Smart, the teenager who in 2002 was kidnapped from her home in Utah, must have had Stockholm syndrome because she didn’t escape her captors when she had chances to do so.

Smart has repeatedly spoken out to say she did not have Stockholm syndrome. Rather, she chose not to attempt escape because her captors threatened to kill her family if she did. She stayed out of fear, not because she had positive feelings toward the couple holding her captive.

In some cases, individuals have tried to use Stockholm syndrome as their defense in court.

Here are some famous examples of times when individuals were suspected to have Stockholm syndrome:

  • Mary McElroy: In 1933, 25-year-old McElroy was held at gunpoint by four men. She was chained to walls in an abandoned farmhouse as the kidnappers demanded ransom from her family. When released, she publicly expressed sympathy for her captors, and she struggled to name them when they were placed on trial.
  • Patty Hearst: The granddaughter of businessman and newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974. During her captivity, she renounced her family, took on a new name, and joined her captors in robbing banks. Hearst was eventually arrested. She used Stockholm syndrome as her defense on trial. Yet she was still found guilty and sentenced to 35 years in prison as the jury did not believe she actually had Stockholm syndrome.
  • Natascha Kampusch: Natascha was kidnapped in 1998 at the age of 10. She was kept in an underground room for more than eight years. Her captor showed kindness sometimes, but he also beat and threatened to kill her. Natascha eventually escaped, and her captor killed himself. News accounts reported that upon hearing about his death, Natascha “wept inconsolably,” leading some to believe she had Stockholm syndrome.

Sports

While Stockholm syndrome is mostly used to describe hostage situations or kidnappings, a 2018 study showed it can also be found in sports. Researchers assert that abusive athletic coaches can victimize young athletes in a way that creates Stockholm syndrome.

Athletes might put up with emotional abuse and subject themselves to painful workouts or extreme conditions by convincing themselves that their coach wants what is best for them.

They may also sympathize with the hard work their coach has to put in. Or they might excuse mistreatment by convincing themselves that the abuse is good training.

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