Often and incorrectly considered a psychological diagnosis, the Stockholm syndrome is an emotional response seen in hostages or victims of abuse. It involves this person — the one held hostage or experiencing the abuse — developing feelings of sympathy or other positive emotions for their tormentor. People may also develop this response due to other types of trauma.
The term was first coined in the 1970s, after an attempted bank heist turned into a six-day siege in Stockholm, Sweden. In the public mind, this event cemented the link between hostage situations and the syndrome. However, it’s not just hostages that can develop sympathy towards or positive relationships with their tormentors.
Like with anything involving human emotions, understanding the roots of Stockholm syndrome isn’t simple. It involves an unconscious interplay between the captor and the captive.
As a very simple rundown of how the syndrome works, it involves the formation of an emotional bond between the captor and the captive. Eventually, the victim’s desire to survive and their gratitude towards the captor for ‘protecting’ their life becomes greater than their resentment or urge to punish the person who created the situation in the first place (which is also the captor themselves).
In essence, victims with Stockholm syndrome come to sympathize with their captors, instead of feeling fear, terror, or disdain for them.
“First people would experience something terrifying that just comes at them out of the blue. They are certain they are going to die. Then they experience a type of infantilization — where, like a child, they are unable to eat, speak or go to the toilet without permission,” explained Psychiatrist Dr Frank Ochberg, for the US National Task Force on Terrorism and Disorder, in the 1970s.
“The hostages experience a powerful, primitive positive feeling towards their captor. They are in denial that this is the person who put them in that situation. In their mind, they think this is the person who is going to let them live.”
Stockholm syndrome virtually always develops between hostages and captors that have no previous relationship; the victim’s positive feelings towards their captors develop during a threatening or abusive situation from a blank slate. If this bond has enough time (and a favorable context) to develop, it can lead to the victims becoming quite attached to their tormentors. It’s not uncommon to see hostages exhibiting signs of Stockholm syndrome refusing to cooperate with police or other authorities, even going so far as to help their captors. It can take as little as a few days for Stockholm syndrome to manifest in hostages.
Other elements that seem to be involved in developing the syndrome include the captors treating their victims humanely, high levels of personal or face-to-face interactions between the captors and captives, the victims feeling that law enforcement is not doing enough to save them, or that authorities aren’t protecting their interests at all.
When does it happen?
From the evidence we’ve gathered up to today, psychologists believe that the syndrome takes root when a captor threatens to kill or harm a captive, deliberates, and then chooses not to. It’s assumed that this apparently simple event transforms a captor, in the perception of the victim, from someone who harms them into someone who saves them. The initial fear of death is transformed into gratitude for the captor as, in the perception of the victim, they were the ones who removed the threat and protected them.
By having the opportunity to interact with them, hostages can more easily identify with their captors, see them more as individuals rather than abstract aggressor figures, and get to know them better. Eventually, this makes hostages perceive their captors less as a threat — maybe even as fellows through a dangerous period — especially in cases when the victims and the aggressors hold the same or similar values.
At the core of the syndrome lies our survival instincts. Hostage or abusive situations are very hard on the human psyche, and the normal concerns of our day-to-day lives are swept aside by the simple need to survive. A hostage’s survival is in very real terms in the hands of their captors and they live in enforced dependence on them. Against this backdrop, victims can interpret minute acts of kindness as good treatment. Since their life depends on other people’s decisions, victims become hyper-aware of the needs and demands of their captors.
In the minds of the victim, then, their happiness and wellbeing are completely linked to the happiness and wellbeing of their tormentor. This is the foundation upon which their positive relationship with the captor forms. It’s not that uncommon to see hostages taking a negative attitude to those who are trying to save them, siding with their captors in various situations. This is most commonly seen in those hostages that are not useful to their captors except as leverage.
Captors can also develop positive feelings for their victims.
Why does it happen?
It is still unclear why some victims develop Stockholm syndrome. Not every hostage, victim of abuse, or person who has experienced trauma develops this response. Although it has been argued that Stockholm syndrome is a psychological mechanism for coping with stress, its veracity as a disease is still contested. It has been argued that its symptoms overlap with other psychological phenomena, most pointedly trauma bonding and learned helplessness.
So, really, we don’t know for sure; we’re not even sure that it is an actual, self-contained psychological response. But we do have some theories as to why some victims could develop Stockholm syndrome.
This emotional response can be seen as a survival mechanism. Humans develop emotional connections with others as part of our innate survival strategy, and such a bond shared even with an abuser can raise our chances of survival. Since we tend to like people who like us, this emotional bond can marginally improve the situation for the victim and coax the captors or abusers to meet their basic needs, at the very least.
However, there is very little reliable data on the syndrome, since researchers can’t just take people hostage. So there is not a lot of agreement on what it is, its symptoms, or its purpose. What we’ve talked about here is more conjecture and deduction rather than verifiable fact.
What are the signs of Stockholm syndrome?
In broad terms, any victim or captive showing unexpected sympathy or camaraderie with their captors can be exhibiting signs of Stockholm syndrome. This can be expressed in both passive (i.e. behaving in a friendly manner) or active ways (i.e. providing assistance).
In particular, they:
perceive or describe certain acts or words from captors or abusers as showing kindness and compassion;
develop unexplainable, positive feelings towards them;
start adopting the ideology, goals, mannerisms, or worldview of their tormentors;
refuse to leave their captors even when presented with an opportunity to do so;
feel remorse for their captors or abusers if they are caught;
they may even help them, or attempt to thwart law enforcement and anyone else who is trying to help them escape.
Surprisingly, these responses seem to persist even after the victim is removed from the threatening situation. They may continue expressing positive feelings for their captors or abusers even after these have been apprehended and found guilty. At the same time, they may experience the regular signs of abuse survival such as depression, anxiety, flashbacks, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Today, the Stockholm syndrome isn’t recognized by psychologists as a real condition. The term was even coined by a police psychiatrist to discredit a female hostage in a 1973 bank heist after she criticized the police. Despite this, hostages and abuse survivors show the effects of this syndrome often enough that it can’t be a coincidence. The main difficulty in studying this syndrome is that researchers can’t ethically obtain reliable data on the syndrome, since we can’t just take people hostage. To that end, we may never truly understand this syndrome, how it emerges, and what its symptoms are.