Stockholm syndrome

Stockholm syndrome is a condition which causes hostages to develop a psychological alliance with their captors during captivity.[1] These alliances result from a bond formed between captor and captives during intimate time together, but they 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. [2][3] About ninety-six percent of victims involve suicide, domestic violence, and include people with previous relationships with the abuser.[4]

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.[5] 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[2]

Stockholm syndrome is a "contested illness" due to doubt about the legitimacy of the condition.[5] 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.[5]


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.[5]

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.[5] He called it Norrmalmstorgssyndramat, meaning "the Norrmalmstorg syndrome"; it later became known outside of Sweden as the Stockholm syndrome.[6] It was originally defined by psychiatrist Frank Ochberg to aid the management of hostage situations.[7]

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.[8]

The 2018 film Stockholm is loosely based on the events of the bank robbery.

Other examples

Mary McElroy

Mary McElroy was abducted from her home in 1933 at age 25 by four men who held a gun to her, demanded her compliance, took her to an abandoned farmhouse, and chained her to a wall. She defended her kidnappers when she was released, explaining that they were only businessmen. She then continued to visit her captors while they were in jail. She eventually committed suicide and left the following note: “My four kidnappers are probably the only people on Earth who don't consider me an utter fool. You have your death penalty now – so, please, give them a chance."[9]

Natascha Kampusch

Natascha Kampusch was kidnapped in 1998 at age 10 and kept in an insulated, dark room under the garage of Wolfgang Přiklopil. She would receive a variation of kind, physically and sexually abusive, controlling, and permissive treatment from her captor. Eight years after her kidnapping, Kampusch left and Přiklopil committed suicide. After her kidnapper's death, Kampusch lamented and kept a picture of him in her wallet.

Kampusch now owns the house in which she was imprisoned, saying, "I know it's grotesque – I must now pay for electricity, water and taxes on a house I never wanted to live in". It was reported that she claimed the house from Přiklopil's estate because she wanted to protect it from vandals and being torn down; she also noted that she has visited it since her escape.[10] When the third anniversary of her escape approached, it was revealed she had become a regular visitor at the property and was cleaning it out possibly to move in herself.[11]

In January 2010, Kampusch said she had retained the house because it was such a big part of her formative years, also stating that she would fill in the cellar if it is ever sold, adamant that it will never become a macabre museum to her lost adolescence.[12] The cellar was indeed filled in, though Kampusch still owns the house.[13]

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.[5]

Colleen Stan

In 1977, Colleen Stan was hitchhiking to visit a friend in southern California when she was kidnapped by Cameron Hooker and his wife Janice and forced to live in a wooden restraining box underneath their bed. For seven years she was repeatedly raped and tortured by Cameron and forced to live life as a sort of domestic/sex slave. Even though she was allowed to socialize with Janice and even visit her mother, she still continued to live in the box and did not attempt to escape. She was eventually freed by Janice, who asked Colleen to not disclose her abuse as Janice was attempting to reform Cameron. Colleen remained silent until Janice finally decided to turn Cameron over to the police.[14]

Sexual abuse victims

There is evidence that some victims of childhood sexual abuse come to feel a connection with their abuser. They often feel flattered by the adult attention or are afraid that disclosure will create family disruption. In adulthood, they resist disclosure for emotional and personal reasons.[15]

Lima syndrome

An inversion of Stockholm syndrome, called Lima syndrome, has been proposed, in which abductors develop sympathy for their hostages. An abductor may also have second thoughts or experience empathy towards their victims.[16]

Lima syndrome was named after an abduction at the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru, in 1996, when members of a militant movement took hostage hundreds of people attending a party at the official residence of Japan's ambassador.[17]

Symptoms and behaviors

Victims of the formal definition of Stockholm syndrome develop "positive feelings toward their captors and sympathy for their causes and goals, and negative feelings toward the police or authorities".[5] These symptoms often follow escaped victims back into their previously ordinary lives.[18]

Physical and psychological effects

  1. Cognitive: confusion, blurred memory, refusal to accept the reality of events, and recurring flashbacks.
  2. Emotional: lack of feeling, fear, helplessness, hopelessness, aggression, depression, guilt, dependence on captor, and development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  3. Social: anxiety, irritability, cautiousness, and estrangement.
  4. Physical: increase in effects of pre-existing conditions; development of health conditions due to possible restriction from food, sleep, and exposure to outdoors.[19]

Coping mechanism

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".[5] 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.[5] It is believed that women are especially prone to developing the condition.[20]

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.[5] 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.[20] Partial activation of the capture-bonding psychological trait may lie behind battered woman syndrome,[21] military basic training, fraternity hazing, and sex practices such as sadism/masochism or bondage/discipline.

Possible evolutionary explanations

Evolutionarily speaking, research evidence exists to support the genuine scientific nature of Stockholm syndrome. Responses similar to those in human captives have been detected in some reptiles and mammals, primates in particular. Abuse and subsequent submission and appeasement by the victim have been observed among chimpanzees, leading to the theory that the Stockholm syndrome may have its roots in evolutionary needs.[22]

Life in the "environment of evolutionary adaptiveness" (EEA) is thought by researchers such as Israeli military historian Azar Gat to be similar to that of the few remaining hunter-forager societies, who asserts that war and abductions were typical of human pre-history. Being captured by neighbouring tribes was a relatively common event for women. In some of those tribes (Yanomamo, for instance), practically everyone in the tribe is descended from a captive within the last three generations. As high as one in ten of females were abducted and incorporated into the tribe that captured them. Being captured and having their children killed may have been common; women who resisted capture risked being killed. When selection is intense and persistent, adaptive traits (such as capture-bonding) become universal to the population or species.

Loving to survive

First published in 1994, author Dee Graham uses the Stockholm syndrome label to describe group or collective responses to trauma, rather than individual reactions. Graham focuses specifically on the impact of Stockholm syndrome on battered and abused women as a community.[23]She claimed that in both the psychological and societal senses, these women are defined by their sense of fear surrounding the threat of male violence. This constant fear is what drives these women to perform actions that they know will be pleasing to men in order to avoid emotional, physical, or sexual assault as a result of male anger. Graham draws parallels between women and kidnapping victims in the sense that these women bond to men to survive, as captives bond to their captors to survive.[23]


Recovering from Stockholm syndrome ordinarily involves "psychiatric or psychological counseling", in which the patient is helped to realize that their actions and feelings stemmed from inherent human survival techniques. The process of recovery includes reinstating normalcy into the lives of victims, including helping the victim learn how to decrease their survival-driven behaviors.[20]


Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM5, 2013)

This book is widely used as the "classification system for psychological disorders" by the American Psychiatric Association.[5] Stockholm syndrome has not historically appeared in the manual, as many believe it falls under posttraumatic stress disorder. Before the fifth edition (DSM5) was released, Stockholm syndrome was under consideration to be included under 'Disorders of Extreme Stress, Not Otherwise Specified'.[5] The work was updated in 2013, but Stockholm syndrome was not present.[24]

Namnyak, Tufton, Szekely, Toal, Worboys and Sampson (2008)

A research group led by Namnyak has found that although there is a lot of media coverage of Stockholm syndrome, there has not been a lot of professional research into the phenomenon. What little research has been done is often contradictory and does not always agree on what Stockholm syndrome is. The term has grown beyond kidnappings to all definitions of abuse. There is no clear definition of symptoms to diagnose the syndrome.[25]

FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (1999)

A report by the FBI found that only 8% of kidnapping victims showed signs of Stockholm syndrome. The sensational nature of dramatic cases causes the public to perceive this phenomenon as the rule rather than the exception. For Stockholm syndrome to happen, FBI researchers have identified three key factors: the passage of time, continual contact, and small acts of kindness without direct and persistent abuse.[3]

Robbins and Anthony (1982)

Robbins and Anthony, who had historically studied a condition similar to Stockholm syndrome, known as destructive cult disorder, observed in their 1982 study that the 1970s were rich with apprehension surrounding the potential risks of brainwashing. They assert that media attention to brainwashing during this time resulted in the fluid reception of Stockholm syndrome as a psychological condition.[26]


It is possible that the label Stockholm syndrome is used too freely in cases in which it may not apply. Elizabeth Smart has been held as a classic example of Stockholm syndrome; however, she denies that she ever had any emotional attachment to her abusers. Although she chose not to run away when she had the chance, she emphasized that the threats from her captors to her and her family, and the direct presence of her captors influenced her decision to stay. Once freed from her captors, she gladly reunited with her family and felt no empathy for her abusers.[27]

See also


  1. Jameson C (2010). "The Short Step From Love to Hypnosis: A Reconsideration of the Stockholm Syndrome". Journal for Cultural Research. 14.4: 337–355. doi:10.1080/14797581003765309.
  2. Sundaram CS (2013). "Stockholm Syndrome". Salem Press Encyclopedia via Research Starters.
  3. Fuselier GD (July 1999). "Placing the Stockholm Syndrome in Perspective" (PDF). FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. 68: 22.
  4. "LPC Library Off-Campus Database Access Login". Retrieved 16 December 2019.
  5. Adorjan M, Christensen T, Kelly B, Pawluch D (2012). "Stockholm Syndrome As Vernacular Resource". The Sociological Quarterly. 53 (3): 454–74. doi:10.1111/j.1533-8525.2012.01241.x.
  6. Bejerot N (1974). "The six day war in Stockholm". New Scientist. 61 (886): 486–487.
  7. Ochberg F (8 April 2005). "The Ties That Bind Captive to Captor". Los Angeles Times.
  8. Westcott K (22 August 2013). "What is Stockholm syndrome?". BBC News. Retrieved 8 April 2018.
  9. Bovsun M (11 July 2009). "Justice Story: The lady and her kidnappers". NY Daily News. Retrieved 8 April 2018.
  10. "Kidnap Victim Owns Her House of Horrors". Sky News. 15 May 2008. Retrieved 15 May 2008.
  11. "Kampusch to auction off horror house items – Panorama – Austrian Times". Archived from the original on 19 February 2012. Retrieved 15 September 2009.
  12. Natascha Kampusch: He put me inside the cellar for eight-and-a-half years, preserved alive like an Egyptian pharaoh, Daily Mail. Retrieved 26 January 2010.
  13. Abductee Natascha Kampusch speaks out about her 8 years in captivity, YouTube
  14. Bovsun M (9 March 2014). "Hitchhiker kept as sex slave for seven years as 'Girl in the Box'". NY Daily News. Retrieved 8 April 2018.
  15. Jülich S (2005). "Stockholm Syndrome and Child Sexual Abuse". Journal of Child Sexual Abuse. 14 (3): 107–129. doi:10.1300/J070v14n03_06. PMID 16203697.
  16. "PERU: Tale of a Kidnapping - from Stockholm to Lima Syndrome | Inter Press Service". Retrieved 23 February 2019.
  17. Kato N, Kawata M, Pitman RK (2006). PTSD. Springer Science & Business Media. ISBN 978-4-431-29566-2.
  18. Giambrone A. "Coping After Captivity". The Atlantic. Retrieved 8 April 2018.
  19. Alexander DA, Klein S (January 2009). "Kidnapping and hostage-taking: a review of effects, coping and resilience". Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 102 (1): 16–21. doi:10.1258/jrsm.2008.080347. PMC 2627800. PMID 19147852.
  20. Åse C (22 May 2015). "Crisis Narratives and Masculinist Protection". International Feminist Journal of Politics. 17 (4): 595–610. doi:10.1080/14616742.2015.1042296.
  21. Thims L (2007). Human Chemistry (Volume Two). pp. 604–605. ISBN 978-1-4303-2840-7.
  22. Cantor C, Price J (May 2007). "Traumatic entrapment, appeasement and complex post-traumatic stress disorder: evolutionary perspectives of hostage reactions, domestic abuse and the Stockholm syndrome". The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. 41 (5): 377–84. doi:10.1080/00048670701261178. PMID 17464728.
  23. Graham, Dee LR (1994). Loving to Survive (PDF). New York and London: New York University Press.
  24. American Psychiatry Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5 (5th ed.). Washington: American Psychiatric Publishing. ISBN 978-0-89042-555-8.
  25. Namnyak M, Tufton N, Szekely R, Toal M, Worboys S, Sampson EL (January 2008). "'Stockholm syndrome': psychiatric diagnosis or urban myth?". Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica. 117 (1): 4–11. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0447.2007.01112.x. PMID 18028254.
  26. Young EA (31 December 2012). "The use of the "Brainwashing" Theory by the Anti-cult Movement in the United States of America, pre-1996". Zeitschrift für Junge Religionswissenschaft (7). doi:10.4000/zjr.387.
  27. McLaughlin CM (2015). Fear or Love: Examining Stockholm Syndrome in the Elizabeth Smart Kidnapping case (Bachelor of Science thesis). Salem State University.
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