What Is Stockholm Syndrome?

Female Bank Teller Giving a Robber Money

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Stockholm syndrome develops when people are placed in a situation where they feel intense fear of physical harm and believe all control is in the hands of their tormentor. The psychological response follows after a period of time and is a strategy for survival for the victims. It includes sympathy and support for their captor's plight.

Why the Name?

The name Stockholm syndrome was derived from a 1973 bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden, where four hostages were held for six days. Throughout their imprisonment and while in harm's way, each hostage seemed to defend the actions of the robbers and even appeared to rebuke efforts by the government to rescue them. They pled that the captors were not harmed during the rescue and orchestrated ways for that to happen. Immediately following the incident, the hostages couldn't explain to psychologists their sympathetic feelings and lack of anger.

Months after their ordeal had ended, the hostages continued to exhibit loyalty to their captors to the point of refusing to testify against them as well as helping the criminals raise funds for legal representation. They even visited them in prison.

A Common Survival Mechanism

The response of the hostages intrigued behaviorists. Research was conducted to see if the Kreditbanken incident was unique or if other hostages in similar circumstances experienced the same sympathetic, supportive bonding with their captors. The researchers determined that such behavior was very common.

What Causes Stockholm Syndrome?

Individuals can succumb to Stockholm syndrome under the following circumstances:

  • The belief that one's captor can and will kill him or her. The feelings of relief by the victim for not being killed then turn to gratitude.
  • Isolation from anyone but the captors.
  • The belief that escape is impossible.
  • The inflation of the captor's acts of kindness into genuine care for each other's welfare.
  • The passage of at least a few days in captivity.

Victims of Stockholm syndrome generally suffer from severe isolation and emotional and physical abuse also demonstrated in characteristics of battered spouses, incest victims, abused children, prisoners of war, cult victims, procured prostitutes, slaves, and kidnapping, hijacking, or hostage victims. Each of these circumstances can result in the victims responding in a compliant and supportive way as a tactic for survival.

It is similar to the reaction from brainwashing. Victims show some of the same symptoms as those who have post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), such as insomnia, nightmares, difficulty concentrating, distrust of others, irritability, confusion, a sensitive startle reflex, and a loss of pleasure in once-favorite activities.

Famous Cases

In the year following the Stockholm bank incident, the syndrome was widely understood by the masses because of the case of Patty Hearst. Here is her story and other more recent examples:

  • Patty Hearst: Patty Hearst, at age 19, was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). Two months after her kidnapping, she was seen in photographs participating in an SLA bank robbery in San Francisco. Later a tape recording was released with Hearst (SLA pseudonym Tania) voicing her support and commitment to the SLA cause. After the SLA group, including Hearst, was arrested, she denounced the radical group. During her trial her defense lawyer attributed her behavior while with the SLA to a subconscious effort to survive, comparing her reaction to captivity to other victims of Stockholm syndrome. According to testimony, Hearst had been bound, blindfolded, and kept in a small, dark closet, where she was physically and sexually abused for weeks before the bank robbery.
  • Jaycee Lee Dugard: On June 10, 1991, witnesses said they saw a man and a woman abduct 11-year-old Jaycee Lee Dugard by a school bus stop near her home in South Lake Tahoe, California. Her disappearance remained unsolved until on August 27, 2009, when she walked into a California police station and introduced herself. For 18 years she was held captive in a tent behind the home of her captors, Phillip and Nancy Garrido. There Dugard gave birth to two children, who were ages 11 and 15 at the time of her reappearance. Although the opportunity to escape was present at different times throughout her captivity, Jaycee Dugard bonded with the captors as a form of survival.
  • Natascha Kampusch: In August 2006, Natascha Kampusch from Vienna was 18 years old when she managed to escape from her kidnapper, Wolfgang Priklopil, who had kept her locked in a small cell for more than eight years. She remained in the windowless cell, which was 54 square feet, for the first six months of her captivity. In time, she was permitted in the main house where she would cook and clean for Priklopil. After several years of being held captive, she was occasionally allowed out into the garden. At one point she was introduced to Priklopil's business partner, who described her as relaxed and happy. Priklopil controlled Kampusch by starving her to make her physically weak, severely beating her, and threating to kill her and the neighbors if she tried to escape. After Kampusch escaped, Priklopi committed suicide by jumping in front of an oncoming train. When Kampusch learned that Priklopil was dead, she cried inconsolably and lit a candle for him at the morgue. In a documentary based on her book, "3096 Tage" ("3,096 Days"), Kampusch voiced sympathy for Priklopil. She said, "I feel more and more sorry for him—he's a poor soul." Newspapers reported that some psychologists suggested Kampusch may have been suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, but she does not agree. In her book, she said the suggestion was disrespectful of her and did not properly describe the complex relationship that she had with Priklopil.
  • Elizabeth Smart: More recently, some believe Elizabeth Smart fell victim to Stockholm Syndrome after her nine months of captivity and abuse by her captives, Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee. She denies that she had sympathetic feelings toward her captors or captivity, just explained that she was trying to survive. Her kidnapping is portrayed in the 2011 Lifetime movie, "I Am Elizabeth Smart," and she published her memoir, "My Story," in 2013. She is now an advocate for child safety and has a foundation to provide resources for those who've suffered traumatic events.

Lima Syndrome: The Flipside

When captors develop feelings of sympathy for their hostages, it's called Lima syndrome and is rarer. The name comes from a 1996 Peru incident where guerrilla fighters took over a birthday party for Japanese Emperor Akihito, given at the home of the Japanese ambassador. In a few hours, most of the people had been freed, even some of the most valuable to the group.