The Definition and Examples of Stockholm Syndrome

A Stragedy of Survival

Patricia Hearst brandishing a weapon in front of SLA (Symbonese Liberation Army) april 15, 1974
Apic/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Definition of Stockholm Syndrome

When men and women are placed in a situation where they no longer have any control over their fate, feel intense fear of physical harm and believe all control is in the hands of their tormentor, a strategy for survival can result which can develop into a psychological response that can include 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.

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.

A Common Survival Mechanism

The response of the hostages intrigued behaviorist. 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.

Other Famous Cases

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 Ms. 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.

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.

Patty Hearst

Another more famous case in the U.S is that of heiress Patty Hearst, who 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 was bound, blindfolded and kept in a small dark closet where she was physically and sexually abused for weeks prior to the bank robbery.

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.

What Causes Stockholm Syndrome?

Individuals can apparently succumb to Stockholm Syndrome under the following circumstances:

  • Believing one's captor can and will kill them.
  • Isolation from anyone but the captors.
  • The belief that escape is impossible.
  • Inflating the captor's acts of kindness into genuine care for each other's welfare.

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

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Montaldo, Charles. "The Definition and Examples of Stockholm Syndrome." ThoughtCo, Mar. 6, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-stockholm-syndrome-973324. Montaldo, Charles. (2017, March 6). The Definition and Examples of Stockholm Syndrome. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-stockholm-syndrome-973324 Montaldo, Charles. "The Definition and Examples of Stockholm Syndrome." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-stockholm-syndrome-973324 (accessed September 24, 2017).