Stockholm Syndrome

Stockholm Syndrome - Stockholm Syndrome is when a hostage, kidnap victim or abuse victim develops a sense of loyalty or co-operation towards their captor or abuser, disregarding the abuse or the danger and protecting or sustaining the perpetrator.

Stockholm Syndrome got its name from a 1973 bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden in which 4 bank employees were taken hostage for 6 days. During their captivity, the victims were strapped in dynamite and locked in a vault. while the bank robbers negotiated with local authorities. However, during the stand-off, much to the surprise of their rescuers, the hostages developed more trust in their captors than in the police who were trying to rescue them, publicly stating afterwards that they feared the actions of the police more than those of the bank robbers. The term "Stockholm Syndrome" was subsequently coined by Swedish psychiatrist & criminologist Nils Bejerot who was involved in the case.

Stockholm syndrome is often referred to in common culture as "brainwashing" or "brainwashing the victim".

Examples of Stockholm Syndrome

Since that time, there have been a number of well documented cases of kidnapping or abuse of an individual in which the victim has begun co-operating with their captor to which the label of "Stockholm Syndrome" has been applied by the media:

  • In 2003, abducted teenager Elizabeth Smart was identified with Stockholm Syndrome after she was discovered to have had multiple opportunities to escape or seek help from strangers ,but moved around freely with her captors in public places and even told the police when interviewed that the captors were her parents. Source: New York Times Article.
  • In 1977, teenage hitchhiker Colleen Stan was abducted and held for 7 years by Cameron Hooker and his wife Janice. During her captivity, she was tortured, raped and made to live in a box underneath the couple's bed. Kept as Hooker's sex slave, she was occasionally allowed to leave the couple's home, on one occasion visiting her family, yet she covered up what was happening to her. When she escaped after 7 years in captivity she did not immediately report the crimes, which were eventually reported by Hooker's wife, Janice. Source: TruTV Article.
  • In 1974, 19 year old Patricia "Patti" Hearst was abducted in California by a guerilla group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army (or SLA). Her captors beat her, raped her and held her in a closet. Over her 17 month captivity she became a sympathizer with the group's cause, even participating in a bank robbery with them, for which she later spent 2 years in prison. Source: PBS "American Experience" Article.

While these are dramatic examples, the principles of Stockholm syndrome are common in domestic abuse scenarios.

Here at Out of the FOG, we have met a number of non personality-disordered (Non-PD) individuals who have defended the actions of abusive partners and family members. And many of us have, ourselves, rationalized, defended, even facilitated or co-operated with our abusers in a desperate attempt to reduce conflict, let sleeping dogs lie and keep the peace.

Why does Stockholm Syndrome happen?

First, it is important to remember that most abuse - even severe abuse is intermittent - that is to say that it doesn't happen 24/7. Abusers are often nurturing, helpful or co-operative - even likeable people 90% of the time. However, it doesn't take a lot of abuse to do a lot of damage to a person. See our article on the Abusive Cycle.

Second, it helps to understand the principle of Cognitive Dissonance. Cognitive Dissonance is a psychological term for the discomfort that most people feel when they encounter information which contradicts their existing set of beliefs or values.

Third, it is important to remember that the innate instinct of most people is to survive, and issues of personal comfort and safety will sometimes take a back seat to issues which are perceived as "life and death issues". Sometimes, a person's ability to think objectively, rationally or logically becomes impaired when they are in a survival mode.

Coping with Stockholm Syndrome

If you find yourself defending or rationalizing away the actions of a partner or family member whom a friend thinks is mistreating you, it may be a good idea to think about Stockholm syndrome and whether your judgment is being clouded by your instinct to survive.

Ask yourself:

  • If this was happening to my friend what would I want them to do?
  • What is it that I'm most afraid will happen if I confront the person who has hurt me?
  • Are things likely to be better 5 years from now?
  • Am I too afraid or ashamed to tell people what my life is really like?

And then:

  • Talk about it. Seek the objective advice of someone who is outside your situation, such as trusted friends, family or therapists.
  • If you are afraid to discuss your situation with anyone else then you especially need to try.
  • See a therapist.
  • Talk anonymously on our Support Forum.

Articles & Resources:

Love and the Stockholm Syndrome - article by psychologist Dr. Joe Carver.