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What Underlies Stockholm Syndrome?

Why some hostages become emotionally attached to their captors.

[Article updated 26 December 2018]

Reaction formation is the superficial adoption and exaggeration of ideas and impulses that are diametrically opposed to our own.

This ego defence may at least in part underlie the apparently paradoxical psychological phenomenon that the criminologist and psychiatrist Nils Bejerot baptized "Stockholm Syndrome" after the events that took place during and after a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden.

The year was 1973. Jan Erik Olsson, a prisoner on leave, entered a branch of Kreditbanken with the intention of robbing it. When police followed in, he opened fire and injured one of the officers. A hostage situation ensued: For six days, from August 23 to August 28, Olsson held four bank employees at gunpoint in the bank’s main vault.

Olsson demanded, among others, that his friend and old cellmate Clark Olofsson join him in the bank. Once within the bank, the second man Olofsson established a communication link with police negotiators who, despite hearing death threats and screams, refused to let the comperes escape with the hostages. Eventually, the police drilled a hole into the vault from the apartment above, and through this hole managed to launch a gas attack. Soon after, Olsson and Olofsson surrendered without any of the hostages being seriously injured.

But the strange thing is this: After some time in the vault, the hostages began to form an emotional attachment with their captors. They reported fearing the police more than their captors, and, after their release, refused to testify against them and even set up a fund to cover their legal defence fees. Olofsson claimed that he had not been aiding Olsson but merely trying to contain the situation and safeguard the hostages, and had his convictions quashed by the court of appeal. He became friendly with of one the hostages, Kristin Ehnemark: They met occasionally and even their families became friends.

Another notorious case of Stockholm Syndrome is that of millionaire heiress Patty Hearst, who on February 4, 1974, at the age of 19, was kidnapped from her apartment in Berkeley, California, by a left-wing urban guerrilla group calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). On April 3, Hearst announced on an audiotape that she had joined the SLA under the pseudonym of "Tania," and on April 15, she was photographed wielding an M1 carbine while robbing a bank in San Francisco.

When eventually she was arrested, she listed her occupation as "urban guerrilla" and asked her attorney to “tell everybody that I’m smiling, that I feel free and strong, and I send my greetings and love to all the sisters and brothers out there." After almost two years in prison, Hearst had her sentence commuted by President Carter, and on January 20, 2001, President Clinton granted her a full Presidential Pardon in his last official act before leaving office.

Most of human history has been played out in hunter-gatherer societies in which abductions, particularly of women and their dependent children, must have been very common. It is possible to envisage that the capture-bonding psychological response exhibited by Kristin Ehnemark, Patty Hearst, and countless others is not merely or only an ego defence, but also an adaptive trait that promotes survival in times of war and strife.

In fact, an inverse of Stockholm Syndrome called "Lima Syndrome" has been proposed, in which abductors develop sympathy for their hostages. On December 17, 1996, members of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement took hostage hundreds of people attending a party to celebrate the birthday of Emperor Akihito at the official residence of the Japanese ambassador to Peru. But within a few hours, the captors had released most of the hostages, including the most valuable ones.

If the capture-bonding response is indeed deeply ingrained in the human psyche, then its activation or partial activation could help explain not only the counterintuitive behaviour of some hostages, but also that of people who engage and persist in, among others, religious cults, abusive relationships, and sadomasochistic sexual practices.

Neel Burton is author of Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception and other books.

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