Understanding Stockholm Syndrome

Stockholm syndrome is a complex psychological condition where the hostage becomes sympathetic towards the kidnappers. The syndrome is named after a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden. It is an example of defense mechanism, in which the person develops emotional attachment with the nearest powerful adult. The condition is also called Trauma Bonding, in which the victim chooses to remain loyal to the abuser.

Diagnosis of the condition is difficult because researchers have not identified all the factors which put the person at a greater risk and many psychologists disagree with the mechanism of the syndrome. Some believe it to be a form of “emotional paralysis” or “regression.” The cure for the condition involves psychiatric counseling. According to the FBI, out of 1200 hostages, 92 percent of the victims do not show Stockholm syndrome, which means that the victims do not sympathize with the captors. Instead of supporting the kidnappers, they will help the police. The symptoms will not develop under these circumstances.

  • The hostage is abused physically or verbally by the captors.
  • People who feel helpless in anxiety are ready to do anything to survive. When they are taken as hostages, they are more likely to develop the syndrome. On the other hand, people who are emotionally strong and secure may not develop the syndrome.
  • The people who suffer from Stockholm syndrome have symptoms similar to people who suffer from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) such as nightmares, difficulty concentrating, confusion, increased distrust, and flashbacks. Hence, the people who do not suffer from PTSD may not develop it.

The bonding between the captive and the captor is a survival mechanism for the victim. In this sense, Stockholm syndrome is also called “Survival Identification Syndrome.” It is believed the syndrome happens when the hostage mistakes the act of captor of not killing or abusing them as an act of kindness. Due to fear and anxiety, the emotions developed are strong emotional attachments. It is believed the syndrome happens during intense life-death condition when the length of time spent with the kidnapper is long. When the captor does not physically or verbally abuse or threaten the hostage, symptoms may develop. Here are some of the more well known cases of Stockholm syndrome.

Jan-Eric Olsson and Clark Olofsson (1973)

The term “Stockholm Syndrome” was derived from this incident. A bank robbery took place in Kreditbanken Swedish bank and two armed men Jan-Eric Olsson and Clark Olofsson held 4 employees (3 women and 1 man) of the bank hostage for 6 days. When the rescue operation started on the 6th day, the hostages favored the captors and tried to rescue them. They tried to save the captors even after the captors had surrendered. The hostages also tried to collect funds for the kidnappers. One of the captives, Kristin Ehnemark became a friend of Clark Olofsson. 

Patty Hearst (1974)

Patty Hearst was a millionaire heiress kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. After two months of captivity, she joined the Symbionese Liberation Army to take part in a robbery. Hearst was imprisoned for her actions. Later, President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence and she was given a Presidential Pardon.

Colleen Stan (1977)

Colleen Stan was held captive for seven years in a wooden box by Cameron and Janice Hooker. Though she was sexually assaulted and tortured, Stan stayed with them and she didn’t escape even when given the opportunity. Cameron was so sure of Colleen’s submission that he even brought her to visit her family once. 

TWA Flight 847 from Athens (1985)

Lebanese Shia extremists hijacked TWA Flight 847 and the hostages were held for 2 weeks. The hijackers tortured and threatened a few passengers. A US Navy diver was killed. Most of the hostages did not develop Stockholm syndrome but some passengers showed sympathy towards the hijackers.

Natascha Kampusch (1998)

Natascha Kampusch was a 10-year-old Austrian child when she was kidnapped by Wolfgang Priklopil. She escaped from captivity at the age of 18 years. She showed symptoms of Stockholm syndrome because she grieved after her captor’s suicide.

Shawn Hornbeck (2002)

Shawn Hornbeck was 11 years old when he was kidnapped by Michael J. Devlin. Hornbeck was held in Missouri for four years. Using “Devlin” as his last name, he did not seek law enforcement although he talked to the police on two occasions before his rescue in 2007.

Elizabeth Smart (2003)

Brian David and his wife Wanda Barzee kidnapped 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart from her Salk Lake home. They travelled to California, San Diego, and Las Vegas. Smart claimed to be their daughter and when they returned to Utah, Smart stated that she was Brian David’s polygamous wife. When she was shown her picture before the abduction, she finally admitted she was Elizabeth Smart.

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