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What Is Stockholm Syndrome And Why Does It Happen?

Updated on February 11, 2013
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What It Is

The unusual psychological disorder known as "Stockholm Syndrome" is a unique condition that occurs between individuals or groups kidnapped or otherwise held hostage, and their captors. It can also refer to situations of domestic abuse or an actual slave/master relationship as well. Also known as "terror bonding" or "traumatic bonding," Stockholm Syndrome occurs when a captive starts to have feelings of empathy for their captor (or abused/abuser and slave/master, etc.)

The name of the condition originated with a 1973 bank robbery (the Norrmalmstorg Robbery,) which took place in Stockholm, Sweden. In that instance, Jan-Erik "Janne" Olsson and Clark Olofsson took four hostages and demanded money, weapons, and a getaway car as ransom. The police repeatedly raided the bank while the hostages were inside, which partially (and ironically) led to the hostages becoming supportive of their captors; the hostages viewed the violent tactics employed by the police as more detrimental to their well-being than the actions of their captors themselves. In the end, the hostages were rescued and both Olsson and Olofsson were captured and charged.

By definition, there are several factors that must be present for a hostage/captor interaction to be identified as Stockholm Syndrome:

  1. An extremely imbalanced power relationship between the captor and captive.
  2. The threat of death or physical injury to the captive.
  3. The instinct of self-preservation in the captive; ultimately they want to survive the ordeal.
  4. The captive believes that the captor is their only chance for survival or escape.
  5. The captor is isolated from the outside world to a significant degree.
  6. Physical or mental abuse is either not present or stops at a certain point.

How And Why It Happens

Stockholm Syndrome is believed to be caused, at least in part, by a fundamental survival or self-preservation instinct present in the captive. It is also thought that, even in traumatic circumstances such as a hostage crisis, basic human desire to bond and connect with another human being take over.

In the classic scenario, a captive is initially threatened in some way, but importantly, no actual abuse occurs or, if it does occur, it ceases. The captive begins to have feelings of empathy towards their captor or captors as they observe the latter go through various mood swings brought on by the extreme stress inherent to the situation. The captive begins to believe that they are "getting to know" their captor, and that a connection is being made. Also, the captive comes to see the outside world as a threat or potentially harmful, and, ironically, their view of the captor becomes that of a sort of savior, or the captive's way out of the situation. This typically corresponds to the captor displaying some type of kindness at some point during the ordeal, such as providing food, stopping any abuse, and preserving the life of the captive (since the captor could kill them but has not.) In co-experiencing such a traumatic and stress-filled event, the captor and captive develop a "we" mentality because they are going through it together, and the captive starts to actually identify with the captor.

In current times, hostage negotiators encourage the development of a bond between captives and their captors. This is a strategy used to preserve the life of the captive, since once the captor begins to see the captive as a friend or empathetic figure, the less likely he or she is to kill or injure the captive.

Famous Examples Of Stockholm Syndrome

Stockholm Syndrome is often categorized as either resulting from a short-term situation (such as a bank robbery) or a more drawn-out, long-term captivity (such as a kidnapping in which the abducted lives with the abductor and even becomes an active participant in their daily life.)

The hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in 1985 serves a prime example of a short-term captive/captor scenario. In that ordeal, members of Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad hijacked the Trans-World Airlines flight for three days, resulting in several hostages being beaten and one, American Navy diver Robert Dean Stethem, being killed. Flight attendant Uli Derickson emerged as a heroic figure in the crisis, and she is credited with calming the hijackers and saving the lives of many passengers. Because she spoke German, which was the only common language with the hijackers, she became a translator and liaison for most of the ordeal. She significantly defused a tense situation in Algiers, where officials did not want to refuel the plane without payment. Derickson offered her own Shell Oil credit card, which was charged about $5,500 for 6,000 gallons of jet fuel. She was later reimbursed.

A good long-term example is that of Natascha Maria Kampusch, who was abducted at age 10 and kept in a cellar for over 8 years by Wolfgang Priklopil. During those 8 years, Kampusch was confined to the small cellar beneath Priklopil's garage, but over time spent an increasing amount of the time outside of the cellar and was even spotted by herself in the exterior garden of the home in later years. After she turned 18, she was allowed to leave the house with Priklopil, but he threatened to kill her if she tried to escape or made any noise. The two even went on a skiing trip in Vienna for a few hours. A documentary was created of Kampusch's ordeal, in which she sympathizes with Priklopil. According to authorities, when she found out he had committed suicide because the police were after him, she cried uncontrollably.

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    • SoundNFury profile image
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      Michael Valencia 3 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Thank you for stopping by Glenn Stok. I'm glad you found it informative!

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 3 years ago from Long Island, NY

      I found this very interesting. You sure did your research Michael. And you wrote about it well, with informative examples and individual facts about victims who experienced Stockholm Syndrome.

    • SoundNFury profile image
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      Michael Valencia 3 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Thank you rasta1, for stopping by and your comments. Appreciated!

    • rasta1 profile image

      Marvin Parke 3 years ago from Jamaica

      Very interesting facts. A very practical explanation.

    • SoundNFury profile image
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      Michael Valencia 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Thanks for stopping by, janshares :) And thanks for the votes!

    • janshares profile image

      Janis Leslie Evans 4 years ago from Washington, DC

      Great and informative hub, SoundnFury. I refer to traumatic bonding a lot in my work with domestic violence. I had forgotten from where the term originated. Thank you for this refresher. Voted up and interesting.

    • SoundNFury profile image
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      Michael Valencia 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      DDE - thank you for reading and commenting :)

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Most informative and I have never heard or experienced such a syndrome, you have enlightened me so well.

    • SoundNFury profile image
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      Michael Valencia 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      thank you sparkster. As you can unfortunately attest to, abuse can come in many forms and be an unseen monster. I wish you well and thanks again for stopping by.

    • sparkster profile image

      Sparkster Publishing 4 years ago from United Kingdom

      Great hub indeed and very accurate, I have experienced a taste of this just as Bumpsymum has (for 12 years) except my abuser was female and the abuse was covert/mental/emotional. Not held captive as such, but certainly enslaved, and it certainly felt like captivity.

    • SoundNFury profile image
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      Michael Valencia 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Thank you Fastian.

    • Fastian profile image

      Fastian 4 years ago

      Nice & informative.

    • SoundNFury profile image
      Author

      Michael Valencia 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Thank you so much for your honesty and for reading. I wish you all the best in managing the residual effects of what you must have gone through for many years.

    • Bumpsysmum profile image

      Bumpsysmum 4 years ago from Cambridgeshire

      I recognise this so well having experienced it to a small degree. I was a battered wife for nearly 20 years and ended up with what they called 'learned helplessness'. I felt I had no way out and that my only course of action was to comply or die! I also had 2 young children to protect. I was lucky and eventually got out but it left me with deep rooted issues regarding relationships. I manage very well but will not tolerate bullying in any form to anyone. Great Hub, very poignant.