Case study after case study have shown a long history of Stockholm Syndrome situations. This psychological response to being held captive with a threat of physical harm is puzzling. A captor should elicit a negative feeling to the point of hatred from the victim. When the victim responds with feelings of loyalty, sympathy, supportiveness, gratitude, and kindness, it is incomprehensible. Why do victims protect and support their captor’s? By protecting and supporting their captor, they are protecting themselves.
What is really behind Stockholm Syndrome? When we think of Stockholm Syndrome, we immediately think of hostages. Realistically, Stockholm Syndrome could be applied to anyone held captive with fear, either physically or emotionally. A person with Stockholm Syndrome is a victim. The victim typically finds themselves in a situation where they are faced with a real threat of death. They’re in a situation where they’re 100% dependent on their captor for survival. In order to cope with this highly stressful situation, they adopt friendly, submissive behaviors toward their captor. For example, victims perceive it as an act of kindness for the captor to allow them to go to the bathroom. The victim takes these acts of kindness to heart which allows them to reduce their stress and better cope with the situation. The victims are isolated from outside influence, and the captor is the only one they are exposed to. The victim sees no realistic possibility of escape. They are mentally adjusting to the situation by becoming emotionally attached to the captor.
Stockholm Syndrome is real and affects more victims than just the ones from a true hostage scenario. There was an experiment performed called the “Stanford Prison Experiment.” The experiment was criticized as being unethical and was actually ended after 6 days instead of the planned 14 days. The experiment was so powerful because it proved how situational circumstances affect thoughts and behaviors. Some students in the experiment were given authoritative roles while others were given the roles as prisoners. The students were impacted by the emotions of the roles very powerfully. The power that the prison guards (captors) exhibited and the fear and submission that the prisoners (victims) bestowed to them proved base human behavior. These behaviors were exhibited even when they knew the situation was a simulation. These behaviors can be seen in hostages, kidnapped victims, members of cults, prisoners of concentration camps, as well as people in abusive relationships. Victims have an attachment that is misplaced. They have reactions similar to being brainwashed and suffer from Complex PTSD which is very serious.
Why do we call this powerful response to trauma Stockholm Syndrome? In 1973, Jan-Erik Olsson took hostages and attempted to rob a bank in Stockholm, Sweden. This was the first televised criminal event in Sweden. As events unfolded, television viewers witnessed the hostages forming a positive relationship with the bank robbers. Criminologist and psychiatrist, Nils Bejerot, who helped negotiate the hostage release, was later interviewed about the relationship between the hostages and the robbers. He created the term “Stockholm Syndrome” to describe their behavior. This term has since been used for situations where hostages show empathy toward their captor. Stockholm Syndrome is not a recognized medical condition, but has real-world case studies with accepted criteria.
There have been many documented cases that qualify as Stockholm Syndrome. In 1974, there was Patty Hearst who was kidnapped, bound, blindfolded, kept in the closet, made to endure physical and sexual abuse for weeks, and then was later seen robbing a bank with her captor. Their was Jaycee Lee Dugard who in 1991 was abducted and lived in a tent behind her captors home for 18 years. She did not try to escape even though she was able. In 2006, Natascha Kampusch escaped her captor after 18 years. She describes her relationship with her captor as complex and cried inconsolably for him when he died. Elizabeth Smart wrote a story in 2013 about captivity where she states that she was not sympathetic towards her captors, but was “just trying to survive.”
Surviving is a basic instinct of all living things. A victim’s response to a life-threatening situation may seem illogical to a person not facing a threat; however, the reactions of individuals in documented cases show undeserved loyalty, sympathy, supportiveness, gratitude and kindness towards their captor. This response, labeled as Stockholm Syndrome, is a physiological response deeply ingrained in some human beings and are generally female. It’s a bonding that develops between the victim and the captor resulting from terror or trauma. It is all about survival, even if on the subconscious level. By protecting and supporting their captor, they are protecting themselves.