Stockholm syndrome is a psychological response that people often associate with infamous kidnappings and hostage situations. A person with Stockholm syndrome develops positive associations with their captors or abusers.
Keep reading to learn more about Stockholm syndrome and its causes, symptoms, and treatment, as well as some of the more famous specific case examples.
The term Stockholm syndrome is the name for a psychological response to captivity and abuse. A person with Stockholm syndrome develops positive associations with their captors or abusers. Experts do not fully understand this response formation but think it may serve as a coping mechanism for people who experience trauma.
A person can develop Stockholm syndrome when they experience significant threats to their physical or psychological well-being.
A kidnapped person may develop positive associations with their captors if they have face-to-face contact with them.
If the person has experienced physical abuse from their captor, they may feel gratitude when the abuser treats them humanely or does not physically harm them.
A person may also attempt to appease an abuser in order to secure their safety. This strategy can positively reinforce the idea that they might be better off working with an abuser or captor. This could be another factor behind the development of Stockholm syndrome.
The vast majority of captives and survivors of abuse do not develop Stockholm syndrome.
Mental health experts do not recognize Stockholm syndrome as an official mental health disorder. As a result, it is not listed in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
Criminologist and psychiatrist Nils Bejerot originally coined the term Stockholm syndrome to explain the aftermath of a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1973.
On August 23, 1973, Jan-Erik Olsson attempted to rob the Normalmstorg bank. During the robbery, Olsson took four bank employees — Brigitta Lundblad, Elisabeth Oldgren, Kristin Ehnmark, and Sven Safstrom — hostage.
Later, Olsson’s former cellmate Clark Olofsson joined in the robbery. The two remained inside the bank with the four hostages. The situation developed into a six-day stand-off with police.
After the hostages’ release, the authorities found that they had developed strong emotional bonds towards their captors.
The hostages reported that Olsson and Oloffson treated them kindly and did not physically harm them. They defended their captors and refused to testify against them. Olsson even displayed positive feelings towards the hostages.
Many researchers, psychologists, and criminologists do not fully understand Stockholm syndrome, and some continue to debate whether it exists at all.
However, experts believe that Stockholm syndrome can develop when:
- the captor treats their victims humanely
- the captives and captors have significant face-to-face interaction, which provides opportunities to bond with one another
- the captives feel that law enforcement personnel are not doing their jobs well enough
- a captive thinks that the police and other authorities do not have their best interests at heart
Stockholm syndrome can manifest in several ways, including when the victims:
- perceive kindness or compassion from their captor or abuser
- develop positive feelings towards the individual or group of individuals holding them captive or abusing them
- adopt the same goals, world views, and ideologies as the captors or abusers
- feel pity toward the captors or abusers
- refuse to leave their captors, even when given the opportunity to escape
- have negative perceptions towards police, family, friends, and anyone else who may try to help them escape their situation
- refuse to assist police and government authorities in prosecuting perpetrators of abuse or kidnapping
After release, a person with Stockholm syndrome may continue to have positive feelings towards their captor. However, they may also experience flashbacks, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Although there is no clear definition of Stockholm syndrome, experts have linked it to other psychological phenomena associated with abuse, such as:
- trauma bonding
- battered person syndrome
- learned helplessness
In a 2018 study, researchers attempted to establish an association between Stockholm syndrome and sex trafficking. The researchers reviewed personal accounts from female sex workers living in India. The narratives included in the study describe several conditions that have associations with Stockholm syndrome.
- perceived threats to physical and psychological survival
- perceived kindness from the trafficker or client
- isolation from the outside world
- perceived inability to escape
According to the study authors, some of the women expressed that they had, at one time, hoped to start a family with their trafficker or a client.
In a 2020 study, researchers found evidence suggesting that victims of domestic violence may also experience Stockholm syndrome.
While Stockholm syndrome took its name from the infamous 1973 bank robbery in Sweden, similar events have occurred before and since.
Mary McElroy (1933)
Four decades before the Normalmstorg bank robbery, four men kidnapped Mary McElroy. The kidnappers released her after receiving the $30,000 ransom they had demanded.
Although Mary McElroy agreed that her captors should receive punishment, she sympathized with them and even visited them in prison.
Patty Hearst (1974)
Shortly after the Stockholm incident, members of a left-wing militant group called the United Federated Forces of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) kidnapped 19-year-old Patty Hearst from her apartment in Berkeley, California.
Twelve days after the kidnapping, Hearst was involved in a bank robbery alongside members of the SLA. According to Hearst, the SLA had brainwashed her and forced her to join them.
The FBI arrested Hearst on September 18, 1975, 18 months after her kidnapping. Hearst received a 7-year prison sentence. President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence in 1979, and she eventually received a pardon.
Natascha Kampush (1998)
In 1998, Wolfgang Priklopil kidnapped 10-year-old Natascha Kampush and isolated her in a cellar for more than 8 years. Priklopil beat her and threatened her life; he also bought her gifts and fed and bathed her. Kampush cried after hearing that Prikolpil had died by suicide.
Kampush tried to explain her relationship with Priklopil to interviewers, but they wrote her off, claiming she had Stockholm syndrome. In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, Kampush said, “I find it very natural that you would adapt yourself to identify with your kidnapper… Especially if you spend a great deal of time with that person.”
Stockholm syndrome is an unrecognized psychological disorder and does not have a standardized definition. As a result, there are no official treatment recommendations for it.
However, psychotherapy and medication can help relieve issues associated with trauma recovery, such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
People can work with licensed psychologists and psychiatrists. A psychiatrist can prescribe medications that may help alleviate mood disorder symptoms.
Psychologists and licensed mental health counselors can help people develop strategies and tools to use when trying to understand and work through their experiences.
Stockholm syndrome is a rare psychological reaction to captivity and, in some instances, abuse. Feelings of fear, terror, and anger towards a captor or abuser may seem more realistic to most people.
However, in extreme situations, such as kidnapping, a person may develop positive feelings towards the captor as a coping mechanism when they feel that their physical and mental well-being is at stake.
While experts do not officially recognize Stockholm syndrome as a mental health disorder, people who have been abused, trafficked, or kidnapped may experience it. People who have Stockholm syndrome may experience symptoms of anxiety, depression, or PTSD.
Proper treatment can help improve a person’s recovery and help them move forward.