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What is Stockholm Syndrome?

By Garry Crystal
Updated Feb 27, 2024
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Stockholm syndrome is a psychological behavior that appears in certain hostage situations. The condition appears when the hostage begins to show loyalty to or sympathy with the people who are holding him or her captive. Stockholm syndrome can also be used to describe the behavior of certain victims of domestic abuse or bride kidnapping.

The term Stockholm syndrome originated in 1973 after the robbery of a bank in Stockholm, Sweden. During the robbery, bank employees were held hostage for six days. During this time, some of the employees became emotionally attached to their captors. Some of the hostages defended the actions of the bank robbers after the ordeal was over.

Psychiatrists have stated that Stockholm syndrome can be explained as a simple brainwashing technique. It can also be seen as a natural response or defense mechanism on the part of the captives in order to ensure their survival. It is the same emotional response that newborn babies have to a dominant adult figure.

The military commonly use this form of brainwashing to produce loyalty and strengthen bonds between individuals in units. Stockholm syndrome is also used to describe some forms of domestic abuse. Battered husbands and wives who remain loyal to the abuser can be said to be brainwashed in this way. Many abused people remain inexplicably loyal to the abuser even if offered a safer alternative.

Another term used to describe the Stockholm syndrome is capture bonding, in which a strong bond develops between the hostage and the captor. One woman who was held captive during a robbery ended up with such a strong bond that she broke her engagement with a partner. After the robbery, she continued to stay in contact with her captor while he was imprisoned.

One of the most famous cases of Stockholm syndrome involved the millionaire heiress Patty Hearst. In 1974, Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). During her time as a captive, she helped the SLA to rob a bank. When arrested, Hearst used the Stockholm syndrome as her defense. Her defense was unsuccessful, and Hearst was eventually imprisoned for her part in the robbery.

More recently, British journalist Yvonne Ridley was taken captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. Ridley was held captive for 11 days, and after promising to study Islam, she was released. Since her release, Ridley has converted to Islam and holds strong Islamic viewpoints.

One of the major factors in the Stockholm syndrome is that the captors may perform small gestures of kindness towards their captives. The threat of death, counteracted with these gestures, is thought to bring about the syndrome. The captive will begin to identify with the psyche of the captor in order to survive. The Stockholm syndrome takes around four days to take hold, and it can last for a long period of time after the ordeal is over.

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