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Stockholm Syndrome

Stockholm Syndrome: What is it and why do they call it Stockholm Syndrome anyway?

How an obscure Swedish bank robbery created the phenomenon known as Stockholm Syndrome.

We’ve all seen this movie or TV show a million times before: some desperate criminal has botched a robbery and taken hostages. The situation is tense and growing worse as it drags out, and the impatient police captain—who probably “has the mayor on his back” about this—wants to overwhelm the building with force and end it. Now.  

“No, damn it!” says the rebel detective — our hero, of course. 

“There’s innocent people in there, captain. I can talk to this guy. Just give me more time…” 

Et cetera, et cetera, copy and paste ten thousand times.

But the detective isn’t the only person talking with the perpetrators, in movies or in real life. Did you know that when it comes to hostage situations, the relationship between captor and captive can take some dark and twisty turns as the hours and days and sometimes even years spent together can cause unexpected bonds to form between victim and perpetrator? 

Sometimes it even results in something we now call Stockholm Syndrome, a rare condition in which kidnapping victims or hostages develop sympathy for their captors and even side with them on occasion.

But while many of us might have a vague idea of how to define Stockholm Syndrome, it’s just as likely that the actual history and significance of the term isn’t exactly clear. So what’s Stockholm Syndrome anyway, and where did the term come from?

Why is it called Stockholm Syndrome?

Most residents of Stockholm, Sweden would probably prefer that people recognize their city for its famous clean water, gorgeous metro, lovely snow-dusted Christmastime scenery, or even Abba, for God’s sake. 

But the fact remains that they have a mid-1970s bank robbery to thank for turning Stockholm into a syndrome, a term psychologists use to describe a bond between captor and captive that can develop over time.

The reason Stockholm Syndrome is named after the Swedish capital is due to a botched bank robbery that took place over the course of six tense days in 1973 at the Kreditbanken in Stockholm. That’s when career criminal Jan-Erik Olsson took four bank workers hostage during a robbery attempt that went awry. 

Olsson ended up holding bank employees Kristin Ehnmark, Elisabeth Oldgren, Birgitta Lundblad and Sven Safstrom inside the bank’s vault for six days, and was later joined by a former prison cellmate. By the time the siege ended nearly a week later, observers noted that it was apparent that the victims had bonded in some way with their captors. 

Lo and behold, Stockholm Syndrome was born. 

In an interview years later, captive bank worker Kristin Ehnmark, who is said to have formed the closest connection with her captors, said, “It’s some kind of a context you get into when all your values, the morals you have change in some way.”

Indeed, Ehnmark at one point pleaded with then-prime minister of Sweden Olof Palme in a tense phone call to be allowed to leave with the kidnappers.

“I fully trust Clark and the robber,” she said during that call, according to a 2013 BBC article commemorating the 40th anniversary of the robbery. “I am not desperate. They haven’t done a thing to us. On the contrary, they have been very nice. But you know, Olof, what I’m scared of is that the police will attack and cause us to die.”   

Another victim, Sven Safstrom reported that he even felt gratitude toward Olsson when the robber told him he was going to shoot him in order to demonstrate to police that he was serious. He said that he felt grateful when Olsson told him he would be sure not to kill him, and that he would let him get drunk first. 

“When he treated us well, we could think of him as an emergency God,” Safstrom later said. 

Stockholm Syndrome meaning

The term Stockholm Syndrome was reportedly first used by criminologist and psychiatrist Nils Bejerot, and was later developed by psychiatrist Dr. Frank Ochberg for use by Scotland Yard and the FBI. 

Ochberg was helping the agencies to devise strategies for dealing with hostage situations, and came to define Stockholm Syndrome for the U.S. National Task Force on Terrorism and Disorder. 

Ochberg said that Stockholm Syndrome was characterized by people first being thrust into a terrifying situation in which “they are certain they are going to die.” 

Next, the victims “…experience a type of infantilization — where, like a child, they are unable to eat, speak or go to the toilet without permission.” Finally, having gone through this trauma, when their captors subsequently show them any tiny act of kindness, even something so simple as giving them food, the captives feel a “primitive gratitude for the gift of life.” 

“They are in denial that this is the person who put them in that situation,” Ochberg wrote. “In their mind, they think this is the person who is going to let them live.”

Other Stockholm victims

A more recent case in which a captive was said to have developed feelings for their captor in the style of Stockholm Syndrome was Natascha Kampusch, the Austrian girl who was taken captive as a 10-year-old by Wolfgang Priklopil and held in a basement for nearly a decade. Kampusch reportedly wept when she learned of Priklopil’s death, and even lit a candle for him and told reporters she paid her respects to him at the morgue before he was buried. 

Another kidnapping victim whose name comes up in conversations about Stockholm Syndrome is Elizabeth Smart, the Utah teenager who was taken from her bedroom at knife-point and held hostage for nine months. Smart was said to have shown unusual concern for the safety of her captors despite being raped on a daily basis and threatened with death if she should try to escape. 

It should be noted that this characterization of Smart as being a Stockholm victim was widely criticized at the time as a form of victim-blaming and unfair to a girl who was, after all, a teenager who had been through a horrific trauma. 

But perhaps the most famous among alleged Stockholm Syndrome victims is Patty Hearst. In 1974, Hearst, the California heiress to the William Randolph Hearst newspaper fortune was kidnapped and taken prisoner by militant revolutionaries who called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). 

While she was a captive, Hearst was reportedly raped and threatened with death if she didn’t cooperate. 

However, over the course of her 19-month captivity, Hearst seems to have developed an affinity for her captors, and even taken on some of their beliefs and perhaps even joined their cause. 

In a famous photo taken from a San Francisco bank’s surveillance footage, a grainy shot shows Hearst slinging an M-1 rifle during an SLA robbery. Witnesses reported that Hearst was walking several steps behind the other SLA robbers as they returned to their getaway car, and so seemed to be not be behaving as someone who was a captive.

Shortly after the footage was released, U.S. Attorney General William Saxbe labeled Hearst a “common criminal” saying she wasn’t a “reluctant participant” in the robbery, although the FBI agent in charge of the investigation into the robbery said other SLA members pointed guns at Hearst during the robbery. 

Not long after that however, Hearst allegedly provided covering fire for an SLA member who was confronted for shoplifting outside a sporting goods store. Hearst emptied the magazine of her rifle into the storefront and even fired a second weapon at the store manager when she ran out of ammunition.

Hearst was eventually captured by police—she listed her occupation as “urban guerrilla” at her booking—and sent to trial. 

Celebrity attorney F. Lee Bailey represented her, and following a series of psychiatric evaluations in which she was found to be a “low-IQ, low-affect zombie,” and showed huge memory gaps and signs of what Hearst herself called “the psychological criteria of a coerced prisoner of war” in her 1982 book, they pursued a defense reliant on claims that she had been brainwashed and suffered from Stockholm Syndrome.

The case was naturally controversial and sensational on a number of levels, but the Stockholm Syndrome claims were especially polarizing. Following a lengthy trial, the court decided that Hearst was guilty of bank robbery and she was sentenced to seven years in prison. 

But even after she was imprisoned, the Hearst story remained in the news. The Jonestown, Guyana cult mass suicide gripped the nation with new allegations of mass brainwashing, drawing comparisons to the Manson family cult and of course Hearst’s time with the SLA. 

Even celebrities like John Wayne spoke up on Hearst’s behalf, noting that it was odd that people could believe 900 cult members could be brainwashed into suicide, but not that a teenage girl could be brainwashed into bank robbery. 

After just 22 months of time served, President Jimmy Carter commuted Hearst’s sentence, and she was freed under strict probation conditions. Years later, President Bill Clinton granted her a full pardon on his last day in office.

Does Stockholm Syndrome exist?

Such a complicated mental state as that described by the phrase Stockholm Syndrome, embedded in trauma, coercion, threats, and tinted with fear of death, is of course difficult to measure or quantify. 

While it continues to be controversial even among healthcare professionals and law enforcement officers, the FBI’s own Law Enforcement Bulletin of 2007 contained an article that described how captors developing positive feelings towards their captives and vice versa is a real thing and can be exploited to help secure the safe release of hostages.

However, other law enforcement experts disagree. While Stockholm Syndrome is a topic that still appears in hostage negotiation training courses, experts like former NYPD chief hostage negotiator Hugh McGowan have their doubts.

“I would be hard pressed to say that it exists,” McGowan told the BBC, adding, “Stockholm was a unique situation. It occurred at around the time when we were starting to see more hostage situations. Sometimes in the field of psychology people are looking for cause and effect when it isn’t there.”

Others point out that the underlying principles of Stockholm Syndrome are widely accepted in other situations, most notably domestic abuse. The victim can develop feelings of empathy for their abusers, even feeling protective toward them. 

Another tricky angle to the whole Stockholm Syndrome victim tableau is that some say that applying the label to anyone who is held hostage for any length of time can be read to imply some degree of criticizing the victim, even implying weakness. 

For her part, Kampusch, the Austrian girl who was held in a basement for eight years rejects the entire notion of Stockholm Syndrome, saying it doesn’t account for rational survival choices.

“I find it very natural that you would adapt yourself to identify with your kidnapper,” she told the BBC. “Especially if you spend a great deal of time with that person. It’s about empathy, communication. Looking for normality within the framework of a crime is not a syndrome. It is a survival strategy.”

Is Stockholm Syndrome a mental illness?

Stockholm Syndrome, while it is acknowledged by law enforcement and in mental health circles as a real condition, is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

How long does it take to develop Stockholm Syndrome?

There aren’t really any clear-cut answers on how Stockholm Syndrome develops and how long it takes, but it is dependent as much on close proximity and stress of the situation as much as the length of time. In the case of the original bank robbery, Stockholm Syndrome only took six days to develop.

Is Stockholm Syndrome contagious?

Nope! Just try to avoid any bank robbery situations while visiting the lovely city of Stockholm, and you should be fine!

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