The Stockholm Syndrome
How a six-day hostage drama inside a Swedish Bank in Stockholm christened the psychological phenomenon.
“And it's hard to hate someone once you understand them.”
How would you react if you were held hostage? Would you try the escape or develop a sense of understanding towards the captor. If you do the latter, then you are experiencing Stockholm Syndrome.
Stockholm Syndrome is a psychological condition that occurs when a victim of abuse identifies and attaches, or bonds, positively with their abuser. This syndrome was originally observed when hostages who were kidnapped not only bonded with their kidnappers but also fell in love with them. This syndrome is rare as only 5% of hostages experience this.
The best-known origin of the syndrome was the Norrmalmstorg robbery. The failed robbery gave birth to this unnatural syndrome.
Underneath the folded jacket he carried in his arms, Jan-Erik Olsson pulled a loaded submachine gun, fired at the ceiling and, disguising his voice to sound like an American, cried out in English, “The party has just begun!”
In 1973, Jan-Erik Olsson, a convict on parole, took four employees (three women and one man) of Kreditbanken, one of the largest banks in Stockholm, Sweden, hostage due to a failed bank robbery. He negotiated the release of his friend Clark Olofsson from prison to assist him. They held the hostages captive for six days (23–28 August) in one of the bank's vaults.
When the hostages were released, none of the hostages would testify against either captor in court; instead, they began raising money for their defence.
Nils Bejerot, a Swedish criminologist and psychiatrist coined the term after the Stockholm police asked him for "assistance with analyzing the victims" reactions to the 1973 bank robbery and their status as hostages. As the idea of brainwashing was not a new concept, Bejerot, speaking on a newscast after the captives release, described the hostage's reactions as a result of being brainwashed by their captors. He called it Norrmalmstorgssyndromet (after Norrmalmstorg Square where the attempted robbery took place), meaning "the Norrmalmstorg syndrome"; it later became known outside Sweden as the infamous Stockholm syndrome. It was originally defined by psychiatrist Frank Ochberg to aid the management of hostage situations.
It may be easier to understand Stockholm Syndrome as an actual survival strategy for victims. The reason is that it seems to increase victims' chances of survival and a necessary tactic for defending oneself psychologically and physically against an abusive, toxic, and controlling relationship. Stockholm Syndrome is often found in toxic relationships where a power differential exists.
Some of the symptoms experienced by the hostages are:
• Positive regard towards perpetrators of abuse or captors.
• Failure to cooperate with police and other government authorities when it comes to holding perpetrators of abuse or kidnapping accountable.
• Little or no effort to escape.
• Belief in the goodness of the perpetrators or kidnappers.
• Appeasement of captors. This manipulative strategy is used for maintaining one's safety. As victims get rewarded—perhaps with less abuse or even with life itself—their appeasing behaviours are reinforced.
• Learned helplessness. This is akin to "if you can't beat 'em, join ‘em.” As the victims fail to escape the abuse or captivity, they may start giving up and soon realize it’s just easier for everyone if they acquiesce all their power to their captors.
Examples of the syndrome in high profile cases include the kidnapping of Patty Hearst -the granddaughter of an American Businessman, the abduction of little Natascha Kampusch, and the gunpoint robbery of Mary McElroy in 1933.
This syndrome has been widely documented and some of the well-known movies where it is mentioned are Stockholm, 3095 days, Highway, Intime and The Running Man.