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What is Stockholm Syndrome?

A Stragedy of Survival


Patricia Hearst brandishing a weapon in front of SLA (Symbonese Liberation Army) april 15, 1974
Apic/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
When men and women are placed in a situation where they no longer have any control over their fate, feel intense fear of physical harm and believe all control is in the hands of their tormentor, a stragedy for survival can result which can develop into a psychological response that can include sympathy and support for their captor's plight.

Why the Name?

The name Stockholm Syndrome was derived from a 1973 bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden, where four hostages were held for six days. Throughout their imprisonment and while in harm's way, each hostage seemed to defend the actions of the robbers and even appeared to rebuke efforts by the government to rescue them.

Months after their ordeal had ended, the hostages continued to exhibit loyalty to their captors to the point of refusing to testify against them, as well as helping the criminals raise funds for legal representation.

A Common Survival Mechanism

The response of the hostages intrigued behaviorist. Research was conducted to see if the Kreditbanken incident was unique or if other hostages in similar circumstances experienced the same sympathetic, supportive bonding with their captors. The researchers determined that such behavior was very common.

Other Famous Cases

More recently, some believe Elizabeth Smart fell victim to Stockholm Syndrome after her nine months of captivity and abuse by her captives, Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee.

Another more famous case in the U.S, is that of heiress Patty Hearst, who at age 19 was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). Two months after her kidnapping, she was seen in photographs participating in a SLA bank robbery in San Francisco. Later a tape recording was released with Hearst (SLA pseudonym Tania) voicing her support and commitment to the SLA cause.

After the SLA group, including Hearst, were arrested, she denounced the radical group. During her trial her defense lawyer attributed her behavior while with the SLA to a subconscious effort to survive, comparing her reaction to captivity to other victims of Stockholm Syndrome. According to testimony, Hearst was bound, blindfolded and kept in a small dark closet where she was physically and sexually abused for weeks prior to the bank robbery.

What Causes Stockholm Syndrome?

Individuals can apparently succumb to Stocholm Syndrome under the following circumstances:
  • Believing one's captor can and will kill them.
  • Isolation from anyone but the captors.
  • Belief that escape is impossible.
  • Inflating the captor's acts of kindness into genuine care for each other's welfare.

Victims of Stockholm Syndrome generally suffer from severe isolation and emotional and physical abuse demonstrated in characteristics of battered spouses, incest victims, abused children, prisoners of war, cult victims and kidnapped or hostage victims. Each of these circumstances can result in victims responding in a compliant and supportive way as a tactic for survival.

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