Stockholm Syndrome


In its simplest form, Stockholm Syndrome is a psychological condition where a hostage or captive develops an emotional attachment to or identification with their captor/abuser. The condition is not restricted just to hostage situations, but may be experienced in other situations, such as abusive relationships. According to Kocsis1, people experiencing this condition may even develop feelings of love and commitment toward their captors, and refuse to leave when given the opportunity.

Stockholm Syndrome derives its name from a highly publicized bank robbery that occurred in Stockholm, Sweden in August 1973. In the infamous incident, four employees of the Sveriges Kreditbank were held in captive for several days. Surprisingly, the hostages refused to leave their captors when they had the chance. Instead, they expressed feelings of attachment to the captors and even defended them to police and other officials. This strange behavior confused the police and general people. After extensive research, psychologists linked this behavior to the shell shock, or post-traumatic stress, and explained that the captives felt grateful to the abductors for sparing their lives, developing a counterintuitive affection towards them.

Similar incidents have been recorded where the captives were strangely attracted to the captors and deliberately wanted to stay with them. Stockholm Syndrome is not recognized as a definite psychological condition or disorder, but rather an array of symptoms that hostages undergo in an abduction or hostage situation.

Diagnosing Stockholm Syndrome

The most apparent symptom exhibited in Stockholm Syndrome is the emotional attachment and empathy for the captor or the abuser. In extreme cases, they may even want to support the captor’s family, and provide financial support.

Diagnosing Stockholm Syndrome can be challenging, as it must be precluded from other mental conditions. For instance, mental conditions like depression, schizophrenia, or obsession can bring about Stockholm-like symptoms. In such cases, the side effects of depression or psychosis must be differentially analyzed and the causal variables should be legitimately investigated before it can be classified as Stockholm Syndrome.

The conspicuous side effects are that the prisoner feels profound compassion for the captor regardless of what he or she does to him/her, and develops a negative feeling towards police, legal system, or anyone who tries to remove them from the situation.

Stockholm Syndrome can be a transient experience some individuals have at a particular point in life. Though it was previously thought to be experienced by only hostages, by the middle of the 21st century, psychologists and sociologists expanded their understanding and stated that victims of Stockholm Syndrome are not always hostages. People who undergo one or more of the following situations can also experience symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome:

  1. Emotionally or physically abusive relationship with the partner (with or without marriage)
  2. Traumatic experiences like rape, natural disaster, or a life stress
  3. Being kidnapped or kept captive by someone forcefully
  4. Being held hostage in a crime situational
  5. Prisoners of war
  6. Sex workers
  7. Sexually and physically abused children

Symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome

Stockholm syndrome is not recognized as a mental disorder or a specific psychological diagnosis and has not yet found its place as an individual disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) 2. It is rather a cluster of symptoms that are exhibited by people under certain situations and may or may not persist for long. The predominant symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome include one or more of the following:

  1. Unexplained emotional attachment towards the captor or abuser.
  2. Feelings of love, empathy, and a desire to protect the captor or abuser.
  3. Nightmares, sleeplessness, flashbacks of the trauma.
  4. Feeling sad at the thought of separating from the captor or abuser.
  5. Feeling safe and secured while held captive.
  6. Passive satisfaction from the abuse and hostility.

Medications have not been proven effective at resolving Stockholm Syndrome.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

The FBI’s examination of Stockholm Syndrome 3 found that nearly 8% of people in captive or hostage situations develop feelings of attachment and support toward the captors. Conducting research on Stockholm Syndrome is challenging and produced little consistent data. As a result, there’s disagreement among researchers about the specifics of the syndrome, though many do agree that it exists.

Though not designed specifically to examine Stockholm Syndrome, one scientific experiment that may explain Stockholm Syndrome was the Stanford Prison Experiment 4. In this experiment, college students were randomly assigned to be either prisoners or guards. The prisoners were “arrested” and placed in a prison like real criminals. Quickly the participants began taking on the behaviors and attitudes of prison guards and prisoners. In effect, the experiment quickly became like a real-world prison with all the corresponding behaviors between prisoners and their captors (the guards).

The results of the experiment were surprising and powerful. The participants who were kept in the false captivity tended to obey the prison guard’s orders blindly after some days as if they were real prisoners and been in prison for ages. The behaviors became so troubling that the researchers ended the study early.

This behavior left the researchers to conclude there needs to be an exchange of empathy and emotional energy to gain such level of conformity. Prisoners or hostages who experience symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome are ready to obey the authority (captors). While some social psychologists explained that the victims are brainwashed and emotionally manipulated by the perpetrator, psychologists gave a deeper interpretation. They argued the symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome comprise a defense mechanism, similar to reaction formation, to accept the adversity they are facing (more on the psychological interpretation explained later).

Real life Examples of Stockholm Syndrome

There are numerous examples of Stockholm Syndrome 5 around the world. From survivors of wars, to victims of domestic violence, and other situations in which people have reported symptoms of the condition. Here are a few of the most prominent examples:

1. The Incident of Kreditbanken, Swedenborg

As discussed previously, the first incident of Stockholm Syndrome was recorded in Sweden in 1973. According to reports, Jan Erik Olsson, a prisoner on leave, sought to rob the bank. In the process kept several employees hostage from August 23 - 28. During conversation with the police he demanded that his old companion, Clark Olofsson, be allowed to join him inside the bank.

Together they held four bank employees at gunpoint for the remainder of the ordeal. The hostages were cooperative with the bank robbers, even forming a close emotional attachment to them. Later during court proceedings the hostages even defended the actions of their captors, and even formed friendships that lasted over time.

2. The Case of Patty Hearst

Another example of Stockholm Syndrome was the case in 1974 of the millionaire child Patricia (Patty) Hearst. Patty was abducted from her home in Berkeley, California when she was 19 years old, and kept captive by an activist group called Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA).

After almost 10 weeks of captivity, Patty announced on an audiotape that she has joined the SLA group and will be working with them from now on. She worked for SLA under the pseudonym “Tania”, and was later caught robbing a bank with her kidnappers in San Francisco. Patty was arrested for helping the group rob another bank and spent two years in prison. In an interview after the arrest she said that she felt strong as a part of SLA and sent out her love to all her fellow brothers and sisters. However, she later claimed to being brainwashed by the activists and whatever she did was under their influence.

3. The Abduction of Elizabeth Smart

Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her home in 2002 and held for nine months when she was just 14 years old. It was later learned that even though Elizabeth had plenty of opportunities to escape, she never attempted to do so. She accepted her captivity and reported that she felt “safe” with the abductors.

Extensive psychological research and analysis was done centering on her emotions and thought processes. Although many people argued that she had given her statement under the pressure of the kidnappers, many people she was a true example Stockholm Syndrome.

4. The Case of Shawn Hornbeck

Shawn Hornbeck was 11 when he went missing after going out for a bike ride. It was in 2002 and he was never heard of until four years later, when he was found by the police inside the house of Michael J. Devlin, his kidnapper. Shawn was kept under captivity and was tortured and molested for four years. The police revealed that he could have escaped but he was somehow under the influence of the captor and did not call for help.

Later in an interview with a magazine, Hornbeck said that he was brainwashed and the kidnapper was manipulating every minute of his life at that time. He said that he even had access to the Internet when he was a captive, giving him ample opportunities to contact the authorities

5. The Cleveland Case of Stockholm Syndrome

Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight and Gina DeJesus, along with other girls went missing during a period from 2002-2004. In 2013, almost 10 years later, Amanda called the police. Amanda, Michelle, and Gina were kidnapped and held captive in Cleveland Ariel Castro. They were sexually abused during their captivity to the extent that Ariel even had a daughter with Amanda and forced Michelle became pregnant at least 5 times. Each time Ariel beat her until she miscarried. Not surprisingly, Amanda, Gina, and Michelle developed strong emotional bonds. What was surprising was that they also indicated having strong emotional attachment to their captor.

The Psychological Explanation to Stockholm Syndrome

A common belief among psychologists is that captives develop a bond with their captor as a result of feeling grateful for being kept alive.

Victims of Domestic Violence and abuse also show similar symptoms to Stockholm Syndrome, including justifications for the behavior. Many partners refuse to disclose the violence or leave the abusive situation. Victims who develop a feeling of empathy and support towards the captor may be a defense mechanism as a means for surviving the torture. Some victims of Stockholm Syndrome appear to be in denial of their situation – they don’t accept that they are/were in a bad situation.

Anna Freud, in her explanation about identification with an aggressor, suggested it was an unusual intrapsychic phenomenon of coping where the victim transforms himself/herself into the perpetrator of the violence/captivity. She considered it to be a defense mechanism that gives the victim a sense of security and power to sustain in the captivity. This is often coupled with a sense of denial where the victim refuses to acknowledge the fact that he/she is under a torture.

Famous criminologist and psychiatrist Nils Bejerot validated Stockholm Syndrome on the same grounds and called it a type of Reaction Formation, which is a defense mechanism to superficially adopt the negative circumstances by developing ideas that are completely opposite to the real one, i.e., the person thinks what is completely opposed to his own.

Although there’s support for the syndrome, it’s not without its critics. Some have questioned the merits of Stockholm Syndrome because it began as an explanation to an incident, and is actually a component of other disorders, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, not a distinct disorder.

Helping people with Stockholm Syndrome

The first step in helping a sufferer of Stockholm Syndrome is to make sure he/she sees a specialist - a therapist, psychologist, counselor, or community worker. Here are a few steps that can be helpful in dealing with an individual with Stockholm Syndrome:

1. Be supportive - People experiencing Stockholm Syndrome may crave emotional support. They fear leaving their captivity and the possible loss of the attachment they’ve formed with their captor. Getting support and assurance from a therapist can give them the courage to face the problem and come out of imprisonment.

2. Do not insist - Many sufferers of Stockholm Syndrome are in a stage of denial and they fail to see any fault in the captors. It’s unwise to persuade them or insist that they change their perspective. Discuss with them about the pros and cons of what they are going through and help them in gaining perspective on the matter.

3. Do not judge - People under the influence of Stockholm Syndrome can think, act, and feel in ways that others would not understand. Their actions and emotions may seem unreasonable to the world. But to help them get over this trauma, we must be able to listen without judging them.

4. Be compassionate - Just as the victims of this syndrome develop extreme feelings of compassion and empathy towards the captor, somewhere they crave the same thing for themselves. Show your love, affection, and understanding when you are communicating with a person with Stockholm Syndrome, and make them feel comfortable and safe. The feeling of safety outside the captivity helps a lot in overcoming the symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome.

5. Keep in touch - Experiencing Stockholm Syndrome can make someone isolate himself/herself from the social world with the fear of not being accepted. If you have someone close who is showing symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome, talk with him/her more often, and let them share their experiences with you. Encourage him/her to visit a therapist if the symptoms are going beyond control.

But remember, above all else encourage the person to seek professional help!


By the end of the 21st century, psychologists had expanded the study of Stockholm Syndrome. Although the most striking cases of Stockholm Syndrome so far have been reported in hostage situations, there’s now support for the syndrome in situations of domestic violence, parental/child abuse, post-traumatic stress, or other crises. The situations that provoke the symptoms may vary, but most victims report being under a strange manipulative influence by the captor, and not being in control of what they think or do. It leaves a long-lasting effect on the victim’s mind and they might take years to recover from it.

If you know someone suffering from Stockholm Syndrome

  1. Encourage them to go for professional guidance and counseling
  2. Listen to them without judging
  3. Show your love, support, and care
  4. Help them understand that they are not “safe” with the captor/abuser and why it is logical to get rid of the captivity
  5. Help them in moving on leaving the Stockholm shadow behind
  6. Support them to get back to the normal flow of life.