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Essay: Does Stockholm Syndrome affect all abductees’ minds?

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Stockholm Syndrome is a psychological condition which affects few people across the world, as it is such a rare occurrence. This project aims to give an insight as to what Stockholm Syndrome is, its origin, and the extent to which it affects people who have been abducted or held hostage. It also suggests whether there is a generic stereotype of abductee who will acquire the syndrome, and how its symptoms differ in varied subjects. I will then gather all the information in the conclusion to determine the answer to the question “does Stockholm Syndrome distort all abductees’ minds?”.

Many observers have studied Stockholm Syndrome, and different researchers have given opposing views as to what it is. I hope to collect a range of data with different views to be able to interpret all the views available.

I have realised whilst writing this project that there are limited primary sources for Stockholm Syndrome due to the difficulty in finding and contacting real life cases, therefore I have had to use solely secondary data. This has caused a level of bias in my writing, as I have been unable to find as many resources as I had hoped, so bias has been taken into account in my report.


There are many theories as to what Stockholm Syndrome is, and what its cause is. However, Stockholm Syndrome is as ominous as other incurable diseases, in the sense that psychologists across the globe are yet to find a definite cause and cure. One definition is ‘a condition which causes hostages to develop a psychological alliance with their captors as a survival strategy during captivity’. Another definition identifies it as ‘a psychological syndrome in which a person being held captive begins to identify with and grow sympathetic to his other captor, simultaneously becoming unsympathetic towards the police or other authorities’. The common tendency which these definitions follow is that the syndrome is a psychological issue, and is controversial to what society deems as the normal manner of everyday life. With an average of 750,000 cases of missing persons annually in USA alone, it is estimated that “60% are over 18, and 40% are children”. This means that everyday cases occur of persons being kidnapped, and many of these victims may succumb to Stockholm Syndrome. Dr Ochberg, a renowned psychologist, observed that there are three conditions usually present in Stockholm Syndrome:

Positive feelings of the hostage towards the hostage taker

Positive feelings reciprocated by the hostage taker for the hostage

Negative feelings on the part of the hostage for those responsible for the rescue

These three conditions are often identified in cases of Stockholm Syndrome, such as Natascha Kampusch, who went into mourning once she had been informed of her captor’s death. She was reported to have ‘paid her respects alone at the morgue on Thursday and lit a candle’ and ‘wept inconsolably’ .

The syndrome is identified as a situation where an ‘individual is unable to become psychologically prepared for life and death’ . This creates an immense pressure over the person’s capacity and, with the lack of power and helplessness they also feel, combines to lead to ‘a variety of coping mechanisms including denial, repression and identification’. The main interpretation is that the individual desires stability, and this is the cause of a victim siding with a kidnapper: any group or body which threatens to wreck any aspect of stability in the situation become a threat, even if this happens to be the police or authorities. This explains why, in most cases, the victim will refuse to escape to the police and decline any help which is offered.

Arguably the most well known and convincing case of Stockholm syndrome is that of Patty Hearst, who was abducted by the Symbionese Liberation Army, a left wing revolutionary and terrorist group, for 19 months in Berkley in 1974 . During these 19 months she was found to have committed federal crimes, and worked in cooperation with the group. Being the granddaughter of a very wealthy publishing magnate, the group claimed that their aim was to hold her as a ransom whilst her family paid all expenses for the hungry of California to eat (one of several of the group’s conditions). However, as she was abducted for such a long period of time and reports say that she voluntarily stayed, she became involved with relatively minor crimes such as bank robberies . This appeared to be a case of Stockholm Syndrome, as Hearst actively fought with the group and refused to leave them when opportunities presented themselves. It is only after the release of the hostage when identification disappears and with extensive treatment, Hearst was able to recount the events she had suffered during her kidnap.

Where did Stockholm Syndrome originate?

The origin of the Syndrome was the robbery of a bank in Stockholm on August 23rd 1973. Jan-Erik Olsson walked into the Kreditbanken on Norrmalmstorg Square and fired a submachine gun into the bank, claiming that ‘the party has just begun’. He took with him 4 young hostages, all employees, as everyone else evacuated the bank. Holding them captive for 131 hours , an amicable bond formed between the captor and his hostages; several events throughout the days of hostage showed an amiable and affectionate bond forming between Olsson and the hostages. Olsson required that the government release a friend, Clark Olofsson, from prison to assist him, and the request was granted- these two became the kidnappers soon to be friends to the victims.

Figure 1: Three of the hostages inside the Bank (Daniel Johnson, 2009)

Kristin Enmark began to shiver on one of the nights, and Olsson gave her a wool jacket to keep her warm; he also soothed her after she had a nightmare. These acts of kindness seem strange, as one would not expect a robber, or any abductor, to be caring towards their hostages. A further example displayed the active symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome: the hostages turned on the police, and began assisting Olsson in the fight against the government. One shocking event which really summarised the extent to how close they became was when Olsson threatened to shoot Sven in the leg in order to provoke the police, and Kristin tried to convince Sven to take the bullet, claiming that “ it’s just in the leg”. Sven agreed, and later stated: “how kind I thought he was for saying it was just my leg he would shoot”. It seems outrageous that a hostage would agree to be shot in the leg, and even more absurd that they would deem it kind that it was only one limb. On the night of August 28th, police pumped teargas into the area where the hostages were being kept, and Olsson had no choice but to surrender. It is reported that two of the female hostages cried out “don’t hurt them – they didn’t harm us”. After the trials and prison sentencing, the four previous hostages made regular visits to their kidnappers. The hostages also showed confusion after being released, with Oldgren asking her psychiatrist days after her release: “Is there something wrong with me? Why don’t I hate them?” . This confusion puzzled both psychologists and the hostages, as one would not expect feelings of affection to be directed towards a criminal, and the fact that Oldgren could not locate where the affection derived from illustrated the total confusion caused by the syndrome.

The incident sparked the introduction of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’, yet the “emotional bonding with captors was a familiar story in psychology”.

Which people are more likely to develop Stockholm Syndrome?

There is no definitive ans
wer as to who will certainly develop identification, but Dr Joseph Carver has suggested situations in which an emotional attachment was known to have formed between hostage and abductor:

Abused children

Battered/abused women

Prisoners of war

Cult members

Incest victims

Criminal hostage situations

Concentration camp prisoners

Controlling/intimidating relationships

It must be said that these are just estimations and the results of research as to which people are more susceptible to forming an emotional attachment, however it can happen to any person, depending on other factors affecting their state at the time of kidnap. This is just a likely guide as to which groups/instances may succumb to a bond, but cases of Stockholm Syndrome occur in various other circumstances in everyday life.

Factors Affecting the Development of Stockholm Syndrome

There are many factors which affect the speed of development of the syndrome. However, specialists have not generated a specific list, as every subject is different and subsequently factors will have varying effects on different people. Even so, people have produced accounts of which factors they deem most important.

One factor which often appears in many specialists’ reports is time . Time is an essential element in the progression of Stockholm Syndrome, and the first hours within captivity are often the most crucial. In the early stages, pre-existing stereotypes (another factor which I will explain in due course) have the greatest effect on the development of the syndrome. However, as time passes and the trauma from the initial shock wears off, other factors alter the interaction between abductor and abductee and these contribute to a much more complicated situation. “The longer the siege, the more likely it is that the syndrome will develop”. A longer time allows a deeper bond to be formed as both parties get to know each other. The saying ‘time is always in favour of the hostage’ is not necessarily true. For example, if factors which aid the development of Stockholm syndrome are present, then time can be dangerous to the hostage as it will quicken the development pace and cause them to be more likely to sympathise with the abductor . Examples of these factors are fatigue and stress: they lower the frustration of the kidnapper, which could cause harm to the hostage if it were higher?.

Another factor which is considered as equally important is the timing of violence . Hostage situations can often be violent, as the victim struggles to free themselves. Timing and the use of violence by the kidnapper is crucial, as a miscalculated application of violence can actually have an opposite effect on the hostage to that which the kidnapper might desire. Violence during the act of hostage taking does not inhibit identification with the kidnapper, and may actually spur identification. Thus, violence at the start of a kidnapping may not prevent identification with the abductor but, as time progresses, violence will decrease chances of identification. This factor links with the previous one of time, which has proven to be arguably the most important element, as it affects many other components of Stockholm Syndrome.

One slightly less commonly known, but still influential, factor is the “small kindness perception”, explained in Dr Joseph Carver’s article . In a life-threatening situation, the hostage will often look for ‘small signs that the situation may improve’. As the length of time in captivity increases, the victim will see small ‘acts of kindness’ and will interpret these as positive aspects of the captor: the victim will want to make the best out of the terrible situation that has occured, and therefore will try to see the captor in a positive light. As desperation and pressure develop, the victim often sees small behaviours as positive traits in the captor, even if they are not acts of kindness at all, such as the provision of food. “After seeing the wave (of violence), the victim expects to be verbally battered and when it does not happen, that “small kindness” is interpreted as a positive sign.” This occurs in various cases of abduction and kidnapping. One example of this small kindness perception occurred in Natascha Kampusch’s abduction. In her case, Natascha “regressed psychologically to the age of a toddler” and equated the act of being given food and water by her abductor, Wolfgang Priklopil, with being given gifts. As time progressed, Priklopil began to give her gifts such as mouthwash and scotch tape. Kampusch herself said : ”Still, I was very happy to get those presents. I was happy to get any present, even if it was orange juice”.

Figure 2: Natascha Kampusch’s cellar room (Charlton, Corey and Hall, Allan 2016).

These gifts and ‘acts of kindness’ are part of Dr Frank Ochberg’s evaluation of the development of Stockholm Syndrome. He believes that there is a step by step progression of the syndrome, which causes a hostage to show affection towards a kidnapper. The first stage is being ‘emotionally infantilized’, whereby the subject is not allowed to move, eat or complete any action for themselves. This restriction ‘made them like children–regressed, dependent, unable to fend for themselves. Without consciously realising it, they were emotionally infantilized’. “The victims may regress, identifying with their captors as a child might with an abusive parent” . After this infantilization, certain privileges are given to the victim, such as the scotch tape and orange juice, which create compassion towards their abductor. According to Dr Ochberg, ‘one former hostage told me, “They gave us blankets, cigarettes. Somehow they came off human… You had to fight a certain feeling of compassion”’. He also explained: “We as humans experience a very strong bond to our parents, particularly our mothers, during childhood. That feeling reciprocated. The mother-infant bond is vital for survival.” This bond is reproduced in the case of Stockholm Syndrome sufferers, as they become emotionally attached to the abductor, as a child does to its mother. By giving gifts, the abductor is “creating something paradoxical, ironic, astounding” : the affectionate bond between captor and victim. “That person, by NOT killing you, by giving you the various gifts of life, evokes a primitive and profound feeling.” From then onwards, the subject becomes emotionally attached to their captor, their ‘giver of life’, and they feel compassion, as the captor must be a kind person if they are giving them life. “Because the master or captor did not implement the worst expectations of the slaves or captives, a sense of relief is felt, and the master or captor is now revered as a good person.” In the case of slavery, the master is revered as a good person for not committing the worst action, such as severe violence or any other form of poor treatment, and the ‘small kindness perception’ makes them appear as a good person. The ‘small kindness perception’ and the emotional infantilization work in combination to create effects of Stockholm Syndrome within a victim, and allow the victim to sympathise for their behaviour (the act of kidnapping and any violence).

Helplessness within the victim can also be seen as a factor which causes the progression of Stockholm Syndrome. “The more helpless he/she feels, the stronger the identification.” This combines with the small kindness perception: if a subject feels more helpless, their lack of power will cause a desperation, which in time induces ‘a sense of self-coercion to let the perceived good dominate’.This effectively means that the individual creates a fantasy in which the master is elevated to the illusion of being a good person. This was seen in Natascha Kampusch’s case, where she described that “In situations when I
was being bathed I pictured myself being at a spa. When he gave me something to eat, I imagined him as a gentleman”. She created this vision that Priklopil was an imaginative figure, so she did not have to endure the reality of her kidnapping. This demonstrated her sense of helplessness, and was one of the factors which caused the development of Stockholm Syndrome in her case.

Another factor identified by Dr Joseph Carver is ‘the perceived inability to escape’. This comes with the idea of avoiding ‘trouble’, which, as seen in the case of the Kreditbanken robbery, can even result in being the government and police force. In domestic cases, such as kidnappings, the victim will feel rejection towards the chance of escaping. This is seen in many cases, one of which being Natascha Kampusch’s: she says she was taken on various trips outside, including to a “hardware store and a skiing holiday in Vienna” , but did not try to flee as she thought there was no point or that she would be unable to find help. Another reason why she did not escape was because Priklopil threatened her both physically and verbally, claiming that he would kill her if she tried to. He claimed that her attempts would not be feasible, and he would seriously harm her if she even tried. -common in cases of abduction or kidnapping. Another example is the case of Katy Morgan-Davies, a woman who was born into the ‘Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought’ cult in Brixton. Katy was told by Aravindan Balakrishnan, both her father and master, that “she would experience spontaneous human combustion if she ever stepped outside”.

Figure 3: Katy Morgan Davies’s bathroom (Vanessa Engle, 2017)

Katy did not make any attempts to escape towards the start of her life because of this fear. “Once, when she was a small child, he put her outside the front door as punishment and she became hysterical with fear, assuming she was about to die.” Once the fear has been implemented in a subject’s brain, it makes escape almost impossible, as the idea of death (or in Katy’s case combustion) or violence seems worse than continuing in captivity. Elizabeth Smart was also threatened with the perceived inability to escape, as her abductor Brian Mitchell “had previously threatened to kill her family if she escaped”. The perceived inability to escape confines the victim to their kidnapper, by making them believe that there is no point in escaping, and that an attempt would be a worse fate (to themselves or others) than death itself.

All of these factors are codependent on each other, as if they occur together, the subject will be more susceptible to identification with the hostage taker.

When does Stockholm Syndrome not progress?

One famous case of hostages not having felt emotional attachment to their captors was the 1977 hijacking of flight JP742. Flight 742, headed from Paris to Tokyo, took a stop at Bombay and, while it was preparing to take off, the Japanese Red Army (JRA) hijacked it and ordered it to be flown to Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, the JRA demanded a $6 million ransom and 9 JRA prisoners to be freed. During the time the passengers and crew were kept hostage, the JRA treated them with respect and used possessions as tools to control them. However, language served as a barrier to the non-speaking Japanese hostages, who displayed little identification with their abductors. This shows that language can in some cases cause confusion in the abductee, and can be the source of little/no identification, as a weaker bond is likely to occur between two subjects who speak different languages. In other words, the separate parties are unable to form a bond due to their inability to communicate with each other.

Face to face contact is also known as a determinant which causes little identification in a hostage situation. People with strong personalities can influence captors during face to face contacts. In regard to guarding the hostages, wardens are often likely to be followers of the group, therefore have weak value structures and less dominant personalities. More impact on daily guards means it is more important for captors to change guards. In some cases, if the hostage has a grasp of psychology and understands the basics of Stockholm Syndrome, the guard may become affectionate towards the hostage. Guards having daily interaction with the hostages provides opportunity for a bond to appear, therefore both hostage and guard would have identification, possibly causing the guard to soften. This is why hostages are ‘often hooded and gagged’ within the first moments in order to reduce potential for the humanizing process. Guards are also ‘rotated frequently and forbidden to speak with the hostage’. Due to their likely weak values structures, as mentioned previously, the likelihood that they may form a bond with the hostage is high, especially if the guard is weak and the captive has strong values, and identification may likely shift.

Strong violence is also known to be a discouraging factor in the development of the syndrome. “Severe abuse discourages the development of Stockholm Syndrome.” However, random acts of violence or taunting of the hostage are proven to inhibit development of the syndrome. This is because random acts of violence “make the hostage more difficult to control” , as they become fearful and frenzied towards the situation. The hostage is less likely to be sympathetic to their abductor, as they see them as an enemy, and the survival instinct will make hostages less inclined to form an affectionate bond with their kidnapper. This therefore increases the likelihood of them wishing to escape.

Pre-existing stereotypes are another element which can inhibit the progression of Stockholm Syndrome. ‘Individuals tend to selectively perceive information and events that reinforce currently held beliefs.’ This in effect means that, once kidnapped, the victim is more likely to select information from previous events which will help them during the period of kidnapping, reducing chance for positive identification. Contact with the kidnapper and information received while in captivity are not enough to change the attitudes held from previous encounters the victim endured; their selectively perceived information is mentally prioritised over most of what the kidnapper will try and tell them. However, these pre-existing stereotypes are sometimes ‘relinquishing of the guiding principles and values of the old personality, and, there may be a predisposition toward doing anything in order to survive’.

There is also a wide debate that argues that Stockholm Syndrome is a myth, and that hostages will behave in a certain way in order to prevent the captor from putting their lives in jeopardy. In the FBI’s Hostage/Barricade System, which includes “1200 reported federal, state, and local hostage/barricade incidents”, 92% of the victims showed no manifestation of Stockholm Syndrome. When this was combined with victims who only showed negative opinions towards law enforcement, the figure rose to 95%. These statistics suggest that Stockholm Syndrome may not even exist, and that rather it is a behavioural mechanism used to cope with the new situation, and escape death by establishing a rapport with the captor. In another example, the Cuban uprising at the federal correctional institution in Talladega, 1991, revealed that the majority of the hostages held there for 12 days “displayed no sign of Stockholm Syndrome development”. Most hostages were able to identify that law enforcement were trying their hardest to help them, which is a sign of the syndrome not being present. Therefore, Stockholm Syndrome may not actually occur in cases where people assume it does. One has to take into account the stress that a person goes through in situations such as kidnapping or violence and abuse. Another fact
or is how a hostage deals with the psychological pressure of captivity. They may choose to, or instinctively, prioritise life over what would otherwise be seen as abnormal behaviour, such as showing affection towards the hostage taker and negative emotions towards law enforcement, despite their efforts to help victims.

Is there a cure to Stockholm Syndrome ?

There are many different theories as to what can cure Stockholm Syndrome. However, because it is such a complex psychological condition there is no definitive solution. Nonetheless, psychologists have been able to provide some concepts which may help to alleviate symptoms and break the bond between abductor and abductee.

Time is a factor which helps the process of recovering from captivity. “Once a prisoner is returned to society after a period of time, he or she may find it absolutely challenging and heartbreaking to be separated from his captor”. On return, the absence of a small world which had been the only continued norm in the victim’s life means that everything in the world, which had been previously inaccessible, is now completely displayed. The victim may find it difficult to adjust to their new life and too much exposure to the new world may do them damage. Stockholm Syndrome is often linked to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which may occur after or during the kidnapping, and can come in the form of flashbacks, trouble remembering the incident, insomnia, negative feelings towards oneself, and more. The definition of PTSD is “a trauma and stress-related disorder that may develop after exposure to an event or ordeal in which death, severe physical harm or violence occurred or was threatened”. Time is essential for the person to recover: a longer time period means there is a more likely successful recovery, as the victim has time to recover from any abuse, and can re-accustomed to normal daily life. If the time period is short, the victim may succumb to stress and could be prone to a mental breakdown. Dr Frank Ochberg stated that “it seems to go away with time, and when it goes away there may be depression”. In the words of Jaycee Lee Dugard, kidnapped for 18 years, “It has taken a lot of time, and it hasn’t come over night”. This first person account concludes how time is necessary for a victim to recover.

In regards to PTSD treatment, there are two predominant ways in which victims are treated. Firstly, there is psychotherapy, which targets different aspects of the problem, depending on what type of therapy it is. The leading type is cognitive behavioural therapy, which has three prevalent forms: the first is called exposure therapy. “It may expose them to the memory of the trauma they experienced in a safe way. It uses mental imagery, writing or visits to the place where the event happened.” Victims are often shown images of the place they were abducted in, or images of any people who had surrounded them, to prove to the victim that this will no longer happen, as they are in a safe environment now. Through steady exposure, the victim will be able to overcome any negative thoughts or fear of the previous events slowly. The second is Cognitive restructuring, in which the victim “makes sense of their memories and experiences”. People may forget or distort their memories after traumatic experiences, and have a different perspective on events. By cognitive restructuring, the therapist will help the victim sharpen images of what happened, so that they can erase any excess “guilt or shame about what is not their fault”. The final method in cognitive behavioural therapy is Stress innoculation training, which is “teaching a person how to reduce anxiety when confronting anxiety provoking situations”. This may occur when a victim with PTSD visits an area where they received abuse, or a place they associate with the events. By looking at the events in “a healthy way”, they will be more likely to be able to overcome any negative feelings towards aspects of daily life, therefore aiding the process of recovery from PTSD. Psychotherapy is used worldwide to treat both PTSD and other psychological disorders which relate to trauma. Therefore, psychotherapy is a very effective treatment for Stockholm Syndrome, as not only does it aid the release of negative feelings toward traumatic events and memories, but it also helps the victim in everyday life following their release.

Another factor is love and support from the victim’s family. If one has to return to the world alone with no support from friends or family, a breakdown or at least slower recovery is more likely to occur. With support and care from close contacts, in addition to therapy, the victim is likely to be able to recover more quickly than if they were alone.

The other recovery method is medication, however this is usually recommended after having undergone psychotherapy, as there are side effects to drug use which may harm the user. Drugs can also cause withdrawal symptoms once the course is finished, so non-medicinal treatment is recommended first. According to the National Health Service in the UK and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, there are two drugs which have been licensed for the PTSD treatment: Sertraline and Paroxetine. Both are antidepressants and target the common symptom of depression in PTSD. Other medications which can be used in the UK are mirtazapine, amitriptyline and phenelzine . Doctors will only issue drugs to a sufferer if the subject has chosen not to undergo trauma-focused treatment, or if the psychotherapy is not working. There are possible side effects to the drugs, for example “ feeling sick, blurred vision, constipation and diarrhea” for paroxetine, and “sleeplessness or drowsiness”. There is also a chance of withdrawal symptoms, again with paroxetine these include “sleep disturbances, intense dreams, anxiety and irritability”.

These antidepressants have an estimated 50-65% success rate . Combined therapy has a higher success rate of 59.2%, compared to only medication, with 40.7%.

These two predominant methods of treatment have proved successful to treating PTSD, however there are other aspects of Stockholm Syndrome which may require treatment, such as nurture and tender caring from family and friends. Psychotherapy is the most highly recommended method as it can treat other elements of the syndrome that medication may not be able to. However, time is probably the most influential factor in the remedy of the syndrome, as this gives the victim the opportunity to regain gradually an ordinary schedule of life.


Stockholm Syndrome is a vague condition, in the sense that there are many disputes as to whether it is a real mental condition or whether it is a staged behavioural change in the victim in order to increase chances of survival during captivity. In any case, during dangerous circumstances where the victim’s life is in jeopardy, it is essential for them to display affection towards the abductor, whether this is put on or has really developed within the subject’s mind. Arguably the most influential factor in the development of Stockholm Syndrome is the small kindness perception, which leads to the abductee thinking that the abductor is a kindhearted person with good values, when in reality this is not the case. There are many instances of Stockholm Syndrome, one of the most famous being Natascha Kampusch, in which she explains her feelings of love and affection towards her abductor Wolfgang Priklopil. The perceived inability to escape and infantilization are two other factors which combine with the smaller elements to cause a positive identification with the captor. There are factors which may cause an undesired effect on the victim, such as timing of violence and pre-existing stereotypes, and these must be avoided by the abductor if they want the subject to obey them. Treatment for the syndrome proves successful, as the statistics for PTSD antidepressants and mixed thera
py show, but in both my opinion and most psychotherapists’, it is much more beneficial for the subject to take non-medicinal treatment first, in the form of cognitive behavioural therapy. The degree of success in treatment depends on the patient themselves, as treatment differs between each person. The syndrome occurs in day to day situations, such as abusive relationships, and in order for the syndrome’s cures to be fully developed, awareness about this strange mental condition must be raised so that it can be identified within families and friends more often.

Through the process of compiling this report, I have been able to expand my knowledge of Stockholm Syndrome and learn about its causes, the factors that influence its development and treatments. I believe that the syndrome is a growing problem and, with reports and accounts, people will be able to immerse themselves in its nature as I have done.

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