If you’re studying for your AP Psychology exam, you’ve probably stumbled across the term “Stockholm Syndrome.” But what is Stockholm Syndrome, exactly? As it turns out, Stockholm Syndrome is a complicated diagnosis that is still surrounded in quite a bit of controversy.
In this guide, we’ll teach you everything you need to know about Stockholm Syndrome, and we’ll answer the following frequently asked questions:
- What is Stockholm Syndrome?
- Where does it come from?
- What causes Stockholm Syndrome, and what are its symptoms?
- Is Stockholm Syndrome a real diagnosis?
At the end of this article, we’ll wrap things up with an in-depth look at two real-life cases of Stockholm Syndrome. (You’ll want to stick around until the end...those cases are really interesting.)
Ready? Then let’s jump in!
What Is Stockholm Syndrome?
Stockholm Syndrome—which is also sometimes called “trauma bonding” or “terror bonding”—is defined as the “psychological tendency of a hostage to bond with, identify with, or sympathize with his or her captor.” In other words, Stockholm Syndrome occurs when someone who is held against their will starts to have positive feelings toward the person (or group) who is holding them captive.
Also, despite being a psychological phenomenon, Stockholm Syndrome isn’t a mental disorder. Instead, it’s classified as a syndrome, which is a condition that’s characterized by a set of symptoms that often occur together. In order to be diagnosed with a syndrome like Stockholm Syndrome, a person has to exhibit most—but not all!—of the major symptoms that are associated with the syndrome itself.
The Kreditbanken building in Norrmalmstorg, Sweden
The History of Stockholm Syndrome
Unlike most syndromes, which are discovered over time as doctors uncover trends in their patients, the origin of Stockholm Syndrome can be traced back to one specific event.
On the morning of August 23, 1973, Jan-Erik Olsson—who was already on parole for robbery—walked into Kreditbanken, a bank in Stockholm, Sweden. He opened fire on two Swedish police officers before taking four bank employees hostage. As part of the list of demands he issued to authorities, Olsson asked that Clark Olofsson, one of his friends from prison, be brought to him. (Olofsson would become Olsson’s accomplice in the Kreditbanken hostage situation, and he would go on to rob another bank two years later.)
The hostage situation would last six days before police would use tear gas to subdue Olsson and rescue the hostages.
The unfolding drama captured the world’s attention. However, over the course of those 130 hours, another strange thing happened: Olsson’s hostages began to feel sympathy for their captor.
One hostage, Kristin Ehnmark, told reporters after the ordeal that she and her fellow hostages were more afraid of the police than Olsson. She and her fellow hostages would later tell authorities that they were treated kindly by Olsson, even though he was holding them captive. For instance, Olsson gave his jacket to Kristin when she began to shiver, and when Elizabeth Oldgren—another hostage—became claustrophobic, Olsson allowed her to walk outside of the vault where he was holding everyone hostage.The hostages’ sympathy of Olsson continued on even after their ordeal was over, and some of them even went to visit Olsson in prison!
The psychiatrists who treated the victims compared their behavior to the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, that they saw in soldiers returning from war. But that diagnosis didn’t quite fit, especially since the Kreditbanken hostage victims felt emotionally indebted to Olsson. They felt that Olsson, not the police, spared them from death, and they were grateful to Olsson for how kind he was to them. This unique set of symptoms led psychiatrists to label this phenomenon “Stockholm Syndrome,” which is still what we call it today.
Nick Youngson/Alpha Stock Images
What Causes Stockholm Syndrome?
Stockholm Syndrome occurs in people who have been kidnapped or taken hostage and held against their will. It’s common for people to think that someone must be held hostage for a long period of time to develop Stockholm Syndrome, but new research suggests that isn’t true. Experts believe that it’s the intensity of the experience—not the length of it—that’s one of the primary contributors to whether someone will experience Stockholm Syndrome.
Additionally, some psychologists believe that Stockholm Syndrome is more likely in situations where the captors don’t physically abuse their hostages. Instead, captors rely on the threat of violence instead. This can be aimed toward the victim, the victim’s families, or even other hostages. If victims believe their captors will carry through on their threats, it makes them more compliant. Additionally, the lack of violence becomes a sign of kindness. In other words, because a captor could—but doesn’t—act on their threats, victims begin to see that as a sign that their captors care about them.
This tension creates the defining characteristic of Stockholm Syndrome, where victims start to sympathize with and/or care about their captors.
We can definitely see this in the case of the Kreditbanken robbery. Olssen threatened his hostages with physical violence but never carried through. The hostages told the press that they didn’t feel Olssen was a bad person, especially since he didn’t physically mistreat them during the hostage crisis. Circumstances like these can cause victims to think of their captors as essentially nice—or sometimes even good—people who are taking care of them.
Cases of Stockholm Syndrome can show evidence of emotional manipulation or abuse, however. In these instances, the captors use emotional tactics to convince victims to sympathize with them and comply with their demands. This can involve convincing victims that the outside world is more dangerous than staying with their captors or persuading victims that the kidnapper is a victim, too.This makes victims feel like they are unable to escape from their situation, which is why people with Stockholm Syndrome stay with their captors.
From a psychological perspective, most psychologists and psychiatrists believe that Stockholm Syndrome is, at its core, all about survival instinct.
When people are put into extremely dangerous or traumatic situations, they often behave instinctually in order to survive. You’ve probably heard of this phenomenon phrased as “fight or flight” instinct, where you either run, freeze, or attack when you’re scared. (For the record, we’re runners.)
But survival instinct is actually much more complicated than that, especially when it comes to complex trauma. In the case of Stockholm Syndrome, victims become attached to their captors as a way to cope with their situation. This is also a way for victims to try to make their captors sympathize with them, and thus make it less likely for their captors to hurt or kill them. In other words, building an emotional connection becomes a victim’s way to both cope with his/her new reality and, hopefully, to survive.
Having said all of this, there’s one last—but important—thing to realize about Stockholm Syndrome: it doesn’t involve any conscious choice on the part of the victim.
Here’s what we mean. Say you’ve been kidnapped, and you’re being held against your will. You might decide to be nice to your kidnappers in an attempt to stay alive and, hopefully, escape. In this scenario, you choose to act in a certain way. Stockholm Syndrome, on the other hand, only occurs when the victim starts subconsciously and involuntarily sympathizing with their captor. In these instances, victims don’t have any conscious idea of what they’re doing, and their feelings toward their kidnappers last long after they’ve been freed.
What Are the Symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome?
At this point, it’s clear that Stockholm Syndrome is situational, which means that it’s something a person develops in a certain set of very traumatic circumstances. (Namely, the victim has been taken hostage by a stranger and is being held captive.)
Now let’s take a look at the four major symptoms someone with Stockholm Syndrome experiences.
Symptom 1: The Victim Has Positive Feelings Toward the Captor
Like we’ve mentioned before, this is the hallmark of Stockholm Syndrome. Despite being in a terrifying situation, someone developing Stockholm Syndrome will start to sympathize, care about, or feel positively about the person (or people) who are holding them hostage. These positive feelings make the victim more likely to comply with their captors’ demands and feel guilty when they don’t. This was certainly true for the hostages in the Kreditbanken robbery. After her release, Kristin Ehnmark—one of the hostages—would tell reporters that she “felt like a traitor” when she gave the police information behind Olsson’s back.
Additionally, these feelings come from a perception that the captors are treating them kindly. Another of the Kreditbanken victims, Sven Safström, remembers his reaction to Olsson’s threats. “All that comes back to me [now],” he would tell reporters later, “is how kind I thought [Olsson] was for saying it was just my leg he would shoot.” These perceived acts of kindness make victims feel like their captors are caring for or protecting them, even in a bad situation. This can make victims think of their captors as good people in a bad situation, rather than criminals who are breaking the law.
And remember: for the victim, these positive feelings develop subconsciously and is completely outside of their control. This reaction is their instinctual reaction to a dangerous and traumatic situation, and it’s a survival tactic.
Symptom 2: The Victim Has Negative Feelings Toward Family, Friends, or Authorities
Because the victim is aligning with their captor, victims also begin to adopt their way of thinking. Since the captors are afraid of being caught and prosecuted, the victims often take on the same anxiety as well.
Additionally, some kidnappers also convince their victims that they are protecting them from a dangerous world, not the other way around. This was the case in the Kreditbanken case, where the hostages became afraid that the police—not Olsson—were the real threat. In a phone call with Sweden’s Prime Minister, Kristin Ehnmark explained that while she was being treated well, she was afraid “the police will attack and kill us” instead.
Experts explain that the phenomenon of sympathizing with the captor is a type of hypervigilance, where victims believe that the happiness of their captors is critical to their own wellbeing and safety. In other words, when the captor feels happy and safe, the victims are, too. That’s why victims displaying symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome turn on people who threaten the captor-captive relationship, including the authorities.
Symptom 3: The Captor Has Positive Feelings Toward the Victim
There are two ways this works. In one aspect, the victim perceives that their captor actually cares about them. This has a lot to do with the “kindness” we mentioned earlier. When captors don’t act on their threats—or when they do small, seemingly nice things for their victims—it can seem like they actually care about the people they’re holding captive.
For example, during her time as a hostage in the Kreditbanken robbery, Elizabeth Oldgren was used by Olsson as a human shield. But he also gave her his jacket when she got cold, which Elizabeth saw as a sign of Olsson’s goodness. She would later tell reporters that although she had “known him a day when I felt his coat around” her, she was also “sure [Olsson] had always been that way.” Despite Olsson’s threats and posturing, his one act of compassion made Elizabeth think that he cared about her well-being, too.
The second way this works is when authorities, like FBI or police negotiators, use tactics to get captors to see their victims as humans. By doing things like asking captors to call their hostages by their first names, the authorities work to humanize the victims. Doing so makes captors less likely to kill their victims because they’re afraid of getting caught, and the FBI trains its members to use this tactic to “help preserve life.”
Symptom 4: The Victim Supports or Helps the Captor
The final symptom of Stockholm Syndrome comes when a victim, instead of trying to escape, tries to help their captor rather than the authorities. In this case, the victim is putting the needs of their captor above their own freedom in order to survive.
By this point, someone displaying the symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome already believes that their captor might hurt them or people they care about if they don’t comply with their demands. But more importantly, the victim has started to see the world from their captor’s point of view. Helping their captor isn’t something they’re forced to do—people with Stockholm Syndrome do so out of their own free will and their survival instinct.
This last symptom can be particularly confusing for authorities, especially when they don’t realize that the victim has Stockholm Syndrome. During the Kreditbanken incident, Kristin Ehnmark was allowed to speak the then-Prime Minister, Olof Palme, on the phone. Not only did she express a distrust of the police, she also demanded that the victims be allowed to escape with Olsson, not from him!
To make things more complicated, this symptom can also manifest itself in a desire to help captors even after the victim has been freed. In fact, Kristen and the other victims of the Kreditbanken robbery visited Olsson in prison for years after the incident.
Is Stockholm Syndrome the Same Thing as Being in an Abusive Relationship?
The short answer? No.
Even though many of the causes and symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome sound like the hallmarks of an abusive relationship, there’s one significant difference: Stockholm Syndrome only occurs in situations where a victim doesn’t know their captor. In other words, in order to develop Stockholm Syndrome, a victim must have never met their kidnapper before. Domestic abuse, on the other hand, requires some sort of prior contact. In cases of domestic abuse, the victim and the perpetrator know each other in some way—they’re related, romantically involved, or in some other close relationship.
So while abusive relationships and Stockholm Syndrome might share some characteristics, they aren’t the same thing.
Is Stockholm Syndrome a Real Diagnosis?
Although Stockholm Syndrome has captured public imagination, there is controversy in the medical community about whether it should be classified as its own disorder.
Psychologists and psychiatrists use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5, as the holy grail of psychological diagnoses. It’s the standard diagnostic tool for any and all psychiatric illnesses and disorders...and Stockholm Syndrome doesn’t appear in the DSM-5.
That’s the case for a few reasons. First, the symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome are very similar to those of trauma bonding or post-traumatic stress disorder, both of which do appear in the DSM-5. Psychiatrists and psychologists, however, aren’t in agreement about which classification Stockholm Syndrome falls under. Because there’s no extensive body of research or consensus to help solve the argument, Stockholm Syndrome is left out of the DSM-5 entirely.
Second, Stockholm Syndrome is incredibly hard to study because it’s so rare. (More on that in a second.) That means it’s hard to come up with a widely accepted metric for diagnosing Stockholm Syndrome since each case is so unique. That makes it nearly impossible to develop a diagnostic rubric for Stockholm Syndrome, which is the DSM-5’s primary purpose.
Lastly, Stockholm Syndrome is a syndrome, not a mental disorder or a mental illness. That means that it’s a collection of associated symptoms with no root biological or mental cause. While there are ramifications of Stockholm Syndrome that are similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, the onset of Stockholm Syndrome is situational, not pathological.
So that brings us back to our first question: is Stockholm Syndrome a real diagnosis? Yes and no. While Stockholm Syndrome is not a recognized psychological diagnosis of a mental illness or disorder in the DSM-5, it is a clinical way to explain the unique symptoms that some kidnap and hostage victims display.
Nick Youngson/Alpha Stock Images
Are There Famous Examples of Stockholm Syndrome?
Despite being a fairly well-known psychological condition, Stockholm Syndrome in real life is remarkably rare. According to the 2007 FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 73 percent of all kidnapping victims show no evidence of Stockholm syndrome whatsoever. Of those victims remaining, fewer than five percent will develop Stockholm syndrome at all. (In contrast, abusive domestic relationships—which share many of the characteristics of Stockholm syndrome—are unfortunately much more common.)
So why are people so curious about a syndrome that occurs so rarely?
Along with being a fascinating psychological topic, Stockholm Syndrome continues to capture the imagination of the public in movies, television shows, and even music. In fact, it’s such a pervasive topic in pop culture that the syndrome even has its own write-up on TVTropes.com!
This preoccupation with Stockholm Syndrome means that when the rare case does occur, it triggers a media frenzy. Let’s take a look at two of cases of Stockholm Syndrome that captured the world’s attention.
Patty Hearst after her arrest in 1975
One of the most famous cases of Stockholm Syndrome is the kidnapping of Patty Hearst.
In February 1974, 19-year-old Patty Hearst was kidnapped from her apartment in Berkeley, California by a group calling themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army, or SLA. The SLA was a radical activist group that used tactics like bank robbing, murder, and kidnapping to wage war—both ideological and literal—against the U.S. Government, which they viewed as an oppressive “capitalist state.” The SLA decided to kidnap Patty Hearst because she was the granddaughter of billionaire newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst and the heiress to his fortune.
The SLA had three goals in kidnapping Patty Hearst. First, they wanted media attention for their anti-capitalist platform (which they definitely received). Second, they wanted to extort money from Patty’s family to fuel their cause. And last, the SLA planned to brainwash Patty into becoming not only a member of the SLA, but the poster child of their movement. Unfortunately, although the Hearst family would meet most of the SLA’s demands—which included donating $8 million dollars to feed the poor—the SLA didn’t release Patty to her family.
Patty wouldn’t be seen for two months, and when she did reappear, it was shocking.
In April 1974, the SLA robbed Hibernia Bank in San Francisco...and Patty Hearst was one of the robbers. Security footage showed Patty wielding a machine gun and helping in the robbery, looking quite unlike someone who was being held against her will. After the robbery, the SLA released a pre-taped message from Patty herself. In the recording, Patty called herself “Tania” and claimed that she was now a voluntary member of the SLA movement.
The video sparked widespread public debate. Had Patty been brainwashed by the SLA? Or had she orchestrated the kidnapping plot in order to join the organization and extort money from her family?
This debate would end up playing out in court. Patty and other members of the SLA were captured by the FBI in September 1975, eight months after Patty’s kidnapping. She was charged with armed robbery along with a handful of other crimes, and her defense team argued that she had Stockholm Syndrome. But that was a hard case to make: the Kreditbanken robbery had happened just two years earlier, and Stockholm Syndrome was still a new idea in the public consciousness. Ultimately, the jury was unconvinced by the defense, and Patty Hearst was still sentenced to seven years in prison. She would serve two years in prison before her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter.
Although there is still quite a bit of controversy surrounding the Patty Hearst case, her situation is now regarded as one of the best examples of Stockholm Syndrome outside of the Kreditbanken hostage situation.
Jaycee Dugard in 1991 (Family Photo/CNN)
The kidnapping of Jaycee Dugard is another famous case of Stockholm Syndrome that became a media sensation.
On June 10, 1991, 11-year-old Jaycee Dugard was abducted while walking home after getting off the school bus. Her mother had moved the family to Meyers, California a year earlier because she thought it was a safer place to raise her children, but now her worst fears had been realized.
Once people realized that Jaycee was missing, the community leaped into action. Despite a widespread search effort and tons of media coverage—including a feature on America’s Most Wanted—Jaycee Dugard seemed to have disappeared without a trace. Many thought Jaycee was dead, but her mother held out hope that she was still alive.And she was alive, but she was being held against her will in Antioch, California...just three hours away from her childhood home.
Jaycee was held captive until 2009, and even then, she was only rescued because her kidnapper made some critical mistakes.
Phillip Greg Garrido, who was on parole for kidnapping and a registered sexual offender, visited the University of California, Berkeley campus looking for a place to hold a special event as part of his “God’s Desire” program. Garrido believed that angels were communicating with him and had granted him supernatural powers, and he wanted to proselytize on the campus.
The UC Berkeley events office and campus police reported him to his parole officer, who asked Garrido to come in for a meeting. He did and brought his wife, Nancy, Jaycee, and Jaycee’s two daughters. (Garrido had repeatedly sexually assaulted Jaycee, who had two children as a consequence.) The police separated Jaycee from Garrido and started questioning her. Jaycee insisted her name was “Allissa,” and she only admitted her true identity after Garrido confessed to his crimes. By this point, Jaycee had lived with Garrido as “Allissa” for longer than she had lived with her biological parents.
During her questioning at the police station, authorities immediately noticed that Jaycee was displaying symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome. This became even more apparent as more of Jaycee’s story came to light. For instance, as Jaycee got older, Garrido and his wife would take her out into public, including local festivals and fairs. Dugard even helped Garrido run a printing business out of his house. She worked as his graphic designer, answered phone calls and emails, and even met with clients. Despite this, she never made any attempts to escape or reveal her true identity.
During an interview with Diane Sawyer for ABC News, Jaycee explained why she never tried to run away and her experience with Stockholm Syndrome. When Sawyer asks Jaycee why she didn’t run, she says, “in the situation...it wasn’t an option.” She goes on to say that Garrido convinced her that the outside world was dangerous, and that staying with him was the only way to keep herself and her children safe. Sawyer then asks Jaycee if she will ever understand why she didn’t try to leave, and Jaycee responds, “No. I don’t think so.”
Like the Kreditbanken victims, Stockholm Syndrome convinced Jaycee that she was safer staying with her captor than trying to leave. Today, Jaycee uses her experience as a kidnapping victim and trauma survivor to help others who have experienced similar situations. Through her non-profit, the JAYC Foundation, Jaycee works to raise awareness and support for families who have experienced the abduction of a loved one.
If you or someone you know is in a situation like the ones we’ve described above, reach out for help. You can always contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline by phone, text, or web chat for help.
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Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.