Stockholm Syndrome: Why Victims Sympathize With Their Captors

Karen Doll, Psy.D., L.P
Updated on February 14, 2021

We have all heard horror stories of kidnappings and hostage situations where victims suffer horrible ordeals. What we don’t expect to hear from such victims is expressions of sympathy or appreciation for their captors. But Stockholm syndrome describes exactly that kind of reaction. It is a survival strategy where hostage or abuse victims develop feelings of trust, affection, or sympathy over time for their captors or abusers.

Stockholm syndrome

One would expect feelings of anger, horror, and terror in such a traumatic situation, but this condition is generally considered to be a protective coping mechanism for victims. Stockholm Syndrome is not an identified disorder but rather describes the behavior of individuals who have been traumatized in such circumstances. Despite being a syndrome that has gained recognition and awareness over the years, it is still rare – and there are no explanations as to why the condition will manifest itself in certain individuals and not others.

The Story Behind Stockholm Syndrome

The name for the syndrome was coined by psychiatrist and criminal researcher Nils Bejerot following a bank robbery that took place in Stockholm, Sweden in 1973. After four hostages were held captive for six days, they began to experience sympathetic feelings toward their captors. After their release, the victims described feeling animosity toward the police rather than toward their captors, and refused to testify against them. The victims’ reaction understandably confused police – even making them suspicious that perhaps they were involved in some way. Even months after the incident, the victims helped raise funds for the robbers’ legal representation and visited them in prison.

The story sparked interest in journalists and researchers who were curious to see if this was a unique event and reaction, or an actual phenomenon. Ultimately research showed that such behavior is actually common for those who have experienced captivity.

Other Well-Known Stockholm Syndrome Stories

Patty Hearst was kidnapped at age 19 by a group of armed radicals called the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). After being abused and brainwashed, Patty went on to join them in criminal acts, including robbing a bank. During her trial, it was proposed that her robbery participation was similar to Stockholm Syndrome, as a subconscious mechanism for survival.

Jaycee Lee Dugard was 11 years old when she was abducted in South Lake Tahoe in 1991. She remained missing for 18 years until she was found and rescued. During those 18 years, she was mistreated, sexually abused, and held trapped in a tent in the backyard. She also gave birth to two children who were 11 and 15 when she escaped. Despite her extended exposure to suffering, Dugard experienced feelings of bonding towards her captors and perhaps bypassed opportunities to escape. To survive, Dugard had to foster positive feelings toward her captor.

Stories such as these can be invaluable in addressing and treating individuals who experience such traumatic circumstances. Understanding these dynamics have also helped police officers train and prepare for future hostage situations.

The Psychology Behind Stockholm Syndrome

Stockholm Syndrome can be described as a paradoxical experience, where the feelings and behaviors seem counterintuitive to what would be a typical response. The seemingly irrational attachment that can develop is suggested to be an unconscious defense mechanism deep in the human psyche.

Victims of domestic violence are a more common example of the syndrome, as battered partners are often resistant to taking legal action or pressing charges against their abusers. Victims can become protective and continue to experience feelings of affection towards their abusers. Other examples of Stockholm Syndrome behaviors are observed in cults, prisoners of concentration camps, toxic relationships, and other brainwashing situations.

In Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception, Neel Burton explores the science of self-deception. He describes how individuals use this type of psychological defense mechanism to protect themselves from painful truths. 

Treating Stockholm Syndrome

There is little conclusive research about how to best treat Stockholm Syndrome. If someone you know is experiencing such symptoms, it is recommended to seek professional guidance. Therapy or psychological treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder can help alleviate feelings of anxiety and depression. Psychologists can also help those with the syndrome overcome feelings of guilt and how to move forward with the understanding that the victim isn’t to blame.

Karen Doll, Psy.D., L.P

Karen Doll has been a Licensed Psychologist in the Twin Cities for 20 years, working in organizational consulting. She leverages her education in Clinical Psychology with her leadership assessment expertise in her practice. She is an executive coach focusing on helping people maximize their potential.

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