Apologetics Index

Stockholm Syndrome

On August 23, 1973, a bank robbery-turned-hostage-taking began in Stockholm, Sweden, AP records in its Today in History feature. The four hostages ended up empathizing with their captors, a psychological condition now referred to as “Stockholm Syndrome.”

The American Heritage Dictionary defines Stockholm Syndrome as [a] phenomenon in which a hostage begins to identify with and grow sympathetic to his or her captor.

Stockholm Syndrome is a psychological condition in which hostages sympathise with their captors.

It was first observed following a bank robbery in Sweden in 1973, when four employees of the Sveriges Kreditbank in Stockholm were held in the vault by raiders for more than five days.

When police finally attempted to rescue them, several resisted their help and later refused to testify at the robbers’ trials.

Psychologists believe the condition develops as a natural response to the fear of violence.

Victims believe that if they are able to empathise with their kidnappers through co-operation and by pleasing them, they will not be hurt. They subconsciously resent any rescue attempt, fearing they might be injured in the crossfire.

The most celebrated case of Stockholm Syndrome was that of Patty Hearst, the American newspaper heiress and socialite who, having been a hostage of the Symbionese Liberation Army in the mid-Seventies, joined the group in a bank robbery.

She was jailed but later pardoned by President Bill Clinton.
– Source: So What Is Stockholm Syndrome? The Daily Mail, Jan. 2, 2006

When police spotted kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart on a street in Sandy, Utah, the girl initially lied to the police:

She wore a gray wig and dark glasses. Her head and face were covered. And then she lied. When Sandy police officer Bill O’Neal and his partner approached, she identified herself as Augustine Mitchell, adopting the surname of her alleged abductor.

“We took her aside,” O’Neal recalled. “She kind of just blurted out, ‘I know who you think I am. You guys think I’m that Elizabeth Smart girl who ran away.’ ”

When they insisted that she was Elizabeth Smart, she replied with a non-committal phrase: “Thou sayest.”

Experts agree that her behavior seemed to be a sign that Elizabeth had bonded with her captors and that she might have undergone some form of brainwashing that could have long-term psychological repercussions.

After finally admitting her identity, Elizabeth repeatedly asked police what would happen to her companions, Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Ilene Barzee. Police said she showed concern only for their welfare, not her own.

Police and family members, who have said she had “been through brainwashing,” have provided little detail about what happened to Elizabeth during her 9-month captivity. She was abducted June 5.

Psychologists and child-abduction experts say cults and kidnappers use numerous mind-control techniques, including isolation, sleeplessness, hunger, extreme discomfort, and the alternating use of kindness and cruelty. They say the 15-year-old could have been manipulated enough to keep her from approaching authorities or trying to escape.

So-called Stockholm syndrome often is considered in such cases. Captives with this syndrome – named after a 1973 bank robbery and hostage situation in the Swedish capital – eventually identify with and even support their captors.

Geraldine Stahly, a psychology professor at California State University-San Bernardino and an expert on child abuse, said people who spend long stretches of time with their captors often begin identifying with them.

“If they are held for a length of time, they begin to have distortion in their thinking, to take the side of the hostage-taker and see police as a threat,” Stahly said.

“When someone has the ability to make life or death decisions about you it’s powerful,” she added. “When they show you any kindness, brainwashing is possible.”

Gregg McCrary, a retired FBI profiler, detailed a scenario that could result in Stockholm syndrome: The abductor threatens to kill the victim, establishing fear; when the abductor changes his mind, the victim feels gratitude toward him.

“They start to see the outside world as more threatening than the world they’re in,” McCrary said. “They recognize that if they go along with the captor, they’ll survive.”

Marta Weber, a clinical psychologist in San Francisco who specializes in trauma cases, concurred that Smart could have suffered from Stockholm syndrome.

“If you have to be in a room with your captors, you have to get along with them in such a way so that you don’t provoke them to harm you,” she said. “What the ego does is, it will rearrange your perceptions so that you can believe you like these people so you don’t have to lie about it and be found out. You’ll actually believe you have a positive relationship with them.”

Weber used the Patricia Hearst case to illustrate how abductors can further manipulate their captives. Hearst was kept blindfolded and nude in a closet for several months and was sexually assaulted and deprived of food and sleep.

When she was let out, members of the radical Symbionese Liberation Army, which kidnapped her, showed her compassion. They told her she was alone in the world and she needed to join them.

“She was like a robot,” Weber said. “She went along with them.”

Police say Elizabeth lived in the mountains overlooking her home for months, close enough to hear her uncle’s voice when he searched for her in the days following her abduction. She heard the voice, but she did not respond.

Janja Lalich, an assistant professor of psychology at California State University-Chico, said that based on what few details have been reported about Elizabeth’s time in captivity, it is hard to question why the teen did not do more to get away from her alleged captors.

“From the outside, everyone is wondering why didn’t she call the cops. We don’t know what it’s like living in that system,” said Lalich, who wrote the 1994 book “Captive Hearts, Captive Minds: Freedom and Recovery from Cults and Abusive Relationships.”

Cult leaders often are able to control their subjects by determining what they wear and eat, creating a new language, giving them a new name and identity and indoctrinating them in a religious belief system.

“A lot of it has to do with immersing the person in a new reality,” Lalich said. “In a sense, you do forget who you were.”
– Source: Vincent J. Schodolski and V. Dion Haynes, Captive girl’s actions hint at brainwashing, Chicago Tribune, via the Contra Costa Times, Mar. 15, 2003

Article details

Category: Stockholm Syndrome
Related topic(s):

First published (or major update) on Monday, August 28, 2006.
Last updated on August 23, 2010.

Original content is © Copyright Apologetics Index. All Rights Reserved. For usage guidelines see link at the bottom.

Ad: Do you wish to visit the world's foremost religious and spiritual sites? Or do you simply want to experience wonderful places like Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona, the Grand Canyon, Mexico ... the world?

Apologetics Index: Research resources on religious movements, cults, sects, world religions and related issues

Our website includes some affiliate links. That means we get a small commission — at no additional cost to you — for each purchase you make. For instance, as an Amazon Associate Apologetics Index earns from qualifying purchases. Your support helps us provide this site free of charge. Naturally, as our Editorial Policy states, our content is never influenced by our advertisers or affiliates. Details.