Stockholm Syndrome: Definition, Cases & Treatment

Instructor: Dawn Young

Dawn has a Juris Doctorate and experience teaching Government and Political Science classes.

Why is it that victims of violent crimes sometimes bond with the perpetrators? This lesson defines Stockholm syndrome, examines cases in which victims have developed this syndrome and discusses treatment options.

What is Stockholm syndrome?

In 2002, at the age of 14, Elizabeth Smart was abducted from her home and held captive for 9 months before being rescued by police. Despite being treated cruelly by her abductors, when she was rescued, Elizabeth initially refused to tell the police who she was. She was also extremely concerned about her abductors and cried when she was told that they would be arrested and punished. It was also discovered that during her 9-month ordeal, she walked around freely in public and never tried to escape. Why would Elizabeth, who was treated so cruelly by her captors, not attempt to escape? Many people believed that Elizabeth was suffering from Stockholm syndrome.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines Stockholm syndrome as a psychological phenomenon in which a positive bond develops between the captor and the hostage in spite of the frightening ordeal that the victim endures.

The FBI says that Stockholm syndrome generally has three characteristics:

  • Hostages have positive feelings for their captors.
  • Victims show fear, distrust, and anger toward the authorities.
  • Perpetrators display positive feelings toward captives as they begin to see them as human beings.

The Birth of Stockholm Syndrome

The term 'Stockholm syndrome' originated in 1973, when Jan-Erik Olsson entered a bank with a gun and took 4 bank employees hostage in Stockholm, Sweden. The ordeal lasted for 6 days. Olsson and the employees stayed in the bank's vault and an odd relationship developed between the victims and their kidnapper. Olsson was found to have draped a jacket on the shoulders of one victim who was cold, soothed her when she had a nightmare and gave her a bullet as a keepsake. He allowed one victim to call her family and encouraged her to keep trying when she could not reach them. He also allowed another captive to leave the vault attached to a rope when she became claustrophobic.

By the second day of the ordeal, Olsson and the victims were on a first-name basis. When the police were allowed inside the bank to check on the victims, they described the victims as relaxed with Olsson, but hostile towards them. One victim, in a phone call to the country's Prime Minister, even described Olsson as kind but seemed very worried that the police would kill them all in an attack. In addition, when the ordeal came to an end, the hostages refused to leave the bank vault first for fear the police would shoot Olsson.

In this case, all three characteristics of Stockholm syndrome are present. The victims had positive feelings for Olsson - they worried for his safety when he was surrendering and described him as 'nice' to the Prime Minister. They showed fear and distrust of the police and were even openly hostile when the police came to check on their health. Also, Olsson displayed positive feelings for his victims as he began to see them as human - he allowed them to use the phone, gave keepsakes and soothed victims' nerves.

The Kidnapping of Patricia Hearst

In 1974, at age 19, Patricia Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). Patricia was kept in a closet, raped, deprived of food and sleep, and threatened with death. The SLA made recordings of Patricia reciting their political beliefs and criticizing her parents. After being held captive for a while, Patricia was caught on camera robbing a bank along with members of the SLA.

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