Stockholm Syndrome Essay

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 On August 23, 1973, two ex-convicts armed with machine guns, explosives, and blasting caps entered one of Sweden’s largest banks and took four hostages. For the next 131 hours, these hostages, whose captors had strapped explosives to them, were held in the bank vault. When rescuers arrived six days later, the captives surprised them by resisting rescue and defending their captors. They subsequently refused to testify against their captors and even raised money for their legal defense. Sources vary, but it has been widely reported that at least one (some sources say two) of the three female hostages eventually became engaged to one of the bank robbers.

Subsequent incidents, combined with a re-examination of many hostage situations by social scientists, suggested that this bizarre pattern of behavior was actually so common as to merit a name, and so it became widely known as the Stockholm syndrome. Psychologists have actually documented similar behavior patterns in many disparate situations, including concentration camps, cults, incest, the relationship between prostitutes and their pimps, prisoners of war, hijackings, spousal abuse, and of course kidnappings and hostage situations. Development of Stockholm syndrome seems to require that four conditions be met:

  • The captive perceives both a threat to survival and a willingness by the captor to act on that threat.
  • The captive perceives that he or she is unable to escape.
  • The captive is isolated from perspectives other than those of the captor.
  • The captor commits acts of kindness towards the captive. These can range from deciding not to kill the captive and informing him or her of that, to removing restraints, to simply speaking more gently.

Perhaps the best-known example of Stockholm-like behavior in America is the case of Patty Hearst. Hearst was kidnapped, confined, raped, and tortured by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a small radical outfit that gained some notoriety in the early 1970s (they were not an army, and their nationality was not Symbionese—indeed, that nationality is an invented word derived from “symbiosis”). After her ordeal Ms. Hearst, the heiress to an immense publishing fortune, was filmed by bank security cameras participating in a robbery along with members of the SLA under the new name “Tania.”

Irrational as this behavior may seem to observers, the Stockholm syndrome is actually a survival mechanism, since more cooperative hostages are less likely to be shot, and is actually encouraged in some hostage situations. Unfortunately, it also improves the odds that the hostages will not be cooperative during either rescue or prosecution. A similar phenomenon has long been observed by police who arrest men for spousal battery. Women will frequently physically attack police officers who are called in to rescue them from a violent assault, and they will then bail the husband or boyfriend out of jail and subsequently fail to press charges.

At least one feminist psychologist, Dee Graham, has expanded this idea into a controversial theory: she maintains that, as our culture is patriarchal, all women suffer from what she calls Societal Stockholm Syndrome, to varying degrees. This idea has not caught on widely among psychologists, but her book on the subject sold in robust numbers, in part because it was seen by many feminists as an antidote to the ideas of John Gray. Whereas Gray presents the differences between men and women as innate, immutable differences that people must learn to live with, Graham suggests that the differences represent survival strategies in a world in which women are the “hostages” of dominant men, and thus it might be possible to overcome and eliminate those differences. It has become a very popular perspective in pop-psychology publishing—a search for “Stockholm syndrome” on the Internet mostly produces books on male-female relationships. While certainly an interesting perspective, this seems to have little to do with Stockholm syndrome as it is generally understood.


  1. Graham, D. L. R. Loving to Survive: Sexual Terror, Men’s Violence, and Women’s Lives. New York: New York University Press, 1995.

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