In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms. This week’s term is Stockholm syndrome.
Stockholm syndrome is a type of psychological bond that forms between a captor and a hostage. The hostage develops positive feelings toward the captor and their cause, and negative feelings toward law enforcement. While it masquerades as an intimate bond, it’s a basic survival strategy that’s not based on rational thinking. The term was coined in Sweden when in 1973 there was a bank robbery and the hostages later refused to testify against the robbers.
The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) puts the incidence rate of Stockholm syndrome among hostage survivors at 8%.
Stockholm syndrome is not included as a diagnosis in the DSM-5. The elements that have been associated with Stockholm syndrome fall into four spheres: cognitive, emotional, social, and physical. Cognitive effects include confusion and refusal to accept what actually happened. Emotional effects are variable, and may include hopelessness, depression, guilt, and dependence on the captor. Social effects may include anxiety and cautiousness. Physical effects may result from deprivation of the necessities of life.
The positive feelings towards the captor may begin as being feigned to appease the captor, but with the level of fear and utter loss of control associated with their situation the captor becomes convinced that these feelings are genuine. The relief that comes from not being killed by the captor gets morphed into feelings of gratitude toward the captor.
An article on Thought Co. lists several circumstances that set the stage for Stockholm syndrome to occur: the belief that the captor will kill them; isolation from anyone besides the captor; the belief that it’s impossible to get escape; and the captivity lasts at least a few days.
The Wikipedia article on Stockholm syndrome includes some interesting information about the likely evolutionary value of Stockholm syndrome. It mentions that submission responses to abusive behaviour have been seen in primates. In hunter-gatherer societies, it was not unusual for women to be captured by neighbouring tribes. Capture-bonding may have improved the odds of survival, and over time this would favour the propagation of traits consistent with captor-bonding.
I decided to take a closer look at this topic because I was thinking about a trauma-bonding experience described by Alexis Rose in her book Untangled (you can read my review here). It is so astonishing the things that our brains and our bodies will do in order to keep us alive. Then to look at the completely opposite end of that spectrum, sometimes our brain makes us decide to end our life. It’s fascinating, albeit in a macabre way.
You can find the rest of the what is… series in the Psychology Corner.