What causes Stockholm syndrome?

This photo was taken by the Stockholm police with a camera drilled through the roof to the main vault in the Kreditbanken bank in Sweden. The bearded man on the right is captor Jan Erik Olsson.

Symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome

Many people have a pretty good idea of what Stockholm syndrome is based on the origin of the term alone. In 1973, two men entered the Kreditbanken bank in Stockholm, Sweden, intending to rob it. When police entered the bank, the robbers shot them, and a hostage situation ensued. For six days, the robbers held four people at gunpoint, locked in a bank vault, sometimes strapped with explosives and other times forced to put nooses around their own necks. When the police tried to rescue the hostages, the hostages fought them off, defending their captors and blaming the police. One of the freed hostages set up a fund to cover the hostage-takers' legal defense fees. Thus "Stockholm syndrome" was born, and psychologists everywhere had a name for this classic captor-prisoner phenomenon.

In order for Stockholm syndrome to occur in any given situation, at least three traits must be present:

  • A severely uneven power relationship in which the captor dictates what the prisoner can and cannot do
  • The threat of death or physical injury to the prisoner at the hands of the captor
  • A self-preservation instinct on the part of the prisoner

­­Included in these traits are the prisoner's belief (correct or incorrect, it doesn't matter) that he or she cannot escape, which means that survival must occur within the rules set by the all-powerful captor; and the prisoner's isolation from people not being held by the captors, which prohibits any outside view of the captors from infringing on the psychological processes that lead to Stockholm syndrome.

Learn how a person develops Stockholm syndrome on the next page.