What causes Stockholm syndrome?

The Stockholm Syndrome Process

In the most basic, generalized way, the Stockholm syndrome process as seen in a kidnapping or hostage situation looks something like this:

  1. In a traumatic and extraordinarily stressful event, a person finds herself held captive by a man who is threatening to kill her if she disobeys him in any way. She may be abused - physically, sexually and/or verbally - and having trouble thinking straight. According to the captor, escape is not an option. She will end up dead. Her family may end up dead, too. Her only chance at survival is obedience.
  2. As time goes on, obedience alone may become less of a sure thing - the captor is under stress as well, and a change in his mood could mean harmful consequences to his prisoner. Figuring out what might set off her captor's violence so she can avoid those triggers becomes another survival strategy. In this way, she gets to know her captor.
  3. A minor act of kindness on the part of the captor, which can include simply not killing the prisoner yet, positions the captor as the prisoner's savior, as "ultimately good," to quote young Anne Frank's famous characterization of the Nazis who ultimately led to her death. In the traumatic, life-threatening circumstances in which the prisoner finds herself, the slightest act of kindness - or the sudden absence of violence - seems a sign of friendship in an otherwise hostile, terrifying world, and the prisoner clings to it for dear life.
  4. The captor slowly seems less threatening - more an instrument for survival and protection than one of harm. The prisoner undergoes what some call an act of self-delusion: In order to survive psychologically as well as physically - to lessen the unimaginable stress of the situation - the prisoner comes to truly believe that the captor is her friend, that he will not kill her, that in fact they can help each other "get out of this mess." The people on the outside trying to rescue her seem less like her allies. They are going to hurt this person who is protecting her from harm. The fact that this person is also the source of that potential harm gets buried in the process of self-delusion.

I­f you've read How Brainwashing Works, you've probably noticed the similarities between brainwashing and Stockholm syndrome. The two are actually closely related as effects of abnormal power relationships. In the case of publishing heiress Patty Hearst, who was kidnapped in the early '70s by the political extremist group SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army), experts have pointed to both Stockholm syndrome and brainwashing as potential reasons for her subsequent actions. After Patty was locked in a closet and severely abused for weeks on end, she joined the SLA, changed her name, became engaged to one of its members and was caught robbing a bank with the group. However, once the police arrested members of SLA and Patty was returned to her family, she reversed her position. Instead of defending the group and holding the police officers in contempt, she distanced herself from the SLA and condemned their actions. It's possible that what Hearst experienced was in fact neither true brainwashing nor Stockholm syndrome, but instead was a series of conscious choices designed to ensure her survival.

For more on brainwashing and related topics, check out the links below.

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