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Stockholm Syndrome is a psychological phenomenon where a positive bond between the hostage(s) and the captor occurs. This bond may seem irrational due to the severity of the situation being endured by the hostage(s) (De Fabrique, Romano, et al., 2007; Namnyak et al., 2008; Obeid & Hallit, 2018). Stockholm Syndrome is difficult for experts to define and explain. Some believe the length of time passed plays a role in the formation of the bond; others believe for Stockholm Syndrome to truly exist, there must be no previous relationship between the hostage and the captor (De Fabrique, Van Hasselt, et al., 2007, Obeid & Hallit, 2018). For example, Stockholm Syndrome cannot truly exist if a coach kidnaps or holds one or more of their players hostage, as there is already an established relationship between the two parties.  Although Stockholm Syndrome is hard to define, experts have agreed upon three characteristics that must be displayed in victims of hostage situations: (1) hostages have positive feelings towards their captors, (2) hostages have negative feelings, such as fear, distrust, or anger, toward authorities, and (3) captors display positive feelings towards hostages (De Fabrique, Romano, et al., 2007; De Fabrique, Van Hasselt, et al., 2007; Obeid & Hallit, 2018).

It is thought that Stockholm Syndrome develops as part of the hostages’ defense mechanism to allow them to express sympathy with the captor, which consequently leads to an acceptance of the situation and, in turn, restraining the challenge and/or aggression to escape the situation and aggressor (Obeid & Hallit, 2018). According to an FBI database which contains data pertaining to about 4,700 reported federal, state, and local hostage/barricade situations, 73% of hostages do not show signs of Stockholm Syndrome upon rescue (De Fabrique, Romano, et al., 2007).  Hostages may express anger or other negative feelings toward authorities more frequently. Moreover, they typically do not show positive feelings towards the captor.

There are social and cognitive influences that can play a role in the development of Stockholm Syndrome. A social influence that can be a key player in this syndrome is an “us versus them”, or in-group and out-group mentality. That mentality paired with a distorted cognitive schema can influence the emergence of Stockholm Syndrome.

De Fabrique, Van Hasselt, and colleagues (2007) entertained the idea of an “us against them” mentality in the development of Stockholm Syndrome, where the captor and the hostages would serve as the in-group, and the authorities would fill the role of the out-group. Researchers looked at this mentality in a more literal sense. Case studies presented by De Fabrique, Van Hasselt, and colleagues (2007) put the hostages and the captors in close physical proximity, maintaining a substantial amount of interpersonal contact. This thought of “us against them”, may come from the outlook that the hostages and the captor are in close proximity in an extremely emotionally-charged situation, such as bank and jewelry store robberies.

While this is the thought process of De Fabrique, Romano, and colleagues (2007), the emergence of Stockholm Syndrome may have more depth and dependence than literal proximity. Individuals involved in a captive situation typically need to rely on the captor for basic needs, like food, water, and shelter. In these situations, the captor is the person controls necessities for survival, as well as the hostages lives themselves. While it may not always be the case, the captor usually desires to survive these situations alive as well, with some added benefit, whether it be money, an escape car, etc. With both parties interested in survival, survival becomes their shared interest, creating the in-group. The captor views the authorities as a threat to their own survival, which, in turn, threatens the lives of the hostages. Due to this domino effect, the hostages may also take the stance that the authorities are a threat to their own survival, making the authorities the out-group.

As previously mentioned, hostage/barricade situations are typically extremely emotionally-charged situations. Increase in stress and dysregulation can impact an individual’s cognitive schemas. A schema at the cognitive level is a mental structure that is organized by behaviors and experiences that create a consistent and persistent body of knowledge. Schemas are maintained by selecting information that confirms the schema and minimizing information that does not match the schema (Obeid & Hallit, 2018). Young and colleagues (2003) grouped 18 schemas into five domains, one of them being impaired autonomy and performance. The schemas grouped into this domain include dependency, vulnerability to harm, and merger, with an emphasis on a negative view of the ability to succeed or function independently of others. With the dependency schema, an individual may feel they are unable to manage their duties without a lot of support from others; with the vulnerability schema, an individual may experience fear that someone or something is going hurt them. The merger schema holds a negative view of the ability of two entities to function independently of each other (Obeid & Hallit, 2018; Young et al., 2003). For example, in a hostage or barricade situation, the hostages’ autonomy is impaired. They are dependent on the captor for basic necessities, putting individuals in a vulnerable position. These two schemas (i.e., autonomy and dependency) ultimately set the hostages up to view the merger schema as them with the captor instead of them with the authorities. Hostages may take on that negative view of their ability to succeed or function independently outside of the captor because in that moment in time, they rely on them to survive.

The social aspect of the in-group versus out-group mentality and cognitive aspect of the impaired autonomy and performance schema group can ultimately influence the emergence of Stockholm Syndrome. The in-group being the hostages and the captor, who are interested in surviving the situation, view the out-group, being the authorities, as a threat to this survival, forming a bond through the commonality of survival, echoing what was described in the De Fabrique and colleagues (2007) study. This intense need for survival can distort the in-group’s impaired autonomy and group schema creating a bond between the captor and hostages. The hostages depend on the captor for basic needs and their lives themselves, and the captor depends on the hostages’ survival for their own survival. This dependency plays a key role in the distortion of the merger schema which, in turn, strengthens the in- and out-group mentality, as the hostages may see the captors as giving them life because it was not taken from them. The hostages drive to live can outweigh their fear or hatred of the captor (De Fabrique, Romano, et al., 2007).

The cognitive schema that can be the most distorted in these situations is the merger schema. The merger schema holds the emphasis of a negative view of the ability to function independently of one another (Obeid & Hallit, 2018). In a hostage or barricade situation, the merger schema holds the hostages and law enforcement as unable to function independently from each other. However, this schema can shift to the hostages and the captor functioning dependently due to the mutual need and want to survive, again, playing on the in-group versus out-group mentality. In the hostage situation, which the chain of events led to what is now known as Stockholm Syndrome, one hostage was quoted stating, “This is our world now… sleeping in this vault to survive. Whoever threatens this world is our enemy,” (Namnyak et al., 2008). This quotation demonstrates the appearance of the shifted merger schema to view the authorities as the out-group, or those who threaten “this world.” In reality, the out-group is working towards survival of all parties as well. While both the in-group and out-group are working towards the same goal, the in-group believes the out-group is working against them in their goal of survival due to these distorted cognitive schemas.

These two aspects can shed some light on how individuals can leave a hostage or barricade situation with Stockholm Syndrome. They share a common ground, or interest, as well as a close proximity, and can hold positive views of one another consequently. Their distorted schemas create hostility or other negative views toward the authorities, who, in reality, are working to get them out of the hostage or barricade situation safely.

According to De Fabrique and colleagues (2007), crisis negotiators are no longer viewing the bond that occurs between hostages and their captor as an obstacle to overcome. In some cases, they encourage the development of this bond, as it increases the likelihood of survival for the hostages. Although it increases the likelihood of survival, it can make cooperation in working for their release and later prosecuting the captor harder (De Fabrique, Romano, et al., 2007). This may later impact treatment, as those who were considered hostages to an outsider or the authorities, may not view themselves in that capacity due to the formed relationship. Clinicians would have to work with these survivors to rework and reappraise their cognitive schemas that were warped through chronic and consistent distortion.

Some crisis negotiators may have trouble encouraging this bond, and in that case, they attempt to humanize the hostages in mind of the captor to elicit positive feelings from the captor. Folks may do this by passing on personal messages to the hostages, such as telling them their kids love them and are available to see them when they leave (De Fabrique, Romano, et al., 2007). While this option seems ideal, crisis negotiators would need to undergo training to do this in a format that would not induce distress in the hostages and put their survival at risk, such as implying a resolution when passing a long a message (i.e., “Zoe’s husband loves her and is here to see her when she comes out”) and finding a balance between asking about the captor and the hostages. This strategy will keep all parties involved safe and increase survival as well as create a rapport between the in- and out-groups.

Stockholm Syndrome can be a result from an intense and emotional hostage situation that is typically seen as a bond between captor and hostage. The social phenomena of in- and out-group combined with the distorted cognitive schemas play a role in the formation of Stockholm Syndrome, where survival is the similarity the links the hostage and the captor. This bond makes treatment difficult, as the clinician would work to weaken that bond. Trauma-informed care will be fundamental to the success of creating a strong therapeutic alliance and positive treatment outcomes.

Cite This Article

Johnson, H. N. (2021, April). Understanding individuals with Stockholm syndrome. [Web article]. Retrieved from http://www.societyforpsychotherapy.org/understanding-individuals-with-stockholm-syndrome

References

De Fabrique, N., Romano, S. J., Vecchi, G. M., & Van Hasselt, V. B. (2007). Understanding Stockholm syndrome. FBI L. Enforcement Bull.76, 10.

De Fabrique, N., Van Hasselt, V. B., Vecchi, G. M., & Romano, S. J. (2007). Common variables associated with the development of Stockholm syndrome: Some case examples. Victims and Offenders2(1), 91-98.

Namnyak, M., Tufton, N., Szekely, R., Toal, M., Worboys, S., & Sampson, E. L. (2008). ‘Stockholm syndrome’: Psychiatric diagnosis or urban myth?. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica117(1), 4-11.

Obeid, S., & Hallit, S. (2018). Correlation of the Stockholm syndrome and early maladaptive schemas among Lebanese women victims of beating into domestic/marital violence. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice7(3-4), 171.

Young, J. E., Klosko, J. S., & Weishaar, M. E. (2006). Schema therapy: A practitioner’s guide. Guilford Press.

 

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