Exit, Voice, or Stockholm Syndrome

Albert Hirschman famously listed exit, voice, or loyalty as the three approaches an individual can take when dissatisfied with a product, or political system. The first two are straightforward, but economists as well as political scientists have grappled with ‘loyalty’ ever since. When consumers don’t (or can’t) choose to exit – and voters cannot choose to raise their voice and improve their political system. Oppressive regimes thrive on the fluid interaction between these three choices.

(Read next: How Oppressive Regimes Rob Their Victims From Their Sense of Agency)

Let us consider seemingly irrational loyalty as a form os Stockholm syndrome and see how it may explain antidemocratic relapse in a society.

To understand why Stockholm syndrome is such a potent coping strategy under oppressive regimes, we must first realise that it is more widespread than we think. Far from limited to hostage dramas in Northern European bank branches, terror-bonding (or trauma bonding) is a widely practiced coping strategy of victims of abuse.

But we can go even further.

When we bare the definition to its essentials, we find that it is the presence of bonding with the person or entity one is dependent on.

When the dependence and the threat do not fall on the same entity, we take it for granted. Extreme dependence on one’s family triggers bonding, we call it childhood or parenthood – unless there is abuse involved. If someone falls in love with the firefighter, who saved them, we don’t see anything out of place – unless the firefighter started the fire in the first place.

1 Can it happen, when the fear is low-intensity?

The other element of terror-bonding that it is forged in fear. A sudden shock, a gun attack. It is usually obvious. But what happens, when the threat is low-intensity, diffuse, hard to point out, and slow to creep on? Are status anxiety, financial threats, or worry sufficient to trigger a bonding reaction?

2) Can it happen, when we fear a third party and bond with our protector?

Bonding with the entity we depend on is taken for granted. Especially if we feel under threat. But when the threat and the dependence comes from the same person, we are surprised. This is what happens during a hostage drama, for instance. And when the governments themselves supply the threats, such is the case in dictatorships, we are surprised that people still look for excuses for them.

But threats are not always that obvious and spectacular. Threats to our way of life are plenty, and thanks to our governments, we are well aware of them. But they appear to come from third parties, so bonding with governments seems logical.

3) Can it happen, without us even realising that we are afraid?

In case of states and societies, it is hard to see when the hostage taking started. It is questionable, whether there is a way out from the situation, there can be physical or psychological hurdles to emigration. Even the fear is hard to put a finger on, especially when we fear third parties, such as terrorists and economic troubles. But we still bond with the entity we believe holds the keys to our survival.

This is why newly democratised countries are so prone to relapse into authoritarianism in the face of economic or security challenges and why developed economies, and established democracies are exposed to overgrowth of power.

Stockholm syndrome (or bonding with the one we depend on because of fear) is a survival strategy. It is dysfunctional and counterproductive everywhere else.

Read more about the phenomenon

Stockholm Strategy in politics

Learned helplessness, fear, anxiety and taking the point of view of the powerful also happen to be core elements of the authoritarian personality.

Victims of an oppressive regime develop a mentality not unlike Stockholm syndrome – and it is not easy to unlearn. New economic and political institutions, a shiny, new constitution and a market economy don’t teach people the mind-set necessary to thrive in them. Lingering, old mentalities then cause authoritarian relapse the moment the economic or security situation worsens. Authoritarian attitudes and reflexes don’t work in a free and open society, old habits let you down in a market economy. They don’t create prosperity or encourage innovation. They are meant to be survival tools. They invite abuse of power, state capture and ultimately recreate unfreedom.

Understanding the need for prolonged justification of inaction helps explain the absence of citizen resistance and the apparent Stockholm syndrome societies can develop with a corrupt or oppressive political system, unable to even conceive of a way out. Giving them the narrative of their own escape is a storytelling challenge.

(More: How Oppressive Regimes Rob Their Victims From Their Sense of Agency)

Survival strategies don’t work under freedom and recreate oppression

“Looking for normality within the framework of a crime is not a syndrome. It is a survival strategy,” said Natascha Kampusch, the survivor of a high-profile kidnapping case.

Indeed, in a subnormal situation, when one’s freedoms are limited to such a degree, it is rational to communicate with the oppressor. It is a survival strategy.

Living in freedom, and a free and open society requires to shed this survival mentality, and develop a strategy of non-emergency living. Fear, humility, gratefulness for the gift of letting us live are not strategies that help one thrive. Neither is the inability to make decisions without permission, and the fear that one would do it wrong without oversight. Distrust in others and extreme caution are also not conducive to success in everyday life.

But it is easier said than done.

The rational expectation after a period of oppression is that the victims rejoice and hate their oppressors. But hatred means turning their back to a very intense period of affection and identification with the captor. It would require admission of being wrong on a level that is painful to explore. It goes against the basics of self-preservation. And it is not even wrong, if it had served the victim well.

Sometimes, breaking with their survival strategy means writing off a part of their life as lost and denying and devaluing every achievement and joy during the oppression. You have been great with pleading the baker in the breadline? You have been known and respected for this skill? You could feed your family like no one else because of this? Your achievements are sad and not understood by anyone anymore, and your skill is meaningless in freedom.

People who lived their cherished childhood under oppressive regimes may also feel nostalgic simply because their own childhood happened then.

Thinking habits and strategies that help survival under an oppressive regime cease to serve you under democracy and economic freedom.

It is crucial to develop a narrative that doesn’t play down the merits or embarrasses those, who tried everything for survival – and thus it allows the victims to move on without writing off their entire lives and all the skills they have developed before freedom.

When democracy happens to them, people adapt their actions according to the new circumstances relatively quickly, but the underlying thinking patterns, dysfunctional beliefs, social thinking, and mental models linger and have the potential to trigger a quick regression into authoritarian thinking at the first economic or security challenge. Economic or security challenges have the potential to trigger a similar terror-bonding reaction between people and their leaders. And once the process starts, demand will meet its supply.

Scholars of democratic consolidation grapple with the challenge to include the soft elements of transition and consolidation: the human element.

Not a psychiatric diagnosis, but Stockholm syndrome the underlying principles of how it works can be related to different situations, ranging from domestic violence and child abuse to high-profile kidnapping cases (camp prisoners, cult members, civilians in Chinese Communist prisons, pimp-procured prostitutes, incest victims, physically and/or emotionally abused children, battered women, prisoners of war, victims of hijackings, and of course, hostages).

Treating Stockholm syndrome as a mental disorder distracts attention from its real nature. It is a survival strategy for a situation that overwhelms and individual, limits their choices and is generally incomprehensible for those who are not in it.

This survival strategy is also counterproductive anywhere else.

This strategy is built up from mental models, thinking methods and justifications – and it does not always go away after the situation has been resolved. Apart from the typical hostage or domestic abuse situations, this strategy can be spotted to a certain extent in the mental models and thinking patterns of victims of an oppressive political regimes.

This is neither the first, nor the last time political systems and people’s attachment with oppressive regimes have been described as a form of societal Stockholm syndrome. But this is the first one that treats it as a strategy – and attempts to work out tools to understand, unlearn and replace this strategy with a more adequate one that allows people socialised under oppressive regimes to thrive in a non-emergency situation – in a free and open society, where authority must be checked, can be challenged, and it is ultimately shaped by and evolves with the citizens.

In the absence of such an alternative strategy we can expect authoritarian relapses the moment the economic or security challenges recreate the sense of terror that is the basis of the syndrome.

Active, conscious re-evaluation and un-learning of old reflexes, thinking patterns is necessary. So is consciously letting go of beliefs that were internalised in order to survive.

When societies that have just come out of an oppression, their experience with internalised oppression is deeper and more comprehensive than anything that can befall a single individual. And yet, we expect people to change their thinking habits overnight and without guidance.

They have to change their means of coping with power and authority, and the way they think about society and their own place within it – and they aren’t even aware of the need to change. We are blind to the microhabits that perpetuate and pass authoritarian thinking down the generations. And by these microhabits I don’t just mean actions. They do speak loud, but so do our underdog opinions, our deference to authority, our thinking patterns, and the framework and mental models we use to make sense of the world – our mental habits.

There is no therapy after a dictatorship, even though the damage is more profound and less obvious. Worse, even, people keep each other in habit.

The question arises: How do you perform therapy on an entire society in order to make it resistant to relapse during the next crisis (real or perceived)? Is it even the moral thing to do, or should victims figure this out for themselves?

This is where the nudge theory comes in. Like it or not, the design of our political systems is already nudging us into a certain behaviour. Mostly towards the gravity of unfreedom. The implicit assumptions and underlying narrative of democracies do carry a message – only this message goes unchecked.

It may be immoral to nudge a society to become free. But nudging them involuntarily into unfreedom is no less wrong. And that has been done throughout history.

(This chapter is a work in progress.) 

Read next: How it works under oppressive regimes



3 thoughts on “Exit, Voice, or Stockholm Syndrome

  1. Pingback: Learned Helplessness | How To Make People Want To Be Free

  2. Pingback: About the Project | Dare To Be Free

  3. Pingback: How oppressive regimes rob their victims of their sense of agency 1. Terror-bonding | How To Make People Want To Be Free

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