What is Stockhom syndrome and why it is a survival strategy

The precondition of Stockholm syndrome (also known as terror-bonding or trauma bonding) is that the victim must see no way out of the situation. When that is established, terror ferments the situation.

It can be regarded as a kind of regression, when a gradual disempowerment and infantilisation takes place. (See more at learned helplessness). Victims are not allowed to move, eat, speak or go to the bathroom without permission, and in time, they forget how it is even possible or safe to do so without oversight and permission. Gradually, it makes them not to trust their own ability and judgement. How could they ever act without permission?

When their basic needs are met, the victims feel intense gratitude and positive feelings for their captors. They genuinely resent any outside effort that shakes the delicate balance – or their illusion thereof. They blame outside factors for the danger and their own misery, not their captor.

In one phone call from the Stockholm bank that was robbed in a hostage drama that lent its name to the syndrome one of the hostages begged to the Swedish prime minister, Olof Palme, to be allowed to leave the bank with the kidnappers. She told Palme that she was “very disappointed” with him:

“I think you are sitting there playing chequers with our lives. I fully trust Clark and the robber. I am not desperate. They haven’t done a thing to us. On the contrary, they have been very nice. But you know, Olof, what I’m scared of is that the police will attack and cause us to die.”

Hostages fight for the captor’s sovereignty and truly take his best interest at heart. In their thinking, they identify with the captor. They assess the situation from the captor’s angle, and genuinely cannot see how it’s different from their own. Their own perspective dissolves.

Victims are robbed of a perspective of their own. The context in which they have to survive makes moral prerogatives conditional upon survival.

Forgetting that the captors put them into that situation in the first place, the deep gratitude for the gift of life and fear that it could get worse creates a context, in which their morals, standards and values become meaningless and a new reality is forged. What freedom of expression, when one could deny us to live?

Some regard the syndrome as a form of regression (return to childish patterns of thought or action) while others explain it in terms of emotional paralysis (“frozen fright”) or identification with the aggressor.

“When he treated us well, we could think of him as an emergency God,” said Sven Safstrom, one of the four captives in the 1973 Stockholm bank robbery (that gave its name to the syndrome) about their captor.

This strategy, as it is better understood, works because it manipulates the captor. The effect is not only one-way. This behaviour from the victims effects the captor and causes him to treat the victims better than he actually could. In this way, the syndrome (and the underlying thinking patterns and behaviour) helps survival and are thus a useful mechanism. Provided that there is indeed no way out of the system and the context.

In the case of the Stockholm bank robbery in 1973, the captor spoke harshly about the victims – but didn’t kill them. His conflicted feelings are the other side of the Stockholm strategy:

‘It was the hostages’ fault,’ he said. ‘They did everything I told them to do. If they hadn’t, I might not be here now. Why didn’t any of them attack me? They made it hard to kill. They made us go on living together day after day, like goats, in that filth. There was nothing to do but get to know each other.’

When the captor is a bank robber, this behaviour may seem out of place. But when the overpowering strongman is an elected political leader, his own sense of importance that he gains from this submission seems perfectly vindicated.

Absent the captor, these thinking strategies and sentiments are worse than meaningless: they are dangerous and counter-productive. In the short run they damage the victim herself. In the long run they recreate the “hostage” situation. Seeking out a new “emergency God” will cause one to emerge to fill the hole. Twisted moral consideration of their “special context” can linger since they were imprinted in a state of terror.

Considerations that apply to a state of emergency cannot be upheld in freedom. One should not derive his moral standards with emergencies in mind for the same reason.

The role of helplessness in the development of Stockholm syndrome

Stockholm syndrome is an instinctive self-defence mechanism. Hostages develop it as a means to pacify the aggressor. They sympathise with the aggressor, adopt his point of view and genuinely have his best interest at heart. The precondition of Stockholm syndrome is that the victim must see no way out of his situation. In other words, they must internalise helplessness before they learn to love their oppressor and justify the situation.

This sense of helplessness triggers the mechanism, the rationalisation and the mind-tricks victims employ to be able to cope.

It is a survival tool, not a mental state suitable for freedom. The same state of mind would not let people thrive outside of the situation.

Hostage negotiators encourage the development of Stockholm syndrome in order to lower the chances of the hostages being killed. The ultimate aim is to solve the hostage situation, not to fix the syndrome. It is supposed to take care of itself once the hostages are freed.


2 thoughts on “What is Stockhom syndrome and why it is a survival strategy

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

  2. Pingback: Exit, Voice, or Stockholm Syndrome | How To Make People Want To Be Free

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