What is Stockholm syndrome?

You’ve probably heard of Stockholm syndrome, but do you know what it is? Even once you do, there are lots of questions that come to mind!

Why is Stockholm syndrome called after Stockholm?
brightfreak (CC)

So where does the term Stockholm syndrome come from? And why is the picturesque capital of Sweden associated with this syndrome?

It’s fifty years since the event that coined this phrase occurred, so we’ve done some digging and found out the facts behind this fascinating phenomenon.

Read on to discover what is the story behind Stockholm syndrome.

What is the definition of Stockholm syndrome?

First things first, let’s look at what Stockholm syndrome actually is.

The dictionary definition describes it as a psychological response wherein a captive begins to identify closely with his or her captives, as well as their aims and demands.

Put simply, it’s when a hostage feels sympathy and sometimes even love for the person holding them hostage.

How did Stockholm syndrome get its name?

So, why is it called Stockholm syndrome? Well, unsurprisingly it was first identified as an official syndrome in Stockholm, though it had obviously existed as a psychological phenomenon long before then. 

Kreditbank on Norrmalmstorg in Stockholm, where Stockholm syndrome was first identified.
The Kreditbank on Norrmalmstorg in Stockholm / Holger.Ellgaard (CC)

The term originated from a botched bank robbery at the Sveriges Kreditbank in Stockholm’s Norrmalm district in August 1973.

Four of the bank’s employees were locked into the bank vault by escaped convict Jan-Erik Olsson, and held captive there for six days.

Olsson demanded a ransom and the release from jail of one of his former prison mates, in return for the hostages’ freedom.

The police allowed Olsson’s colleague to join him in the bank, but refused to pay the ransoms. After a six-day stand-off, the police stormed the bank, freed the hostages and captured Olsson.

What surprised the police, however, was how sympathetic the hostages felt towards their captors.

During the siege, the Swedish prime minister, Olof Palme phoned the hostages and was told by one of them that her captors had been very nice to them and that she trusted them.

The hostage was more scared of being killed by the police in an attempted raid to free them than of the kidnappers themselves. 

Is Stockholm syndrome real?
eGuide (CC)

After their release, the hostages were extensively interviewed about their ordeal and the term Stockholm syndrome was coined by Swedish criminologist and psychiatrist Nils Bejerot to describe the phenomenon.

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Is Stockholm syndrome real?

It certainly has become widely accepted as a respected psychological phenomenon.

After Nils Bejerot’s initial identification, psychiatrist Dr Frank Ochberg then did further research into it and went on to define the syndrome for the FBI and Scotland Yard in the 1970s.

Some psychiatrists, however, believe that Stockholm Syndrome is not a real condition, but something that was constructed to explain rational behaviour amongst women.

Cecilia Ase, a gender studies professor at Stockholm University, argues that it is not a psychological condition but a perfectly logical defence mechanism to cope with a violent or abusive situation.

Indeed, one of the survivors of the original bank siege in Stockholm, Kristin Enmark, says in her memoir that she wasn’t in love with her captor, but that forming an emotional bond with him was a deliberate survival tactic.

When does Stockholm syndrome occur?

So what causes people to experience Stockholm syndrome and why? Research suggests that it is an emotional coping mechanism for people who are in a position where they have no power.

What is Stockholm syndrome?
Stockholm’s Gamla Stan, or old town / Bengt Nyman (CC)

It occurs when kidnappers show kindness or consideration to their prisoners, so that the hostages think well of their captors, even though it is the kidnappers who deprived them of their freedom in the first place.

Is Stockholm syndrome bad?

As a short-term emotional coping strategy, Stockholm syndrome can help captives to get through an incredibly stressful situation by making their captors seem more human.

And in some cases, hostage negotiators can encourage the phenomenon to make the hostage takers feel empathy for their captives. 

How common is Stockholm syndrome?
Stockholm from the air / nextvoyage (CC)

So, how does Stockholm syndrome affect the brain?

Although the syndrome can help hostages to cope while they are in captivity, the long-term effects mean that captives often suffer from post-traumatic stress, guilt and anxiety, including nightmares, insomnia, flashbacks and an inability to trust people.

Can Stockholm syndrome be cured?

Since Stockholm syndrome is not an officially recognised mental health condition, there is no exact cure. However, therapy, counselling and medication can all help with the associated depression and anxiety.

How common is Stockholm syndrome?

Clearly being held captive is not commonplace in most parts of the world, but where it does happen it is not unusual for one or more of the captives to experience Stockholm syndrome.

The most common cases occur in domestic abuse and modern-day slavery situations.

However, there are also some well-documented examples of Stockholm syndrome that have hit the headlines.

These include the heiress Patty Hearst who was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974 then went on to join the revolutionary group and help them rob a bank.

Famous examples of Stockholm syndrome
mcaven (CC)

The Austrian Natascha Kampusch also experienced Stockholm syndrome after she was held captive in a basement for eight years, but still felt sympathy, and even grief, for her captor Wolfgang Priklopil on her release.

Other hostages have expressed sympathy for the aims of their kidnappers, such as the passengers on flight TWA flight 847, who were held hostage for more than two weeks by a group of Lebanese Shias in 1985.

Terry Waite, Terry Anderson and Thomas Sutherland were all held hostage in Lebanon for six years and claimed that they had been well treated, despite being kept in solitary confinement and chained up for months at a time.

Why does Stockholm syndrome happen?

Essentially Stockholmsyndrom occurs where there is a power inbalance between two parties, as in the case of a hostage and their captor. 

This power imbalance leads to the less powerful partner perceiving any small kindness from the controlling partner as a sign of affection and possibly even love.

Stockholm syndrome is most likely to develop when the weaker party is dependent on the more powerful party for their everyday needs and when they are in an emotional situation with poor conditions, such as captivity.

Stockholm syndrome can also be a coping mechanism for the weaker party, when they persuade themselves that their captor or abuser actually loves them as a way of making sense of their situation.

What is Stockholm syndrome in a relationship?

Stockholm syndrome in a relationship is where one partner is controlling or abusive to the other, but the weaker partner perceives their behaviour as love.

There are a few common signs of Stockholm syndrome in a relationship. These are:

  • The weaker partner defending the controlling partner’s poor behaviour.
  • Gaslighting, whereby the controlling partner denies any wrongdoing and makes the weaker partner feel unsure of themselves.
  • Isolation, when the controlled partner begins to lose contact with friends and relatives.
  • Denial, when the controlled partner cannot see that anything is wrong.
  • Fear of leaving, where the controlled partner is manipulated into feeling too scared to leave the relationship.

And it’s not just in romantic relationships that Stockholm syndrome can occur.

A recent study* into the relationship between sex workers in India and their traffickers showed that the female sex workers exhibited symptoms similar to those of Stockholm syndrome as a way of coping with their situation. 

And according to an Australian study** similar characteristics have been shown by young athletes and gymnasts towards their coaches. 

A sports coach is in a position of great power and authority over young athletes and if this power is abused, young athletes can display symptoms of Stockholm syndrome, whereby they think they are in love with the coach.

What is the difference between Helsinki syndrome and Stockholm syndrome?

The simple answer is that Stockholm syndrome is real and Helsinki syndrome isn’t!

What is the difference between Stockholm syndrome and Helsinki syndrome?
Helsinki cathedral / Tapio Haaja (CC)

Helsinki syndrome was first bought to the public’s attention in the original Die Hard movie, to describe a phenomenon exactly like Stockholm syndrome.

Why the writers chose to call it this, no-one really knows, but the fact that the phrase is still around in popular culture shows the enduring appeal of the Die Hard films!

For more on the origins and story behind Helsinki syndrome, see our ultimate guide to What is Helsinki Syndrome?

What is the opposite of Stockholm syndrome?

The opposite of Stockholm syndrome is Lima syndrome, where it is the captors that begin to feel empathy for their hostages, and then find it hard to carry out their original plans.

The term comes from a siege in the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru where staff and guests were held hostages by the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MTRA). 

Over the course of the four-month siege, several members of the MTRA began to feel sympathy with their hostages and develop attachments to them.

The opposite of Stockholm syndrome is Lima syndrome.
Cherry blossom in Stockholm / Ulf Bodin (CC)

Many of the hostages were diplomats and highly educated, who were able to exploit the feelings of the mostly young, poorly educated kidnappers to turn them against their cause.

And this tactic was successful, to the extent that some of the kidnappers even wanted their hostages to help them get to university in Japan after the siege.

Stockholm syndrome in popular culture

Although highly problematic from a feminist perspective, Stockholm syndrome is a very common theme in films and literature.

Well-known examples range from Beauty and the Beast, where Belle is incarcerated by the Beast and over time begins to fallen love with him, to the classic musical Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, where seven sisters are kidnapped by seven brothers.

Surprise, surprise, they all fall in love with the brothers and marry them!

Music too has mined the theme for inspiration, with both One Direction and Muse releasing songs called Stockholm syndrome.

Sources:

*Karan A, Hansen N. Does the Stockholm Syndrome affect female sex workers? The case for a “Sonagachi Syndrome”. BMC Int Health Hum Rights. 2018 Feb 6;18(1):10. doi: 10.1186/s12914-018-0148-4. PMID: 29409491; PMCID: PMC5802051.

**Bachand C, Djak N. Stockholm Syndrome in Athletics: A Paradox. Children Australia. 2018;43(3):175-180. doi:10.1017/cha.2018.31

See also:
The Stockholm archipelago: six of the best islands to visit
110 cheap and free things to do in Stockholm
Visiting Stockholm in winter

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