Kreditbank in Stockholm, Sweden, was destroyed by the clatter of a submachine
gun. As clouds of plaster and heaps of shattered glass settled around the 60 stunned
occupants, a heavily armed lone gunman called out in English, The party
has just begun.
party was to continue for 131 hours, permanently affecting the lives
of four young hostages and giving birth, in name at least, to a psychological
phenomenon subsequently called the Stockholm Syndrome. During the
131 hours from 10:15 a.m. on August 23 until 11:00 p.m. on August 28, four employees
of the Sveriges Kreditbank were held hostage. They were Elizabeth Oldgren, age
21, then an employee of fourteen months working as a cashier in foreign exchange,
now a nurse; Kristin Ehnmark, age 23, then a bank stenographer in the loan department,
today a social worker; Brigitta Lundblad, age 31, an employee of the bank; and
Sven Safstrom, age 25, a new employee who today works for the National Government
of Sweden. They were held by a 32 year-old thief, burglar, and prison escapee
named Jan-Erik Olsson. Their jail was an 11 by 47-foot carpeted bank vault that
they came to share with another criminal and former cellmate of Olsson: Clark
Olofsson, age 26. Olofsson joined the group only after Olsson demanded his release
from the Norrrdkpoing Penitentiary.
This particular hostage situation gained long-lasting notoriety
primarily because the broadcast media exploited the fears of the victims as well
as the sequence of events. Contrary to what had been expected, it was found that
the victims feared the police more than they feared the robbers. In a telephone
call to Prime Minister Olaf Palme, one of the hostages expressed these typical
feelings of the group when she said, The robbers are protecting us from
the police. Upon release other hostages puzzled over their feelings: Why
dont we hate the robbers?
weeks after this incident, under the care of psychiatrists, some of the hostages
experienced the paradox of nightmares over the possible escape of the jailed subjects
and yet felt no hatred for their captors. In fact, they described feeling that
the subjects had given them their lives back and that they were emotionally indebted
to their captors for this generosity.
The Stockholm Syndrome seems to be an automatic, often unconscious,
emotional response to the trauma of becoming a victim. Although some victims may
think it through, this is not a rational choice by a victim who decides consciously
that the most advantageous behavior in the predicament is to befriend his captor.
The syndrome has been observed around the world and includes a high level of stress,
as participants are cast together in a life-threatening environment where each
must achieve new levels of adaptation to stay alive. This phenomenon affects both
the hostages and the hostage-taker. The positive emotional bond, born in, or perhaps
because of, the stress of the siege serves to unite its victims against all outsiders.
A philosophy of its us against them seems to develop. To date
there is no evidence to indicate how long the syndrome lasts. Like the automatic
reflex action of the knee, the bond seems to be beyond the control of the victim
or the subject. The Stockholm Syndrome generally consists of three phases:
positive feelings of the hostages toward their captors, negative feelings of the
hostages toward the police or other government authorities, and reciprocation
of the positive feelings by the captors. Although this relationship is new
in the experience of law enforcement officers, the psychological community has
long been aware of the use of an emotional bond as coping mechanism by people
In the structural theory of Sigmund Freud, the ego, governed by the
reality principle, assumes an executive function. In doing so the
ego mediates between the demands of reality, the instinctual demands of the id,
and the moralistic dictates of the superego. The ego in a healthy personality
is dynamic and resourceful; it utilizes, as needed, a host of psychological defense
mechanisms that Anna Freud summarized and described in The Ego and the Mechanism
of Defense. The number of defense mechanisms varies depending upon the author.
However, all serve the same basic purpose - to protect the self from hurt and
disorganization. When the self is threatened, the ego must adapt under a great
deal of stress. The ego enables the personality to continue to function even during
the most painful experiences - such as being taken hostage by an armed, anxious
stranger. The hostage wants to survive, and the healthy ego is seeking a means
to achieve survival. The defense mechanisms utilized most frequently by the hostages
I have interviewed have been regressive, involving a return to a less mature and
often unrealistic level of experience and behavior.
theories have been advanced in an attempt to explain the observable symptoms that
law enforcement professionals and members of the psychiatric community have come
to call the Stockholm Syndrome. One of the earliest concepts formulated to explain
it involved the phenomenon of identification with the aggressor that
Anna Freud described. This type of identification is summoned by the ego to
protect itself against authority figures who have generated anxiety. The purpose
of this type of identification is to enable the ego to avoid the wrath and potential
punishment of the enemy. The hostage identifies out of fear rather than out of
love. It would appear that the healthy ego evaluates the situation and selects
from its arsenal of defenses a mechanism that had served it best in the past during
Related to identification is the defense mechanism known as introjection.
Like identification, this mechanism is often associated with imitative learning
in which young people take on the admired or wanted characteristics of parents
or other models. A person may also interject the values and norms of others as
their own even when they are contrary to their previous assumptions. This occurs
when people adopt the values and beliefs of a new government to avoid social retaliation
and punishment, following the principle, If you cant beat em,
join em. Identification with the aggressor and the introjection of
alien values have been used to explain the behavior of some people in Nazi concentration
camps who radically altered their norms under those terrible circumstances.
Thought identification with the aggressor is an attractive
explanation for the Stockholm Syndrome and may indeed be a factor in some hostage
situations, although it does not totally explain the phenomenon. Identification
with the aggressor is commonly associated with the period at around age 5 when
children begin the resolution of the Oedipal complex, give up the dream of being
an adult, and begin to work on the reality of the same sex, which is generally
healthy. When a parent is abusive, however, we see the identification serving
multiple purposes, including protection, and some of the circumstances of the
Stockholm Syndrome are reproduced.
view the Stockholm Syndrome as a regression to a more elementary level of development
than is seen in the 5-year-old who identifies with a same-sex parent. The
5-year-old is able to feed himself, speak for himself, and has locomotion. The
hostage is more like the infant who must cry for food, cannot speak, and may be
bound and immobile. Like the infant, the hostage is in a state of extreme dependency
and fright. In addition, like the infant or extremely young child, the hostage
is terrified of the outside world and of the prospect of separation from the parent.
normal infant is blessed with a mother figure who sees to his needs. As these
needs are satisfactorily met by the mother figure, the child begins to love this
person who is protecting him from the outside world. The adult is capable of caring
and leading the infant out of dependency and fear. So it is with the hostage -
his every breath a gift from the subject. He is now as dependent as he was as
an infant; the controlling, all-powerful adult is again present; the outside world
is threatening once again. The weapons that the police have deployed against the
subject are also, in the mind of the hostage, deployed against him. Once again
he is in dependency, perhaps on the brink of death. Once again there is a powerful
authority figure who can help. So the behavior that worked for the dependent infant
surfaces again as a means of survival.
Reflection Exercise #5
The preceding section contained a detailed explanation
of the Stockholm Syndrome. Write two case study examples regarding possible applications
of these principles, should you deal with PTSD or STSD clients who have experienced
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Kaufman, J. S., Allbaugh, L. J., & Wright, M. O. (2018). Relational wellbeing following traumatic interpersonal events and challenges to core beliefs. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 10(1), 103–111.
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 Practice, 7(3-4), 171–182.
Sierra-Siegert, M., & Jay, E.-L. (2020). Reducing oneself to a body, a thought, or an emotion: A measure of identification with mind contents. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, 7(3), 218–237.
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