and Inflicting Pain
In the early development of a hostage incident certain
stages of hostage reactions occur with regularity. In my experience, the vast
majority of hostages share this sequence of emotional events: denial, delusion
of reprieve, busy work, and taking stock. The alliance that forms between the
hostages and the subject comes later. Anna Freud distinguished denial, which is
a reaction to external danger, from repression in which the ego is struggling
with basically internal instinctual stimuli. Denial is a primitive but effective
psychological defense mechanism. There are times when the mind is so overloaded
with trauma it cannot handle the situation. To survive, the mind reacts as if
the traumatic incident is not happening. Former hostages have reported responding:
Oh no, No, not me, This must be a dream, or
This is not happening.
is but one stage of coping with the impossible turn of events. Each victim
who copes effectively has a strong will to survive. One may deal with stress by
believing he is dreaming, that he will soon wake up and it will be over. Some
deal with this stress by withdrawing through sleep; I have interviewed hostages
who have slept for over forty-eight hours while captive. Some have fainted, although
this is rare.
of the denial and repression of fear of the hostages and the transfer of these
feelings of fear to the police has a realistic basis. Research has shown that
most hostages die or are injured during the police or military assault phase,
although this is not to say that the police killed them.
hostages gradually accept their situation, but find a safety valve in the
thought that their fate is not fixed. They view their situation as temporary and
are sure that the police will come to their rescue. This gradual change from denial
to delusions of reprieve reflects a growing acceptance of the facts. Although
the victim accepts that he is a hostage, he believes that freedom will come soon.
freedom does not immediately relieve the stress, many hostages begin to engage
in busy work, work they feel comfortable doing. Some knit, some methodically
count and record windows or other hostages, and some reflect upon their past lives.
I have never interviewed a former hostage who has not taken stock of his life
and vowed to change for the better, thus attempting to take advantage of a second
chance at life.
Time is a factor in development of the Stockholm Syndrome, and its passage can
produce a positive or negative bond, depending on the interaction of the subjects
and hostages. If the hostage-takers do not abuse their victims, hours spent together
will most likely produce positive results. Time alone will not do
so, but it may be the catalyst in non-abusive situations.
of the Hostage-Taker
As time passes and positive contact between the
hostage and hostage-taker begins, the Stockholm Syndrome also begins to take its
effects upon the subjects. This was evident at Entebbe in July 1976. During this
incident there were major variations in the quality of interaction between the
hostage-takers and the hostages. These ranged from relatively friendly conversations
to sadistic taunting. During the final assault, one of the male terrorists, who
had engaged in conversations with the hostages from Air France Flight 139, elected
at the moment of attack to shoot at the Israeli commandos rather than to execute
the hostages. The same process was probably at work in the decision of the South
Moluccan terrorists not to execute Gerard Vaders. After Vaders had told his fellow
hostage, Prins, about the problems he was currently having in his marital relationship
and with his daughter, the Moluccans could no longer see him as a faceless symbol
to be executed. He was now a human being who might be spared. Tragically, the
Moluccans selected another passenger, Bierling, and led him away to be executed
before they had the opportunity to know him.
Most people cannot inflict pain on another unless their victim remains
dehumanized. When the subject and his hostages are locked together in a vault,
a building, a train, or an airplane, a process of humanization apparently does
take place. When a person, a hostage, can build empathy while maintaining dignity,
he or she can lessen the aggression of a captor. The exception to this is
the subject who can be characterized as having an antisocial personality. As Fred
Carrasco demonstrated in August 1974, such hostage-takers experience little guilt
and have an ability to abuse and even kill their captives if they feel this will
be in their own interests. Fortunately, extreme cases of this type are in a minority,
and in most situations the Stockholm Syndrome is a two-way street. With the passage
of time and the occurrence of positive experiences, the victim's chances of survival
increase. However, isolation of the victim precludes the formation of the positive
some hostage situations the victims either have been locked in another room or
have been in the same room, hooded or tied, gagged and forced to face the wall
and away from the subject. This type of interaction occurred frequently during
the Hanafi Muslim siege in Washington, D.C., in March 1977. Consciously or unconsciously,
the subject has dehumanized his hostage, thereby making it easier to kill him.
As long as the hostage is isolated, time is not a factor. The Stockholm Syndrome
will not be a force that may save the victims life.
In interviewing victims of the Hanafi Muslim siege, I observed
that even though some of the hostages responded positively toward their captors,
they did not necessarily evidence Stockholm Syndrome reactions toward all of the
subjects. It was learned, as might be expected, that most of the victims reacted
positively toward those subjects who had treated them, in the words of the victim,
fairly. Those hostages who gave glowing accounts of the gentlemanly
conduct of some subjects did not generalize to all subjects. They evidenced dislike,
even hatred, toward one hostage-taker whom they called an animal.
hypothetical question was posed to determine the depth of these victims
feelings toward their captors. Each former hostage was asked what he would do
in a the following situation: A person immediately recognizable as a law enforcement
officer, armed with a shoulder weapon, orders him to lie down. At the same instant
one of his former captors orders him to stand up. When asked what he would do,
the response varied according to the identity of the captor giving the order.
If a captor who had treated him fairly were yelling stand up, he would
stand up. Conversely, if he thought it was the command of the subject who had
verbally abused him, he would obey the law enforcement officer. This would indicate
that the strength of the syndrome is considerable. Even in the face of an armed
officer of the law, the former hostage would offer himself as a human shield for
his captor. As absurd or illogical as this may seem to those who are not familiar
with the Stockholm Syndrome, such behavior has been observed by law enforcement
officers throughout the world and on many different occasions.
Reflection Exercise #6
The preceding section contained information as
to how time and inflicting pain affects PTSD. Write two case study examples regarding
possible applications of these principles.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Larsen, S. E., Fleming, C. J. E., & Resick, P. A. (2019). Residual symptoms following empirically supported treatment for PTSD. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 11(2), 207–215.
McGuire, A. P., Frankfurt, S. B., Anderson, L. M., & Connolly, K. M. (2020). Pre- to posttreatment changes in trauma-cued negative emotion mediate improvement in posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and impulsivity. Traumatology, 26(4), 455–462.
Robison, M. K., Miller, A. L., & Unsworth, N. (2018). Individual differences in working memory capacity and filtering. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 44(7), 1038–1053.
12: How can a hostage lessen the aggression of a captor? To select and enter
your answer go to .