Stockholm Syndrome

This peculiar psychological phenomenon was named after a botched bank robbery - hostage situation in Stockholm thirty years ago.

Two robbers and four hostages spent several days in a bank while the police outside tried to resolve the situation with strong-arm tactics.

Inside the bank, the people started to bond. The hostages and robbers entertained each other, formed friendships.

The hostages came to see the police as their enemies and their captors as their friends. The police later found a semen stain on the carpet that they were able to match with one of the robbers. One female hostage acknowledged sexual contact, but she insisted to prosecutors that she was a willing and consenting participant.

These warm feelings extended both ways – captors really liked their captives - and didn’t end when the standoff ended. Both robbers received friendly visits from their former hostages while in prison.

Patty Hearst's abduction in 1974 is maybe a more famous example. She eventually joined her captors in one of their bank robberies, seemingly as a willing participant. The story was all the more dramatic because Hearst was an old-style heiress and her captors were radicals filled with righteous rhetoric about tearing down society. Hearst later claimed that she was brainwashed, but whatever the explanation, there was certainly something powerful going on in her life at the time.

Time and again in hostage situations, police psychologists have observed this curious bonding behavior. A more recent example may be Elizabeth Smart. Some people even see the Stockholm Syndrome as an explanation for the combination of love and hate that the oppressed feel for the oppressors in all sorts of situations and relationships.

How does Stockholm Syndrome pervade our existence? Is it a psychological defense people adopt to cope with oppression?

How many employees of large corporations feel exploited by their employers, grumbling to themselves, but eventually are won over, co-opted by the system. They defend the company to outsiders and take offense when someone tries to disrupt or attack the organization.

Some people even see society as one big Stockholm Syndrome, where the government works against us, oppresses us, yet we still willingly pay taxes and get patriotic during times of war.

Or when corporations produce dangerous products or pollute the environment, and we as citizens don’t just ignore it, but actually defend these corporations, adopting corporate-speak language when talking about defining society as a market and financial system.

And what of Battered Wife Syndrome, which is a subset of Stockholm Syndrome?

This is the name given to women who are physically beaten by the men they live with, but who don't fight back. They don't leave; they don’t report the abuse to the police. Indeed many actually work to protect their abusers, arguing with authorities for his release, refusing to testify in court.

How can we explain Stockholm Syndrome? – using evolutionary biology, classic political analysis, any paradigm you want to use. And what can mitigate its effects? Anti-depressant medication? Education? A gentle talk, or a slap in the face?


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