The Stockholm Syndrome: Traumatic Bonding
Most of us have heard of it before.
Stockholm Syndrome: the psychological tendency of a hostage to bond with, identify with, or sympathize with his or her captor.
Despite the danger and the harm inflicted on the victims by their captors, victims feel strong emotional ties and a positive relationship with their captors.
Imagine this situation: you experience something terrifying out of the blue– you are kidnapped or otherwise taken hostage, and you are certain you will die sooner or later.
Then, you experience what psychiatrist Dr. Frank Ochberg describes as a type of infantilisation: like a child, you cannot eat, speak, or go to the toilet without permission.
You interpret the lack of abuse as an act of kindness, and other acts, such as being given food, evokes gratitude within you– you do not think about or accept the fact that this person, who is the only one keeping you alive, is simultaneously keeping you hostage and put you in that situation to start with.
This positive feeling towards your captor is known as the Stockholm Effect.
The phenomenon is not limited to captors– any relationship where strong emotional ties develop between two persons where one person intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses, or intimidates the other can also be called the Stockholm effect.
This phrase was coined in 1973 after a bank hostage situation in Stockholm, Sweden: four hostages were taken, and after a six day standoff, the victims developed an oddly positive relationship with their captor– with one hostage even begging to be allowed to leave with her captor.
“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.”
On another occasion, one of the hostages, a claustrophobic Elisabeth Oldgren, was allowed to leave the vault that had become their prison– but only with a rope fixed around her neck. Elisabeth described the captors as “very kind” for allowing her to move around the floor of the bank– neglecting the fact that they were the ones keeping her hostage.
Critics say that the underlying principles of the so-called syndrome is seen in a variety of situations, such as domestic violence and abuse, and that it cannot be classified as a mental disorder.
In cases of domestic violence, oftentimes the abused partner feels a sense of dependency towards the abuser, and stays with him or her while being abused, sometimes even defending and lying about the situation to others; they might empathize and condone the abusive behavior, rather than being angry and sad about it.
Child abuse can be similar– the abused children are often protective and defend their abusive parents, either lying to cover up the behavior or hiding it entirely.
The Stockholm syndrome is known by other names such as trauma bonding or terror bonding; however, this syndrome is not frequently seen in hostage scenarios, and its diagnostic criteria are not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V).
So, to clarify: this so-called syndrome is not a mental disorder. The word ‘syndrome‘ in itself means a collection of symptoms and findings that do not necessarily tie them to a single, identifiable pathogenesis– which means that this term does not imply pathology.
What do you guys think? Can this term be considered as a specific mental disorder, or not?
Mackenzie, Ian K. (February 2004). “The Stockholm Syndrome Revisited: Hostages, Relationships, Prediction, Control and Psychological Science”. Journal of Police Crisis Negotiations 4(1): 5–21. Retrieved December 9, 2012.
Namnyak, M.; Tufton, N.; Szekely, R.; Toal, M.; Worboys, S.; Sampson, E. L. (2007). “‘Stockholm syndrome’: Psychiatric diagnosis or urban myth?”. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica 117 (1): 4–11.