Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Hostages and Captors: The Stockholm Syndrome

Between August 23rd and 28th 1973 four Kreditbanken employees were held hostage by bank robbers in Norrmalmstorg in Stockholm, Sweden. Read more. Despite their ordeal the hostages came away from the experience not with feelings of anger towards their captors, but the exact opposite. Each refused to testify and even raised money for the robbers' legal defence, some reports suggest that one hostage even got engaged to one of the jailed captors! During the 6 days the hostages built up a strong emotional attachment to their captors, and one theory to explain this is  the 'Stockholm Syndrome' the term name given to such a phenomenon by criminologist and psychiatrist Nils Bejerot.

The Stockholm syndrome (also known as 'Helsinki syndrome') is not a one off case and has several famous examples, most notable perhaps the case of Patty Hearst who was kidnapped and tortured by the SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army) only to later join them and actively take part in future robberies.  The sydrome also applies to battered wives, child abuse victims, victims of religious cults, prisoner of war cases and indeed any case where someone is trapped by an oppressor. Other famous cases of the syndrome include; Jayce Lee Dugard, Shawn HornbeckNatascha Kampusch and Mary McElroyThe 'Lima Syndrome' on the other hand is the opposite to Stockholm where abductors feel heightened sympathy for their hostages, although to me this would seem far more rational - after all the captors are the one's causing the problem and so should sympathise with their hostages' pain.

So what causes this syndrome to form? It could be assumed that in a similar situation people would feel hatred, anger or fear in relation to their captors, so how can the opposite be true even to a percentage? The FBI Hostage Barricade Database System shows that 27% of hostages show signs of the Stockholm syndrome, that's not far from 1 in 3 cases.

Research and theory indicates that one trigger for the syndrome's effect is emotional intensity. In a condition where we feel trapped and scared for our lives the emotional charge is exceptionally high, in effect altering the way our brains work. The excess state of emotion could be what causes people to attach at a greater speed and depth than in any normal circumstances, like strangers in a near death experience becoming drawn together very closely. Focus is heightened in such circumstances, and in the case of an abduction the focus would shift almost entirely onto the captor; their behaviour and thoughts becoming of the highest importance which can easily be misrepresented by the over stimulated brain as a relationship akin to something positive.

In a Stockholm situation the captors have complete power and control over their hostages, every aspect of the hostage's life is in the hands of the captor, from allowing them to live to allowing food, water and resources. Acts of kindness in this situation can become magnified, and like a young child or a pet, this dependency alone can lead to affection forming rapidly no matter what kind of negative behaviour is being displayed alongside it. School bullies rely on this control of power to terrorise not only their immediate victims, but the onlookers who watch their actions often find themselves idolising the bully because of this link between fear and power and is a large reason why bullying is rarely reported, much in the same way a wife will continually make excuses for her abusive husband.

In a hostage situation the hostages are stuck with the captor for days on end in these circumstances and must engage in coping strategies based around attempting to keep the captor content and in doing so keeping themselves alive. Over time this can lead to an obsession with the hostage's identity and wishes, and in combination with the reasons discussed above, a certain sympathy and affinity can soon form with the captor, often described as 'brainwash' or 'mind control' in the media.

Taking captives is seemingly a natural human trait, of which violence, murder and rape are all characteristics, especially with women and children as the victims. This must have happened in human history too, likely on a much larger scale. This tells us that humans have evolved under these conditions and so the coping strategy to stay alive and adapt fully into the captors world would perhaps make some kind of sense in explaining the the frequency of the Stockholm syndrome and how it could possibly affect any one of us.

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