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Back to Archives | Back to December 2008 Contents 

The Stockholm Syndrome Revisited

By Arthur Slatkin, Police Psychologist, Hostage Negotiating Team, Louisville, Kentucky, Metropolitian Police Department


In the years since the Stockholm syndrome was first reported, questions haven arisen about its frequency and the centrality or importance of its occurrence in hostage situations. However, relatively little has been done to test researchers’ assumptions with any scientific rigor.

t has been some 30 years since the eponymous event in Stockholm led to the widespread usage of the term Stockholm syndrome. After the Patty Hearst case, this term gained widely popular recognition and usage. Magazine and journal articles about this fascinating psychological phenomenon proliferated. It is a truly curious, incredible, and paradoxical occurrence still bandied about today in movies, fiction writing, and news reports, although it is most often portrayed inaccurately.

In the years since this phenomenon was first reported, questions have arisen about the syndrome’s frequency and the centrality or importance of its occurrence in hostage situations. One study, completed over 10 years ago,1 examined some of the untested but generally accepted and popular beliefs and commonsense understandings of the phenomenon, principally the seminal work of Thomas Strentz.2 Little has been done over the intervening years to test these assumptions with any scientific rigor.


The Eponymous Incident


On August 23, 1973, Jan-Erik Olsson, a 32-year-old career criminal, entered the Sveriges Kreditbank, a bank in Stockholm, Sweden. Armed with a submachine gun and with rock music blaring from a “boom box” radio he carried, he fired a burst of bullets into the ceiling and announced in English, “The party has just begun.” Four bank employees (one man and three women) were trapped and held captive in the bank’s vault as customers fled.

Incredibly, the police quickly acceded to Olsson’s demand to have his confederate, Clark Olofsson, who was in prison, brought to the bank. The two held the police at bay with their hostages imprisoned in the 11-foot-by-14-foot vault for 131 hours in conditions that have been described as horrible.

Reportedly, during the siege the hostages were repeatedly abused and threatened with death. They were displayed at the vault door, guns held under their chins and wire nooses around their necks as surety against a police assault.3

In the course of negotiations, the hostages volunteered advice to their captors and chided government authorities and negotiators for their insensitivity to their captors’ point of view, asserting that Olsson and Olofsson were “victims of a sick society.”4

A clandestine police microphone in the vault revealed the nature and extent of the interactions between the hostage-takers and their hostages.5 It is clear that there was consensual sexual touching between Olsson and one of the female hostages.6 Shortly after her release, the female hostage broke her engagement to her fiancé and proclaimed her love for Olsson. She visited him in prison and later became engaged to him.7

After a police assault ended the ordeal, the hostages encircled their captors to shield them from the police, embracing them as they were led away. The hostages later stated that they had feared the police more than their captors and that they did not hate their captors because they (the hostage-takers) had given them back their lives.8

The Swedish incident did not appear to be an aberration. Other examples of similar behavior were also reported in that same time period, the Patty Hearst and Gerald Vaders cases being the most frequently cited.

Although some dispute the details of the reported incident, it nonetheless illustrates the essence of the phenomenon that has come to be called the Stockholm syndrome.


Defining the Syndrome


Before the term Stockholm syndrome, generally attributed to U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Special Agent Conrad Hassel,9 was universally accepted, it had been referred to variously as the “Stockholm factor,” “Hostage Identification Syndrome,” “Hostage Survival Syndrome,” “siege friendships,” “identification with the aggressor,” “emotional transfer,” “hostage-captor effect,” and “pathological transference,” among others.

Strentz defines the condition simply as a “nonvoluntary and unconscious positive bond between captive and captor that develops in response to the trauma of victimization. In a true manifestation of the phenomenon, hostages do not perceive the incongruity or irrationality of their feelings toward the hostage-takers in a self-critical or insightful way.”10

Strentz uses the term phases to describe the three manifestations of the Stockholm syndrome.11 For the sake of continuity his term is used in this article, even though it may be slightly misleading. The phases of the syndrome may occur independently of each other; one may stand alone; two may occur in any combination; or all may occur in no particular order. Not all three phases are present in every instance of the syndrome.

According to Strentz, the syndrome occurs as one or more of the following phases (or manifestations): (1) the hostages develop positive feelings toward their captors; (2) the hostages develop negative feelings toward the authorities; and (3) the hostage-takers develop positive feelings toward their hostages.

In early reports, the Stockholm syndrome was believed to occur about 50 percent of the time, and it has been speculated that because it may have gone unrecognized, the incidence may have been higher still.12 In recent years the frequency of occurrences of the syndrome has been called into question. Earlier reports appear to have greatly exaggerated the number of incidents in which the phenomenon was manifest and created higher than realistic expectations.

The Stockholm syndrome is understandable as a predictable and normal response to abnormal circumstances. The development of an emotional bond between persons who share a life-threatening experience, a bond that can unite them against outsiders, can be seen as an adaptive human response to the violent scenarios played out with them as hapless, reluctant, and helpless players.13


Syndrome Phases


As mentioned earlier, the phases of the Stockholm syndrome as described here are based on Strentz’s seminal work.

Phase One: Positive expressions by hostages and ex-hostages toward their abusive captors are both perplexing and paradoxical. Their positive expressions have ranged from verbalizations of sympathy to open advocacy for the captors’ cause, to physically shielding their captors from the police. Most widely publicized is the case of Patty Hearst, whose abduction in February 1974 led to her renunciation of her fiancé, family, and former life to join “voluntarily” her abductors from the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) and take up their cause as her own.

Not all instances of positive feelings felt or voiced by hostages for their captors are necessarily proof of the syndrome’s development. In some cases, hostages may have had preexisting sympathies for the hostage-takers and their causes or may have consciously and deliberately lied to ingratiate themselves and attempt to ensure their survival.

Some behavioral changes in the hostages may superficially resemble the Stockholm syndrome, but again, in a true manifestation of the phenomenon the individual’s response is involuntary, unconscious, and without insight.

Phase Two: The second phase is characterized by hostages’ fear and distrust of, as well as anger toward, the authorities. They may feel let down by the police, in particular, on whom they have relied for their release. To the desperate hostages, the police seem slow, inept, and helpless themselves. They do not know the principles and strategies of negotiation and are frustrated by what seems to them to be unnecessary delays and a failure to simply win their release. Why don’t the authorities simply “give them [the hostage-takers] what they want” and get the hostages out safely?

Negative expressions have ranged from mild criticism of the authorities and their handling of the incident to lawsuits for their putative negligence in successfully resolving the incident. In extreme cases, during an incident, hostages may compromise or actively interfere with negotiations or a rescue attempt. After an incident, ex-hostages can become advocates for the hostage-takers and refuse to cooperate with the investigation or prosecution, plead for leniency, and/or begin legal defense funds for their former captors.

This relationship can also adversely affect the performance of the negotiator and the outcome of the negotiations. Hostages who verbalize positive feelings for their captors or negative feelings for the police may lead police negotiators to doubt the legitimacy of their efforts to save a victim who may seem more like an accomplice than a victim.14

Phase Three: The third phase of the Stockholm syndrome is one in which hostage-takers come to see the hostages not just as bargaining chips but as human beings. This phase may be the most critical of the three for the survival of the hostages and, indirectly, the hostage- takers as well.

It is held that hostage-takers who have some regard for their hostages as human beings will find it more difficult to harm them. Because of this, one of the basic principles of hostage negotiations is to not allow an exchange of hostages, as this might interfere with the development of this crucial bond. From a law enforcement perspective, the first two phases must be tolerated in order to induce the third, as it might protect the lives of all concerned in the end.

To terrorist hostage-takers, the development of the Stockholm syndrome can be seen as an unwanted development, in that it may interfere with their ability to dispassionately execute their captives at will; for this reason, hostage-takers may take deliberate steps to depersonalize their victims from the outset in order to counter the development of the syndrome, such as placing hoods over their captives and rotating guards frequently.


Factors in the Development of the Syndrome


Strentz listed numerous factors that he believed promoted or, conversely, militated against the development of the Stockholm syndrome. For many years, however, none of Strentz’s propositions were subjected to scientific study.15 The study that was undertaken focused on the situational factors identified by Strentz as time, isolation, and positive contact. As opposed to factors that spoke to the inner life of hostages or hostage-takers, these situational factors could be studied directly and, if they were found to be significant, the results could potentially aid negotiators in furthering positive negotiation ends.

Time: For negotiation purposes, time is defined as the duration of the incident from start to finish. It is a basic tenet in hostage negotiations that time is an ally of the authorities in that it allows dangerously escalated emotional levels to de-escalate and for physiological needs and stresses to come to the foreground. It is held that time influences the development of the Stockholm syndrome—not the passage of time itself, but what occurs over time that helps to form the bond; time may act as a “catalyst”16 or a “medium”17 that allows the other factors to unfold and interact and that “sufficient” time may be necessary for that to happen.18

Social Interaction: Social interaction is defined as the noncoercive verbal interaction between hostage-takers and hostages about matters other than the incident itself.

If hostages are kept in isolation, separated not from each other but from the hostage-takers, then little social interaction could take place between captors and captives, and little or no bond between them would be likely to form. Like time, several researchers emphasized that it may not be the mere amount of interaction but rather its quality that is critical and that hostages and hostage-takers must be able to converse with each other “socially” for the bond to form.19

Positive Contact: Strentz defines positive contact as it relates to the syndrome as the absence of abuse. Whereas positive contact is believed to promote the syndrome, taunting, random violence, and other forms of abuse are believed to militate against it. However, when violence is a part of the hostage-taking incident, the timing of the violence is believed to be significant: violence during the takeover or throughout the course of the incident, if it could be rationalized, is not believed to inhibit the syndrome’s development.20


Database Analysis Study


A study was undertaken to isolate the factors that appeared to be related to the development of the Stockholm syndrome. It employed scientific means rather than relying on the narrative or anecdotal reports of the early reporting years.

An analysis of the Aircraft Hijacking Research Project (AHRP) database was conducted.21 The situational factors of time, positive contact, and social interaction were assessed in relation to two of the phases (also called manifestations or outcomes) that defined the Stockholm syndrome, that is, positive feelings of hostages toward their captors and/or positive feelings of hostage-takers toward their captives.


Study Findings


Strentz’s situational factors always seemed to make good common sense and had been based on the analysis of reports of real incidents. This study sought to test those assumptions in a systematic way. The findings found general agreement with Strentz’s assumptions.

The common wisdom in negotiations that the incident should not be rushed to a resolution because time is an “ally” is borne out by the present study. The likelihood of the Stockholm syndrome developing increased over time; both hostages and hostage-takers were more likely to develop positive feelings for each other especially if the incident ran over 12 hours. The length of time an incident remained active may have forced some social interaction where in a brief incident that interaction may have been insignificant.

It was expected that positive feelings would be more likely to develop in a nonabusive situation than in an abusive one. The study findings did not support that expectation. That is, the Stockholm syndrome was as likely to occur as not in nonabusive circumstances or in the presence of moderate abuse. The syndrome can develop if there is also sufficient time and social interaction. However, if there is serious abuse or abuse that cannot be rationalized away (that is, abuse that could be characterized as irrational, random, inexplicable, or possibly sadistic), the syndrome will not develop regardless of whether there is sufficient time and social interaction. The findings of the present study support Strentz’s assertion that social interaction appears to be the key factor in the formation of positive feelings. Social interaction increased the likelihood of positive feelings developing for both hostages and hostage-takers. Both were three times more likely than not to develop positive feelings for each other when they interacted with each other “socially.”

In a puzzling finding, increased effects were found for the development of either phase one or phase three of the syndrome over the occurrence of both phases one and three. That is, even though positive regard is likely to be reciprocated—people look kindly on those who look kindly on them—it appears more likely that one or the other of the parties demonstrates positive regard even in the absence of the other’s regard or that their regard is less apparent or manifest. It is surprising that expressions of positive regard of one for the other would not necessarily be reciprocated.

It appears that time is a significant factor in the development of the Stockholm syndrome in that it may increase the likelihood that some social interaction will take place (acting as a medium or catalyst). Positive contact appears to be significant in militating against the development of the syndrome only if it is characterized by abuse that is so serious that hostages cannot rationalize it as necessary for the hostage-takers’ plans. Social interaction appears to be the key factor in the development of the syndrome as well as of positive feelings by hostages and hostage-takers for each other.


Positive Feelings: A Frequent Phenomenon?


The positive feelings that hostages come to feel for their captors and the positive feelings that hostage-takers come to feel for their captives constitute two of the three phases (or outcomes) that define the Stockholm syndrome.

However, an important revelation of this study is that few occurrences of the development of positive feelings were reported overall. The findings revealed frequencies of occurrence ranging from approximately 10 percent for positive feelings by hostages toward their captors to 28 percent for hostage-takers’ positive feelings toward their captives. Both figures were well below earlier reports by others of frequencies above 50 percent.

It appears that the Stockholm syndrome may have received much greater attention by academics, trainers, negotiators, and the tabloid public than it might have warranted. A fascination with the paradoxical psychological phenomenon seems to have captured the interest of both professionals and the public alike.


Implications for Negotiations and Negotiator Training


Situational factors are available to and manipulable by negotiators and the authorities in a hostage-taking incident. By identifying the factors that have a sound basis for efficacy in promoting the development of the Stockholm syndrome, police agencies can develop a meaningful crisis negotiation policy and trainers can train negotiators in effective means of manipulating the behavior of hostage-takers. Negotiators should develop these skills in the interest of ensuring the survival of all concerned.

Social interaction can be manipulated by a knowledgeable and skilled negotiator such that a sympathetic bond between hostages and captors is more likely to develop. The degree of interaction between the parties and the duration of the event are partially within the control of the negotiator.

Time, too, may be manipulated by negotiators, who already routinely stall negotiations as a matter of basic negotiation principles, in more creative and sophisticated ways. Crisis and hostage negotiator training programs can focus on providing systematic skills-oriented training in the deliberate use of time and in encouraging greater social interaction between hostage-takers and hostages. Although negotiators already do both, they do so “off the cuff”; they have had neither an empirical basis for what they do, nor have they been trained specifically in a variety of the most effective ways of doing it. Some negotiators stall for time by using what is sometimes an absurd and counterproductive tactic of seemingly endless variations of “What do you want on the pizza?” which stretches patience beyond credulity and may frustrate beyond repair.

If Stockholm syndrome only occurs 10 to 28 percent of the time, then the energy and effort negotiators expend in stalling for time to promote the syndrome might be misguided. Time may be an ally, but it seems dubious to drag out negotiations solely to promote the development of the syndrome, notwithstanding the other positive effects of time, when other, more active means may bring about the saving grace of positive regard in a more expeditious and practical way.

It may be possible to promote the development of positive feelings in hostage-takers toward their captives and arrive at that outcome more simply, more directly, and more quickly by deliberately maneuvering the hostage-takers into greater contact with their captives rather than waiting for that contact to evolve dynamically over time. Positive feelings on the part of both parties appear to result from social interaction itself. Although such an outcome may not truly fit the definition of the Stockholm syndrome, it may have the same end result: the increased safety of the hostages. Consequently, it would seem to be a good practice for negotiators to encourage interaction and conversation between captors and hostages almost from the outset.

Summary


Strentz’s assumptions about situational factors, which were believed to be related to the development of the Stockholm syndrome, were promulgated in the early 1980s. Though widely accepted by those in the negotiation field, they were not subjected to scientific study until the late 1990s.

One empirical study asked, what factor or combination of the factors time, positive contact, and social interaction predicted the development of either one or both of the manifestations of the syndrome, that is, positive feelings of a hostage toward a hostage-taker, and vice versa?

It was found that only time and social interaction were positively related to the development of the Stockholm syndrome. No relationship was found between positive contact (the absence of abuse) and the two outcomes. The question of whether the Stockholm syndrome, which occurred with much less frequency than was generally accepted, should be given such centrality remains significant. It appears that earlier speculations about its frequency and importance were somewhat exaggerated.

It is suggested that trainers can train negotiators to be aware of this phenomenon and to promote its development more efficiently or, alternatively, bypass it and achieve the same or similar result. ■

Notes:

1Arthur Allan Slatkin, “The Stockholm Syndrome and Situational Factors Related to Its Development” (Ph.D. diss., University of Louisville, 1997).
2Thomas Strentz, “The Stockholm Syndrome: Law Enforcement Policy and Ego Defenses of the Hostage,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 347 (1980): 137–150; and Thomas Strentz, “The Stockholm Syndrome: Law Enforcement Policy and Hostage Behavior,” in Victims of Terrorism, ed. F. M. Ochberg and D. A. Soskis (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1982), 149–163.
3Frank Bolz and Edward Hershey, Hostage Cop: The Story of the New York City Police Hostage Negotiating Team and the Man Who Leads It (New York: Rawson, Wade, 1979).
4R. L. Stanley, “Hostage Negotiations and the Stockholm Syndrome,” Military Intelligence, October–December 1984, 28–30.
5Richard Clutterbuck, Guerrillas and Terrorists (London: Faber and Faber, 1977).
6Louis R. Franzini and John M. Grossberg, “Sex Slavery and the Stockholm Syndrome: From Terror to Love,” in Eccentric and Bizarre Behaviors (New York: John Wiley, 1995): 79–100.
7Barbara A. Harkis, “The Psychopathology of the Hostage Experience: A Review,” Medicine, Science and Law 26, no. l (1986): 48–52; and Chester L. Quarles, “Kidnapped: Surviving the Ordeal,” Security Management 32, no. 5 (1988): 40–44.
8Strentz, “Law Enforcement Policy and Ego Defense”; Strentz, “Law Enforcement Policy and Hostage Behavior”; Bolz and Hershey, Hostage Cop; H. H. A. Cooper, “Close Encounters of an Unpleasant Kind: Preliminary Thoughts on the Stockholm Syndrome,” Legal Medical Quarterly 2, no. 2 (1978): 100–114; and Robert Harnischmacher and Josef Müther, “The Stockholm Syndrome: On the Psychological Reaction of Hostages and Hostage-Takers” [in German], Archiv für Kriminologie 180, nos. 1–2 (1987): 1–12.
9Franzini and Grossberg, “Sex Slavery and the Stockholm Syndrome,” 79.
10Strentz, “Law Enforcement Policy and Ego Defense”; and Strentz, “Law Enforcement Policy and Hostage Behavior.”
11Ibid.
12David A. Soskis and Frank M. Ochberg, “Concepts of Terrorist Victimization,” in Victims of Terrorism, ed. Frank M. Ochberg and David A. Soskis (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1982), 9–35.
13Strentz, “Law Enforcement Policy and Ego Defense”; and Strentz, “Law Enforcement Policy and Hostage Behavior.”
14Ibid.
15Slatkin, “The Stockholm Syndrome.”
16Strentz, “Law Enforcement Policy and Ego Defense”; and Strentz, “Law Enforcement Policy and Hostage Behavior.”
17James T. Turner, “Factors Influencing the Development of the Hostage Identification Syndrome,” Political Psychology 6, no. 4 (1985): 705–711.
18Harkis, “The Psychopathology of the Hostage Experience”; Quarles, “Kidnapped”; Harnischmacher and Müther, “The Stockholm Syndrome”; Soskis and Ochberg, “Concepts of Terrorist Victimization”; and Robert K. Ressler, “Army Hostage Negotiations: An Insight into AR (Army Regulations) 190-52,” Detective (U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command) 7, no. 3 (Summer 1979): 6–13.
19Strentz, “Law Enforcement Policy and Ego Defense”; Strentz, “Law Enforcement Policy and Hostage Behavior”; Harkis, “The Psychopathology of the Hostage Experience”; Quarles, “Kidnapped”; Frank M. Ochberg, “The Victim of Terrorism: Psychiatric Considerations,” Terrorism: An International Journal 1, no. 2 (1978): 147–168; Charles Bahn, “Hostage Taking—the Takers, the Taken, and the Context: Discussion,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 347 (1980): 151–156; Ressler, “Army Hostage Negotiations”; Frederick J. Hacker, Crusaders, Criminals, Crazies: Terror and Terrorism in Our Time (New York: W. W. Norton, 1976); David A. Soskis and Clinton R. Van Zandt, “Hostage Negotiations: Law Enforcement’s Most Effective Nonlethal Weapon,” Behavioral Sciences and the Law 4, no. 4 (1986): 423–435; and Ian K. McKenzie, “Hostage-Captor Relationships: Some Behavioural and Environmental Determinants,” Police Studies 7, no. 4 (1984): 219–223.
20Strentz, “Law Enforcement Policy and Ego Defense”; and Strentz, “Law Enforcement Policy and Hostage Behavior.”
21Assembled by Roger A. Bell and others, the database included 308 aircraft hijacking incidents involving 447 hijackers and 21,000 hostages—all aircraft hijackings on U.S.-registered aircraft from 1960 to 1990. See Roger A. Bell et al., Hostage Takers: An Empirical Study of Aircraft Hijackers, NCJ 139202 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, 1991).


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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXV, no. 12, December 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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