Stockholm Syndrome Kinda Isn’t A Thing
Stockholm syndrome describes how a kidnapping victim identifies with and even allies with their captor. You hear the diagnosis trotted out when a victim appears to stay with their kidnappers without trying to escape, or when people analyze one particular Pixar classic (Cars).
In everyday life, you might use the term for stuff unrelated to actual kidnappings, with people tied to bad situations like romantic relationships or terrible jobs. That’s fine — even medical sources may use it that way. However, we’ve always known that people form such attachments (it’s now sometimes called “trauma bonding”). Stockholm syndrome, though, aimed to describe something unique about kidnappings — something unique that, it appears, doesn’t really exist.
According to the FBI, which has recorded how thousands of victims have responded to kidnapping interventions, victims rarely bond with captors to any notable degree. Maybe 8 percent of victims do, and when you exclude those who side with their captors simply out of general hatred toward cops or because the negotiators suck at their jobs, the number drops a lot further. Considering how common trauma bonding is, it seems like kidnapping leads to less bonding with perps than just about any other kind of abuse does.
Stockholm syndrome has, in fact, never been an official medical condition with diagnostic criteria. It’s largely a media term, not a medical one. The man who originally coined the phrase, Nils Bejerot, was a psychiatrist (he actually called it Norrmalmstorg syndrome, after the specific part of Stockholm where the original 1974 hostage crisis happened), but while he was closely involved with the case, that also made him biased and perhaps unreliable.
He called the hostages’ attitudes a syndrome in response to their criticizing his advice to police during the crisis. The police made many questionable choices, from turning over a prisoner whom the robber demanded, to firing at the bank that held the hostages without having a real target. When the hostages said they wanted to leave the bank with their captors, they did so because the alternative was a police assault that they feared would kill them, either through gunfire or through the gas that the police were trying to pump into the bank (knockout gas has killed hostages, sometimes hundreds of hostages at a time).
Even some of the most high-profile cases of Stockholm syndrome in the decades that followed (read: those of Patty Hearst and Elizabeth Smart) weren't really Stockholm syndrome, if Stockholm syndrome's even a thing. When a victim does whatever they think will keep them from being shot, it turns out that’s not a specific psychological condition.
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Top image: James Kovin/Unsplash