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Lesson 7 Defense Mechanisms

It is important to understand what is going on in the minds of hostages. You might observe what you would consider unusual behavior. This behavior is usually a combination of psychological effects that terrorists seek to achieve by their controlling actions and unconscious, personality-based responses hostages display while in captivity.

Survival is instinctively the most important issue to the human mind. When placed in a hostage situation, the mind commonly employs defense mechanisms. These unconscious psychological adjustments are made by hostages to deal with the stress and trauma of the situation. To survive this ordeal, the mind can typically deny that the incident is occurring; regress into a dependent state; and/or identify with the hostage-taker’s demands and values to avoid punishment. A combination of these defense mechanisms can result in the “Stockholm Syndrome,” whereby the hostage identifies with the hostage-taker and may actively support the hostage-taker’s activities.


Denial is a primitive and very common defense mechanism. To survive an incident that the mind cannot handle, it reacts as if the incident is not happening. Hostages commonly respond, “This can’t be happening to me!” or “This must be a bad dream!” Denial is one stage of coping with an impossible turn of events. These thoughts are actually stress-relieving techniques. Some hostages deny their situation by sleeping.

As time passes, most hostages gradually accept their situation. They find hope in the thought that their fate is not fixed, begin to view the situation as temporary, and believe they will be rescued soon.


Regression is the return to a more elementary thought pattern commonly found in children. Like a child, a hostage is in a state of extreme dependence and subject to fright. Unconsciously, the hostage selects a behavior that was successfully used in childhood. The hostage becomes reliant on the hostage-taker just as if the hostage-taker was a parent, providing food, shelter, and protection from the outside world. If this thought pattern is firmly in place, hostages may view authorities as a threat to the “safety” being provided by the hostage-takers.


Like regression, identifying with the hostage-taker occurs at the unconscious level. The mind seeks to avoid wrath or punishment by mirroring the behaviors and complying with the demands of the hostage-taker.


David L. Heiserman, Editor

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Revised: June 06, 2015