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Lesson 8 The Stockholm Syndrome

Because you are a potential hostage, you must know and understand the Stockholm Syndrome (see page 3-15). If taken hostage, you will be able to recognize if it is happening to other hostages. The Stockholm Syndrome is an automatic, unconscious emotional response to the trauma of becoming a victim. Observed around the world, the Stockholm Syndrome occurs when people are exposed to a high level of stress and cast together with others, not of their choosing, into a new level of adaptation. The result is a positive bond that affects both the hostage and the hostage-taker. The positive emotional bond may develop because of the stress of being in a closed room under siege. This bond unites its victims against the outside world. An attitude of “it’s us against them” seems to develop.

The Stockholm Syndrome produces a variety of responses. Minimal responses consist of victims seeing the event through the eyes of their captor. Those deeply influenced respond by recognizing the terrorist for his “gallant act.” Responses have also ranged from hostage apathy to actual participation by the hostages in impeding the efforts of rescue forces and negotiation teams. Another response is losing touch with reality and suffering long-term emotional instability.

No one knows how long the syndrome lasts, but the bond seems to be beyond the control of some hostages. They all share common experiences, including positive contact, sympathy for the human qualities of the hostage-takers, and tolerance.

On 23 August 1973, the quiet, early morning routine of the Credit Bank in Stockholm, Sweden, was destroyed by the sound of a submachine gun. Four hostages were held for 131 hours: three women ranging in ages from 21 to 31 and a 25-year old man. They were held by Jan-Erik Olsson, a thief, burglar, and prison escapee. Olsson kept the hostages in an 11-foot by 4-foot crated bank vault, which they came to share with another criminal and former cell mate of Olsson’s, Clark Olofsson. Olofsson joined the group after Olsson demanded his release from prison, and the authorities granted his request. Over time, the hostages began to fear the police more than they feared the robbers. In a phone call to Premier Olof Palme, one of the hostages told the Premier that the robbers were protecting them from the police. After the hostages were released, they began to question why they didn’t hate the robbers, why they felt as if Olsson and Olofsson had been the ones to give them their lives back, and that they were emotionally indebted to them for this generosity. For weeks after the incident and while under the care of psychiatrists, some of the hostages experienced severe conflicting emotions of fear that Olsson and Olofsson might escape from jail, yet they also felt no hatred for them. This hostage taking and its resulting conflicting psychological emotions became knows as the Stockholm Syndrome.

Positive Contact

Hostages may develop positive contact with their abductors if they do not have negative experiences (for example, beatings and rapes). Positive contact also develops if there has been a negative experience followed by a positive contact. For example, if a hostage was beaten by a “cruel guard” every time the hostage asked for a drink of water, then a “kind guard” replaced the “cruel guard” who gives water freely, typically, the hostage will establish a positive contact with the “kind guard.”

Human Qualities of the Hostage-Takers

Hostage-takers may talk about their own mental abuse and physical suffering. They want their hostages to see them as victims of circumstance rather than aggressors. Unfortunately, hostages may sympathize with the hostage-taker and forget that he is the one depriving them of their freedom. Once hostages begin to sympathize with the hostage-taker, they may actually support the hostage-takers’ cause.


Humans have an unconscious limit as to how much we will allow ourselves to be abused or how much we can tolerate. When we are placed in a survival situation, our acceptable tolerance for abuse usually increases in order for us to survive.


David L. Heiserman, Editor

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Revised: June 06, 2015