August 23, 1973 could have been any normal summer day in the Swedish capital of Stockholm. Children were playing in the parks, locals were taking coffee breaks or enjoying a cinnamon bun, and everyone was enjoying the cleanliness of one of the greenest cities. However, that morning at the Kreditbanken in the Normalstorg neighborhood of Stockholm, a new psychological phenomena arose, with the eponymous name Stockholm Syndrome.
This phenomena would continue to recur in movies like “American Horror Story”, “Die Hard” and “Suicide Squad”. The media often diagnoses kidnapping victims with experiencing Stockholm Syndrome, while occasionally, the public, with a limited understanding of Geography, might call it Helsinki Syndrome. But what are the roots of this seemingly paradoxical phenomena? How can we possibly be attached and inspired by those who inflict so much pain and anxiety on us in the first place?
Located in the upscale neighborhood of Normalstorg in central Stockholm is the Kreditbanken. On the morning of August 23, 1973, Janne Ollson, a convict who was just released from prison, entered the Kreditbanken, took a machine gun out of his pocket, and shot at the ceiling while yelling “The party has just begun.” He took 4 bank employees hostage, and demanded $700,000 in cash, the release of another convict and a getaway car. Within hours, the convict was released and authorities delivered a blue Ford Mustang. However, Ollson still wouldn’t leave with the hostages. While authorities were trying to plan a rescue, inside the bank, the victims developed a close relationship with their captors.
One hostage was comforted with a blanket. Ollson reassured another hostage that if she keeps on calling her family, they would eventually answer. One hostage who was claustrophobic was delighted that the captors allowed her to walk around the bank, even though they tied a rope around her neck. By the second day of the six day ordeal, the hostages were getting to know the captors pretty well, and they preferred that the police not intervene. One of the hostages begged the Swedish Prime Minister to let the captor escape so she can escape with him. Another hostage was grateful even after being threatened by the captors, saying “I’m happy that he only wanted to shoot my leg.” When the ordeal was finally over and the police broke in, the hostages were holding on to their captors, refusing to turn them into the hands of the law, and screaming for the captors as they were being driven away in ambulances.
Many were perplexed at what happened in the bank, and the hostages themselves were a little confounded by their actions. There is a lot of evidence from the scientific and evolutionary perspectives that might explain what psychiatrists call “Stockholm Syndrome”.
What the hostages experienced and did had many parallels to soldiers returning from the two world wars. Both the soldiers and the hostages respected and idolized their enemies, rather than those who rescued them from their enemies. This sudden respect may stem from the belief that their enemies spared their lives, because although the hostages could have been killed, they weren’t.
Furthermore, the hostages, during the initial bank heist, were extremely shocked. This sudden state of panic and confusion was allayed by “acts of kindness” on the parts of the robbers to comfort the hostages, such as bringing them blankets and food. This eventually allowed an emotional attachment to form between the hostages and their captors. The hostages’ actions were also valid from an evolutionary standpoint. Throughout much of prehistory, people frequently faced capture from neighboring tribes or enemy groups. To survive the captures, “adaptive traits” were crucial, and adaptive traits often came in the form of befriending enemies or those responsible for the capture.
Stockholm Syndrome is most common in high intensity and dangerous situations. It is during such situations that we delude ourselves into thinking that our perpetrators are good and will protect us. This makes us feel assured that we won’t be harmed and increases our optimism towards surviving the ordeal.
According to Katina Krasnec, a postdoctoral associate at the Center of Theoretical and Evolutionary Immunology at the University of New Mexico, “By creating a false emotional attachment and seeking praise and approval of their captor, they attempt to make a false reality for themselves, in which no harm can come to them. And by defending and/or protecting their captors from police or anyone who ‘comes to the rescue,’ they allow themselves to appear as if they have some control in a relationship which they really have no power. The value of their lives, which the captor grants, is seen as a sign of affection or love, and the captive wishes to reciprocate in order to maintain their own position at that time. By accepting a level of objectification that one should reject as a matter of basic human dignity, hostages or captives weaken their ability to control their emotions. This allows themselves to become malleable, thus becoming easily susceptible to the whims of their captors, and creates this unbalanced relationship of attachment between the captor and the captive.”
Historically and culturally, many people show symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome in certain situations. For example, slaves loved their masters because they were under the false preconception that they would be protected and that the outside world posed major risks. There is evidence of Jews chanting “Down with Us” during the Holocaust, and non-European peoples accepted the fact that they were inferior to white Europeans. Today, rituals such as hazing also exhibit signs of a common activation of our “Capture Bonding Psychological Trait.” While symptoms of Stockholm syndrome have always been eminent, it wasn’t until after the Kreditbanken robbery that psychiatrists finally coined the term.
Edited by: Sabrina Conza, Shreya Singireddy, and Arselyne Chery