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Stockholm Syndrome: Unequal Power Relationships

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Biology 202
2004 First Web Paper
On Serendip

Stockholm Syndrome: Unequal Power Relationships

Katina Krasnec

On August 23rd 1973, Jan Olsson began a bank robbery that would add a new interpretation to the world's view of hostage situations, and the psychological effects behind unequal power relations. It started with the storming a local kreditbanke in downtown Stockholm, Sweden, and the shooting of the police officers who had gone in after Olsson. With this action, a six day ordeal and hostage situation known as the Norrmalmstorg Robbery began. Four hostages were taken into the bank's vault. Dynamite was strapped to them, and they were rigged to snare traps so that in case of a gas attack by the police, the hostages would be killed regardless of any rescue attempts. Three women and one man were confined to this small room, fighting to survive. (7) Yet when these captives were released, they had more sympathy for their captors than the police who had rescued them – and went so far as to publicly decry their own rescue. Two of the hostages became friends with the captors, a fund was set up by them to help pay for the defense fees accrued through their trial, and continue to support their captors against the police even today. (8) Psychologist Nils Bejerot named the captives' attachment towards their abusers "Stockholm Syndrome," and from this case, a new behavioral attachment disorder began. (7)

In the hands of some psychologists, Stockholm Syndrome has proved an extensible term. It has been invoked to describe the results of slavery upon the African-Americans psyche, abusive relationships between men and women, or any situations where the division of power within a relationship or any kind is severely unequal. (7) Though the situations are intuitively connected, there are important differences by the way the term is being applied. Consequently, it's necessary to examine the different interpretations of how Stockholm Syndrome occurs within these power situations, and the reactions and strategy of the subjects who are confined to them.

The "misplaced" attachment of subjects to their abusers is not uncommon, and has been documented in many different contexts. It happens in abused children and women, cults, controlling relationships, prisoner of war camps, and other people or institutions that enforce unreasonable control on those who have no recourse. Stockholm Syndrome itself is most commonly perceived to occur with hostage situations, with the logic behind developing this relationship with an abuser or captor is in the interest of self-protection. (9) This development occurs when there are perceived threats of violence, disempowerment of the subject, high levels of stress or trauma upon subject, and ultimate dependence upon the person in control for base survival. (2)

In an act of self-delusion, the victim of Stockholm Syndrome develops conditions in order to reassure themselves they will be protected or cared for. 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. (2, 5, 6, 8)

Many associate the image of hostage and captor with Patricia Hearst and Elizabeth Smart. Both cases involve the kidnapping of a woman for the further pursuit of ideals by their captors. However, these cases can be distinguished by the varying ways that Stockholm Syndrome manipulates the emotions, behavior, and actions of its subject. Patricia Hearst was kidnapped from her home, and locked in a closet where she underwent severe psychological, physical, and sexual abuse before she became a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army. At the point where the members of the SLA began to give her more freedom and liberty to speak, she was given the opportunity to leave the SLA or join and help in their fight. (4, 10) However, Hearst, under the influence of the Stockholm Syndrome, chose to remain with the group as a survival tactic.

"I knew that the real choice was the one which Cin had mentioned earlier: to join them or to be executed. They would never release me. They could not. I knew too much about them. He was testing me and I must pass the test or die." (4)
- Patricia Hearst

The effects of the trauma and abuse are clear here in what one might identify as Hearst's 'compromised survival instincts.' She would rather have stayed with those who had tortured her for nearly two months than risk affronting the SLA. After initiation, Hearst, dubbed "Tania" by the group, helped in a robbery, but when the SLA lost their power in a fire fight with the Los Angeles Police Department, she was returned to her family. (4) Unlike the Norrmalmstorg Robbery, she distanced herself from the group and her captors when she returned to her regular life, and insisted that her reasons for joining were purely in self protection. Perhaps Patricia Hearst, despite the abuse endured in the time of her kidnapping, was not necessarily protecting the others by joining the SLA, but attempting to save herself by the actions she believed would help. (10)

In the case of Elizabeth Smart, a very different dynamic between the captor and the captive emerged. At the young age of fourteen, Smart's own instincts of survival or protection were not as developed as Hearts', and this lack of maturity resulted in the development of a strong bond between her and Brian Mitchell, resulting in intense Stockholm Syndrome. (3) This is exemplified by her failure to seek help. Only three days after her kidnapping, Smart had heard her uncle searching and calling from her not far from her hidden location, but did not call out or draw attention to herself. (11) This derisive lack of motivation to be rescued is prevalent the nine months of which she was under hostage. Many people questioned her and her captors about who she was during this period of time, but she denied anything but what she had been told by Mitchell.

The evidence so far shows no physical abuse to Smart, but there was a constant subjection to threats, the trauma of the kidnapping itself, and propaganda forced upon her, that all resulted in the Smart's personal will breaking down, allowing for the relationship of affection to develop towards her captor. (2) Even during her rescue, Smart was still reluctant, perhaps still believing in the myths Mitchell had told her, or convinced that those helping her were hurting her by taking her away from this man who she had become so attached to. (11) Unlike Hearst, Smart did not speak out against her captor once she had returned to regular life, despite an angry and vocal family. She remained silent about what occurred during the nine months of which she was under his control, and did not defend her choice to avoid seeking rescue. A predominant sign of Stockholm Syndrome is this sympathy and compassion with your captor, and even though Smart did not outwardly explain this relationship as those hostages in Sweden had, she had remnants of it even after she was returned home. (2, 5, 8)

Both of these cases exhibit Stockholm Syndrome through the hostage scenario, but there are many other situations in which its dynamics can be identified. In the mid-19th century, many African-Americans felt betrayed by Lincoln when his government emancipated them. Some adamantly refused to leave their masters even when they were granted freedom. Though in a sense, slaves were confined to the area which their master presided over and had the lingering fear of violence, they still could claim certain areas of their lives were their own, and were not generally as directly threatened as hostages are. Even so, the legacy of domination and abuse manifested itself in these "one-sided relationships" where African-American slaves remained devoted to their American master despite the cruelty they had endured. (1) "Indeed, the regulation of behavior and the resultant adjustment that was made had a direct influence on the consequent formation of the slave's personality."(Huddlestone – Mattai, 347) Consequently, this domination pattern of those with money and power, typically European, over the African-Americans is still prevalent today, as parts of society still holds that they are inferior, as would be in a master and slave complex.

Not all potential subjects, placed in these situations, react in a way that engenders Stockholm Syndrome. Many in similarly unequal power relationships seek revenge or escape as soon as it is offered. Bank hostages have held their captor to the window to be shot (8), slaves have killed their masters in rage, and so one cannot assume that there exists a 'hard and fast rule' to generalize that captives will come to inappropriately identify with their captors when placed in such survival scenarios. Strong morals and beliefs are personality traits that may attenuate Stockholm Syndrome in some people. (2) In the rapid change of Elizabeth Smart, it may be possible to attribute this to her age and lack of clear values within her life due to inexperience, and her desire for acceptance and obedience.

As a basic concept, Stockholm Syndrome is the duality of a power relationship over someone. A person captured becomes deeply involved with the captor due to the typical confine of the circumstances, and because even through the abuse and threats, they still must accept them as the only source of contact and nurturing that focuses on them. The need, under duress, of approval and reassurance, when combined with a fear of severe punishment, creates the precondition for the type of aberrant attachment described as Stockholm Syndrome. Nevertheless, its specific consequences – for Elizabeth Smart, Patricia Hearst, or a generalized category of victims such as African Americans – are highly variable, and so more careful clinical examination would be merited in order to define the ways in which Stockholm Syndrome effects those who experience it.


1. Huddleston-Mattai, Barbara. "The Sambo Mentality and the Stockholm Syndrome Revisited: Another Dimension to an Examination of the Plight of the African American." Journal of Black Studies. Vol. 23, No. 3, pg. 344-357
2. A site about Elizabeth Smart and Stockholm Syndrome.
3. An article written about the expert opinion involving Elizabeth Smart.
4. A site about the Patricia Hearst kidnapping.
5. The dictionary of


Comments made prior to 2007
I was disappointed in the article, although it was well written. What about the issues of self-esteem and cognitive dissonance? ... Susan Freiman, 28 April 2007


anonymous's picture

child abuse-physical and sexual

At the age of13 my friend was lured into a relationship with a 26 yr old man b/c he showed her affection. Coming from a home that was also physically and sexually abusive she fell in love with this guy b/c he at least gave her hugs and made time to talk to her which is something never gotten at home. Of course this guys agenda was seduction, molestation, and rape. At first she was scared b/c he told her he would slit her throat if she told and kill family members. This went on for 4 yrs. She fell in love with this guy and still loves him to this day even though she hasn't had contact with him for years. All her relationships with men have been abnormal. She relives the same stuff in that she sees each guy as this abuser. She gives her power away to each guy even though they dont want it or need it. She becomes the submissive little girl all over again and cant seem to be able to have a grown up relationship with a normal man. This is the only way she can love a man and that is through the little girl inside of her. The grown up women part of her is numb to feelings. Do you think that this is stockholm syndrome or what?

Lillie Rodriguez's picture

stockholm syndrome

how can I get my daughter & grand children out of this her boyfriend has cut off all contact he will not let me speak to her or the kids I need some help with this please whom can i contact

Serendip Visitor's picture

Conditions for Stockholm Syndrome

Individuals can apparently succumb to Stocholm Syndrome under the following circumstances:
Believing one's captor can and will kill them.
Isolation from anyone but the captors.
Belief that escape is impossible.
Inflating the captor's acts of kindness into genuine care for each other's welfare.

Virtually anyone can get Stockholm Syndrome it the following conditions are met:

Perceived threat to survival and the belief that one's captor is willing to act on that threat
The captive's perception of small kindnesses from the captor within a context of terror
Isolation from perspectives other than those of the captor
Perceived inability to escape.

It's very important to note that "perceived threat to survival" and "Believing one's captor can and will kill them" is not only fear for your physical life, but it can be one's social life too. I think that by narrowing down Stockholm Syndrome to only affect those who are fearful of being killed is incorrect. The threat to destroy one's family life socially is emotionally scarring and crippling and can cause way more damage to the point where a victim can actually prefer death over living with the consequences a captor's actions will have.

Serendip Visitor's picture


Where did you get the information regarding the conditions for Stockholm Syndrome?

emy's picture

abusive husband

by all means, can the wife have the kids with her and stay away from the husband because of it's abusive behavior even if both couples are not yet divorces?

Serendip Visitor's picture

I thought it was great:)

I love your paper, while doing research for another class I came across it and it has helped me understand some things better...

College Student's picture


Your sources are all done wrong. How can we take this as legitamite information. None of the sites are right and the weblinks don't work.

Katina (Author)'s picture

As this article was written

As this article was written over five years ago, please do not take references as current or updated. When the article was uploaded online, all links were active.

admin's picture


This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.
Anonymous's picture


can a person who has been raped and threatened that if she told they would kill her and her family and had to call and check in with her rapist be a case for this syndrome

Serendip Visitor's picture

Yes. Although these kind of

Yes. Although these kind of things is very consequental. If the raped person feels obliged to call in with her rapist because of some guilt feelings towards him, even sympathic or empathic feelings towards the rapist can be a signs of this syndrome.

Anonymous's picture


It absolutely could be. A key element would be the perceived motivation behind calling and checking in vs. calling the police, filing a complaint, and cooperating with the police toward capture and conviction.
If the victim begins to "understand" and thus "support" the actions of the rapist, and not want him to be caught, then it certainly begins to look like SS exactly.