What Is Stockholm Syndrome and Why Does It Occur?

(Last Updated On: May 15, 2019)

What Is Stockholm Syndrome?

Highly publicized and often dramatized, most people are probably familiar with the media’s interpretations of Stockholm Syndrome. But what is Stockholm Syndrome exactly, and is it different from what you see on TV or in movies?

What Is Stockholm Syndrome?

In essence, Stockholm Syndrome is an attachment that a victim develops for their captor or captors. There’s a lot more to this though, and what you see publicized implies the condition is far more common than it really is. The FBI’s Hostage Barricade Database numbers Stockholm Syndrome at roughly 8% of situations.

There are four key things that are sought for when determining whether a case can be considered Stockholm Syndrome.

  • The victim develops sympathies for their captor
  • The victim and captor cannot have had a prior relationship
  • The victim refuses to cooperate with law enforcement
  • The victim no longer perceives their captor as a threat

Further reading: A History of the FBI

Stockholm Syndrome Origins – The Norrmalmstorg Robbery

Like many other disorders and diseases, Stockholm Syndrome takes its name from one of its first well-known cases.

We have to go back to 1973, when Jan-Erik Olsson and Clark Olofsson robbed the Kreditbanken bank in Norrmalmstorg Square in Stockholm, Sweden. Over the course of the ordeal, Olsson and Olofsson took four hostages, keeping them in the bank vault for a handful of days.

Olofsson was able to speak with police negotiators, and eventually the pair surrendered after the police mounted a gas attack. The hostages were rescued, all uninjured.

And that’s where things get interesting. In the aftermath, none of the hostages wanted to testify against Olsson and Olofsson. What’s more, they were even said to have set up a fund for the two men’s legal expenses. The two were charged, but Olofsson went to a court of appeals to get them negated.

One of the hostages, Kristin Enmark, has gone on record saying she actually felt safe in the vault with Olofsson, and was more afraid that the police would use violent tactics. Olofsson and Enmark would see each other again, and later become friends. If that wasn’t enough, not only did Olofsson and Enmark become friends, but their families would as well.

Why Does Stockholm Syndrome Occur?

Like many psychological conditions, nobody really knows why Stockholm Syndrome occurs. We just kind of throw theories around and see what makes sense.

Stockholm Syndrome was once used to only define cases like the Norrmalmstorg Robbery, but its use today has since expanded. Oftentimes we apply the term to kidnappings, sexual abuse cases, religious indoctrination, and the like. Of course, that application isn’t unfounded. We do it because the symptoms are common. But this increasingly large spectrum has led to the legitimacy of the condition being contested.

The current running theory is that Stockholm Syndrome is a survival mechanism. Some argue that its roots lie in the ages when women were treated as spoils of war. Though, if Stockholm Syndrome affects men as well (which it does), there’s probably a little more to the story than feudal philosophies.

Regardless of origin, the idea of Stockholm Syndrome as a survival mechanism holds water. It makes sense for one to subconsciously adopt the views of someone who holds all the cards, because appeasing them could save their life. Think about how often you pretend to like something to gain the favor of someone you want to know better. Just put that on an extreme.

Stockholm Syndrome has also been seen as a post hoc coping mechanism, and this also makes sense. One may attempt to rationalize a terrible situation to the point where they think everything is fine.

Is Stockholm Syndrome a Two-Way Street?

Well not really, no. It’s not a two-way street in the sense that the captor develops sympathies for the victim any time Stockholm Syndrome occurs. However, there have been recent propositions of Lima Syndrome, wherein the captor develops sympathies for their hostage. While two different conditions, considered distinct from each other, they could theoretically coexist.

Lima Syndrome was coined after a 1996 assault on the Japanese Embassy in; you guessed it; Lima, Peru. After 126 days, the hostages were freed. Later, it was revealed that some of the younger terrorists developed affinities for some of the hostages. One even expressed an interest in coming to Japan to attend school after the crisis ended.

Lima Syndrome isn’t as well known or researched, so its legitimacy is far more contested than that of Stockholm Syndrome.

Like Stockholm the city but not the syndrome? Test your skills in the quiz below!

About the Author:

+ posts

Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.