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The origin of 'Stockholm Syndrome'

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Patty Hearst used the Stockholm Syndrome defence at her trial for bank robbery

Most people know ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ refers to the seemingly irrational bond that a captive might feel towards their captor. But what about the now-obscure case that gave us the phrase? What’s the connection with Stockholm, and why is this curious condition still so controversial in the medical community?

It was on 23 August 1973 that habitual criminal Jan-Erik Olsson walked into a bank in the heart of Stockholm, pulled out a submachine gun and yelled ‘The party has just begun!’ It was the suitably surreal beginning to one of the most bizarre standoffs in the history of armed robbery, and the oddness escalated very rapidly.

When a policeman entered the scene, Olsson ordered him to take a seat and ‘sing something’. The policeman gave a rendition of Elvis Presley’s Lonesome Cowboy while Olsson selected a small group of bank workers he wanted as hostages. The rest were allowed to leave with the crooning cop, and the standoff began. Olsson demanded the police bring him an imprisoned friend of his, Clark Oloffson. This was swiftly done, with a visibly baffled Oloffson whisked from his prison cell to the bank, to become Olsson’s sudden accomplice. As the police refused to allow safe passage for the men and their hostages, a long and gruelling siege got underway. And this was when a strange and unexpected closeness developed between the men and the bank staff they held at gunpoint.

Jan was a mixture of brutality and tenderness,’ hostage Elisabeth Oldgren later said. She recalled how, noticing she was cold in the bank vault where she was forced to sleep, the robber draped his wool jacket over her. At one point, Olsson produced some pears from his pocket and carefully divided them into segments so everyone could have an equal share. And when Oldgren said the vault made her feel claustrophobic, Olsson let her go for a walk outside the vault – while attached to a rope. ‘I remember thinking he was very kind to allow me to leave the vault,’ she later reported.

The only male hostage, Sven Safstrom, felt respect for the captors even when they told him they were thinking of shooting him in the leg to frighten the police. Speaking later, Sven said, ‘All that comes back to me is how kind I thought he was for saying it was just my leg he would shoot.’ Eavesdropping on the group, the police heard them making jovial conversation, the captors telling anecdotes and cracking jokes, the hostages laughing. When the police commissioner demanded the chance to enter and check the bank workers were safe, he noticed that, not only did the hostages not plead for help or make any requests, but they actually seemed hostile and irritated towards him, while being very chummy with Olsson and Oloffson.

When the siege finally ended with tear gas being pumped into the bank, the hostages – despite coughing and gagging in the chaos – insisted on the two men coming out into safety before them. ‘Jan and Clark go first,’ one hostage screamed at the police, ‘you’ll gun them down if we do!’

So just what happened in that bank in August 1973? The weird camaraderie even seems to have puzzled the captives themselves. Soon after her release, Elisabeth Oldgren asked a therapist, ‘Is there something wrong with me? Why don’t I hate them?’

The hostages were partly motivated by rational self-preservation...

It was Swedish criminologist Nils Bejerot who developed the concept of Stockholm Syndrome in the wake of the robbery, but the phrase was really popularised the very next year, when American media heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped by a radical left-wing terrorist group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army. In a shocking twist, the privileged, wealthy heiress joined forces with the SLA, helping them commit robberies and becoming a fugitive from the law until she was eventually captured and sent to jail. The Hearst case remains controversial – her detractors claim she was a committed member of a murderous terror group, while her defenders point to the ordeal she went through in the early days of her kidnapping, when she was locked in a closet and allegedly raped. Indeed, following her arrest, a medical expert described her as having transformed from an intelligent student into a ‘low-IQ, low-affect zombie.’

There may be many mechanisms at work in such cases. In the case of the Stockholm robbery, the hostages were partly motivated by rational self-preservation. ‘If someone likes you, he won’t kill you,’ one of the bank staffers later explained. The hostages also quite reasonably believed they were at greater risk of being accidentally killed in a shootout with the police, than by Olsson himself. This caused a growing sense of resentment towards the authorities.

‘It may sound stupid but I want to go with the two,’ one hostage told Sweden’s Prime Minister on the phone, during the siege. ‘I trust them. I know they would let us go as long as the police don't chase us.’ But Stockholm Syndrome isn’t just about calculated self-preservation. The hostages in the bank felt genuinely close to their captors. Patty Hearst became a genuine member of the SLA. Psychiatrist Dr Frank Ochberg, an expert in post-traumatic stress disorder, highlights how infantilization is key to this sense of closeness: ‘Like a child, they are unable to eat, speak or go to the toilet without permission.’

This context makes hostages disproportionately thankful for acts of kindness or generosity from their captors. Ochberg describes this as a ‘primitive gratitude for the gift of life… They are in denial that this is the person who put them in that situation. In their mind, they think this is the person who is going to let them live.’ Interestingly, despite its notoriety in pop culture, Stockholm Syndrome isn’t an officially recognised condition in the medical literature. No official diagnostic criteria exists, and it’s certainly possible to point out vital discrepancies in various cases. For example, Hearst was subjected to a kind of deliberate brainwashing, being made to listen to the SLA’s political beliefs for hours on end while fearing for her life, while in Stockholm the hostages and captors forged a natural, reciprocal bond with no intentional brainwashing. And then there is the thorny issue of domestic violence, and whether people who choose to stay with, or excuse the behaviour of, abusive partners should be classified as examples of Stockholm Syndrome.

Almost 50 years on from the robbery in Stockholm, this so-called syndrome remains as fascinating and enigmatic as ever.