The Strange Origin Of Stockholm Syndrome

"It was the hostages' fault. They did everything I told them to do. If they hadn't, I might not be here now. Why didn't any of them attack me? They made it hard to kill. They made us go on living together day after day, like goats, in that filth. There was nothing to do but get to know each other." These words, which Jan-Erik Olson snapped to The New Yorker's Daniel Lang (quoted here by the BBC), expressed the exasperation the bank robber felt after six days in a Swedish bank vault.

On August 23, 1973, Olson raided the Kreditbanken on Norrmalmstorg Square, Stockholm. According to a contemporary report given by Dr. Nils Bejerot to the New Scientist, he shot a police officer and hid inside the bank, taking four employees hostage. He demanded three million krone, which would be worth a bit over $2 million today, two pistols, and the release and transport of another prisoner named Clark Olofsson to the bank. The police acquiesced. After a few more days of negotiations, with Olson intermittently shooting at the police, they conducted a tear-gas-assisted raid on August 28. Despite the threats, no hostages were harmed.

Afterwards, Kristin Ehnmark, one of the hostages, exhibited strange behavior. As Frank Ochberg told the Los Angeles Times, she "broke off her engagement to her fiance. And both during and after her captivity, she lambasted then-Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme." She had apparently grown enamored of her captor. 

Stockholm Syndrome

From this bank robbery incident Nil Berjerot and Frank Ochberg coined "Norrmalmstorgssyndromet", or Norrmalmstorg Syndrome, which later became popularized as Stockholm Syndrome. The condition is often applied to Patty Hearst's ordeal. They give differing explanations for why hostages should suddenly grow fond of the people who had thrust them into these situations. Berjerot told the BBC, "[The hostages] are in denial that [the captor] 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." Ochberg explained to the LA Times that "The hostage is stunned, shocked and often certain that he or she will die. The hostage then becomes like an infant. He or she can't talk, eat, move or use a toilet without permission."

The divergence could be explained partially by the fact that Stockholm Syndrome is not a recognized disorder. Despite the name, the BBC's Science Focus magazine points out that official psychiatric diagnostic texts have yet to include it. One critic is Natascha Kampusch, an Austrian woman who was held in a cellar for eight years, says the BBC, who rejects the diagnosis that many are willing to apply to her because she finds it removes her agency: "Looking for normality within the framework of a crime is not a syndrome. It is a survival strategy." Similarly, the hostages liked Olson because, in context, they could trust him more than the officers trying to neutralize the situation.