Elizabeth Smart and Stockholm syndrome

Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D.
President, INPM
Research Director and Professor
Counselling Psychology Department
Trinity Western University, BC, Canada

Since Elizabeth Smart's safe return home, one of the most asked questions is: Why didn't she run for help when she had the chance? Why did she refuse to reveal her true identity when she was first approached by the police who arrested her captors?

Citing Patty Hearst, many pundits have concluded that Elizabeth Smart is another case of Stockholm syndrome, and that she must have been brainwashed by her captors.

Since we don't know the details of what has actually happened to Elizabeth Smart in the last nine months, and how she has managed to cope with her captivity, we cannot say anything for sure about her mental state. However, we do know that no one can go through kidnapping and captivity without being touched by the ordeal psychologically.

It would be instructive for us to examine this intriguing phenomenon of Stockholm syndrome and ask ourselves: How would we cope, if we were kidnapped or held hostages? What is the likelihood that we would fall victim to Stockholm syndrome?

What is Stockholm syndrome?

The term "Stockholm syndrome" was first coined by Professor Nils Bejerot to explain the phenomenon of hostages bonding with their captors. In Stockholm, Sweden in 1973, two bank robbers held four people hostages for six days. The Norrmalmstorg Bank robbery received wide publicity because the hostages came to care about their captors and perceive them as protecting them against the police.

There is no precise, universally accepted definition of Stockholm syndrome. It generally refers to a cluster of symptoms often observed in hostages, cult members, battered women and victims of sexual and physical abuse. These symptoms include:

  • Emotional bonding with the captor/abuser
  • Seeking favor and approval from the perpetrator
  • Depending on the perpetrator for security and purpose of existence
  • Befriending and caring for the captor
  • Resenting police and proper authorities for their rescue attempts
  • Losing one's own identify in order to identify with the captor/abuser
  • Seeing things from the perspective of the perpetrator
  • Valuing every small gesture of kindness, such as letting them live
  • Refusing to seek freedom even given the opportunity

Is Stockholm syndrome a survival strategy?

Many psychologists and psychiatrists have considered the Stockholm syndrome a survival strategy in extreme conditions, where there is:

  • The constant threat to physical and psychological survival
  • A condition of helplessness and hopelessness
  • Isolation and loss of support systems from the outside world
  • A context of trauma and terror that shatters previously held assumptions
  • The perception that survival depends on total surrender and compliance

What are the psychological processes underlying Stockholm syndrome?

There are five powerful motivations working together to contribute to the development of the Stockholm syndrome:

  1. The motivation to survive physically and psychologically
  2. The motivation to avoid pain and fear
  3. The motivation to find hope and meaning
  4. The motivation to find significance and security
  5. The motivation to seek acceptance and relationship

Although these are primary motivations operating in all sorts of situations, most of the time only one or two motivations may predominate.

However, in a hostage or abuse situation, all these motivations are operating and contributing to the bonding between the victim and the abuser. Such a relationship is strengthened both by the negative reinforcement of relief from pain and fear, and the positive reinforcement of approval and recognition.

Who are vulnerable to Stockholm syndrome?

It is obvious that not everyone in a hostage situation will fall victim to Stockholm syndrome. Individuals with any combination of the following characteristics are most vulnerable:

  • Lacking a clear set of core values that define one's identify
  • Lacking a clear sense of meaning and purpose for one's life
  • Lacking a track record of overcoming difficulties
  • Lacking a strong personal faith in God's character and goodness
  • Feeling that one's life has always been controlled by powerful others
  • Feeling unhappy with one's life circumstances
  • Having a strong need for approval by authority figures
  • Wishing to be somebody else

In view of the above, parents may not be doing their children a favour if they over-protect and micro-manage their children. In so doing, they actually deprive their children of the opportunity to develop the necessary strength of character to survive in extreme situations. In a curious way, the obedient, good kids are often more vulnerable than the strong willed, difficult to manage kids.

Generally speaking, those with courage, character and faith will adopt a different sort of survival strategy in a hostage situation. They will comply without compromising their integrity; they will always maintain their hope, waiting for their chance to escape.

That's why it is much more difficult for the captors to break the spirit of individuals with a strong sense of the self and a strong faith in God, like Senator McCain and Dr. Viktor Frankl.

How can we help those with Stockholm syndrome?

In most cases, individuals with Stockholm syndrome can benefit from psychotherapy, because they need professional support in order to confront and work through past trauma. They also need professional help to gain a better understanding of their distorted thinking and confusing feelings towards their captor/abuser. Finally, healing will take place, when they are able to integrate the kidnapping and abuse with their present reality and create a more meaningful future.

Lay people can also help them repair shattered assumptions and restore their lives. Here are some suggestions:

  • Allow them sufficient time and space to recover
  • Encourage them to seek support groups
  • Walk with them and show understanding and empathy
  • Provide them with a strong and consistent support system
  • Pray for them and encourage them to find spiritual support

Let's remember Elizabeth Smart and her family in our prayers. After the initial flurry of excitement and celebration, there is a tough road ahead. However, no matter how tortuous the road of recovery, there is hope and grace for a better future for this young person.

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