Stockholm Syndrome: Definition, Causes And Symptoms

Stockholm syndrome is a disorder where those held hostage start to empathize with their captors.

El sídrome de Estocolmo es una respuesta natural de complicidad que desarrollan algunas personas en situación de secuestro.
Stockholm syndrome is a complex natural response that develops in some people when they are in hostage situations.

Stockholm syndrome is one of the most compelling and baffling psychological phenomena out there. Patty Hearst's case after she was held hostage in 1974 by the Symbionese Liberation Army at just 19 years old is one of the best-known examples of this disorder to this day.

Learning the leading causes of this psychological response and its symptoms can help us to understand it better. So, in this article, we reveal what Stockholm syndrome is, its main causes and symptoms.

What is Stockholm syndrome?

Stockholm syndrome is a natural psychological response  that some victims of kidnappings and hostages experience. According to scientific research, this particular phenomenon occurs in about 8% of those that are taken hostage or kept on lockdown against their will.

Besides, generally speaking, there is a series of common traits that victims share. These include: positive feelings towards the assailant, no prior relationship with the captor, and denying to collaborate with the police to catch the criminal. Also, victims will appeal to these said good feelings and morality as well.

This phenomenon is particularly problematic since it goes directly against the interests of anyone taken captive against their will. In fact, Stockholm syndrome doesn't appear classified in any psychiatry manual. This is why often it isn't taken into account in trials where victims' actions can actually play against them.

There are scientific movements in psychology that even suggest that this syndrome doesn't even exist at all and that it is more of an urban legend or a rare phenomenon. In spite of this, recent psychological studies maintain that Stockholm syndrome can also occur in romantic relationships.


Although not everyone shows the same signs, there are a few recurring symptoms  related to this psychological response. Below, we highlight the main symptoms of Stockholm syndrome.


On a physical level, sweating, fast heartbeat, insomnia, aggressiveness, the effects of sleep deprivation, malnutrition, and a lack of light stand out.


The psychological symptoms of Stockholm syndrome are the best-known and easiest to identify.

Here are a few of these signs: positive feelings towards the captor, sympathy towards this person's actions and goals, and dependency on them. Besides, feeling angry at or fearful of the police or any other authority is normal. Confusion, rejection, desperation, aggressiveness, anxiety, and last but not least, flashbacks, are all common symptoms of this psychological response.

Some theories suggest that Stockholm syndrome could be a coping mechanism
Some theories suggest that Stockholm syndrome could be a coping mechanism


The psychological connection between the victim and the assailant in hostage situations can be explained in many different ways. According to scientific evidence, the following list describes possible explanations for Stockholm syndrome -let's go over them.

Victim and captor share common goals

One of the main explanations for the appearance of this syndrome is when the victim perceives that they share common goals with their captor in this critical situation.

Besides, the criminal in question often presents themselves as someone that wants to resolve the problem and not as a threat, which also leads hostages to experience positive feelings for this person.

Hostage loses control

This syndrome can also be justified since these situations threaten the survival of the victim, as is the case with kidnappings. When there is a kidnapping or hostage situation, the victim is at the mercy of their captor.

To protect themselves, the affected party complies with the delinquent to establish a relationship of absolute submission.

Besides, the victim often acts obediently to make sense of the situation, as a sort of psychological relief mechanism. Sometimes, this also serves to convince themselves that they have a little bit of control over the circumstance.

Childhood regression

Some psychological approaches consider the fact that those affected by these dire circumstances would do everything in their power to avoid making their captor angry.  This mechanism could be a type of regression, or a reaction learned in childhood to avoid angering the adult by obeying them in every possible way.

Pressure and loneliness

Those that exhibit Stockholm syndrome experience an intense feeling of isolation and psychological stress. This is so vast that it leads them to empathize with the criminal purely for support and affection.

Victims often feel isolated, hopeless, and abandoned by the police which causes the Stockholm syndrome response in these cases.

Traumatic experience

Having a shared traumatic experience often creates special bonds with those involved, even if in this case, it means the captor. Also, once again, a feeling of helplessness and being isolated play a key role here in this response.

Coping mechanism

On the other hand, the idea that  the affected party could be using basic survival strategies as a coping mechanism is another explanation for Stockholm syndrome. One of these strategies could even involve forming emotional relations with the assailant as well as positive feelings or even empathy towards this person.

Patty Hearst was pardoned by Bill Clinton after being diagnosed with Stockholm syndrome.
Patty Hearst was pardoned by Bill Clinton after being diagnosed with Stockholm syndrome.


Although the term "Stockholm syndrome" was coined in the early 70s, there are references to this psychological phenomenon in fiction novels that predate these findings.

This concept came into existence in 1973 when Swedish citizen, Jan Olsson, attempted to rob the Swedish Credit Bank in Stockholm, taking four people hostage. During the robbery, while the police negotiated with the criminal, the hostages that were released seemed to favor their captor and even understand him.

These four people showed their disapproval and denied testifying against Olsson in court after this event, something that was totally unheard of. Some declarations from these former hostages even stated that they were more fearful of the police than anything that the bank robber himself could have done.

One of the psychiatrists on the case during the negotiations came up with the term "Stockholm syndrome" to refer to the phenomenon. Over time, more incidents have popped up, like the case of Patty Hearst, one year later in 1974, when she helped her captors in a San Fransisco bank robbery after her release. Prisoners of war, cult members, sexual abuse victims, and those held captive against their will are the most prone to this puzzling psychological response.


Graham, Dee L. R. (1994). Loving to Survive. New York and London: New York University Press.

Jameson, C. (2010). The Short Step From Love to Hypnosis: A Reconsideration of the Stockholm Syndrome. Journal for Cultural Research. Elsevior. 14.4: 337–355.

Namnyak, M.; Tufton, N.; Szekely, R.; Toal, M.; Worboys, S.; Sampson, E.L. (January 2008). ‘Stockholm syndrome': psychiatric diagnosis or urban myth?. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica. 117 (1): 4–11