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Survival identification syndrome and traumatic bonding 

Forty five years after the hostage taking that gave birth to the concept of Stockholm syndrome, Lina Kolesnikova says that emergency services workers need to be aware of the paradoxical phenomena whereby abused people develop emotional dependency on their abuser

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This August marked the 45thanniversary of the hostage taking that gave birth to the concept of Stockholm syndrome (also known as Survival Identification Syndrome, Common Sense Syndrome, Terror-Bonding or Traumatic Bonding).

On August 23, 1973, Jan-Erick Olsson, an escaped convict armed with a sub machine gun, attempted to rob a bank in the centre of Stockholm, Sweden. Police interrupted as the robbery was in progress and four people were taken hostage. As the result of demands by Olsson – which included three million Kroner – another criminal, Clark Olofsson, was allowed to join him at the bank.

After the six-day siege ended and the hostages were released, they refused to testify against the robbers in court. The hostages even insisted that they feared the police more than their captors.

Swedish criminologist and psychiatrist Nils Bejerot, who provided consultancy to Swedish law enforcement during the siege, subsequently introduced the term Stockholm syndrome to describe the bond that can develop between hostage takers and their victims.

Generally speaking, Stockholm syndrome is a psychological alliance of hostage(s) with their captors. Some hostages may also develop feelings of love towards their captors or begin to share their beliefs and ideas. In essence, it is a survival mechanism, developing subconsciously and involuntarily while living in an enforced dependence. Psychologists point out that the victim’s desire to survive is stronger than the will to hate the person who caused the situation.

We may observe three components of Stockholm syndrome (which can present separately or simultaneously): Negative feelings of the hostages towards authorities (especially towards law enforcement agencies in charge of rescue operations); positive feelings towards their captors; and, in some cases, positive feelings of the hostage takers towards hostages (this phenomenon is termed Lima syndrome after Japanese embassy hostage crisis in 1996). Some hostages may defend their captors physically as well as verbally.

Stockholm syndrome is a paradoxical phenomenon because of the sympathetic sentiments that captives feel towards their captors; the exact opposite to the fear and distrust that would be natural in such a situation. Psychoanalyst Anna Freud noted a similar situation occurring in Nazi concentration camps, which she described as: "Identification with the aggressor."

Obviously, for the development of a bond to occur between the captor(s) and their hostage(s), certain factors must be present. The length of time of the hostage-taking incident must be significant; captor(s) and hostage(s) must have personal contact (for example, hostages are not isolated from the takers, and do not come into contact with anyone else); and the takers do not abuse the hostages physically or threaten them verbally.

Other factors are captors and victims being located in the same place, and the fear of being killed during the assault creating the possibility of bonding between takers and hostages. Both are trapped and experience the same risk of death.

According to research, women are more prone to experience Stockholm syndrome than men.

Despite the high popularity of Stockholm syndrome, with it being featured in movies, books and so on, it is quite a rare phenomenon and is more of an exceptional situation in hostage crises. It is also worth noting that Stockholm syndrome is observed in cases of in cases of domestic abuse, child abuse, prisoners of war, human trafficking and kidnapping.

In cases of child sexual abuse, victims sometimes felt connected to abusers because in some way they are flattered by the attention of the adult(s). In instances of family abuse, they can be afraid of disclosure.

There are, of course, unique examples of special bonds between victims of kidnappers; these include Patty Hearst’s or Natasha Kampusch’s cases.

After eight years of captivity in an underground cellar, Natasha Kampusch expressed unexpected sympathy towards her captor Wolfgang Priklopil. Kampusch had grown up in a disturbed family. Isolated from people and a familiar environment, her captor was not only a provider of food, but he decided what TV programmes she should watch, which books she could read etc. In some ways, therefore, he became her influencer. Priklopil was the onlyhuman being in Kampusch’s life for eight years.

Many female and/or child sex victims around the world are victims of kidnapping and human trafficking, and they are physically and emotionally abused. Notably, these victims are isolated from their families and the public. Quite often they refuse to testify against their traffickers in the court, not only in countries with low justice cultures, but also in Western countries where they afforded solid state protection.

Psychologists have offered the term Sonagachi Syndrome for female sex workers who are subjected to intense physical, sexual and mental abuse (Sonagachi is India’s largest red light district, which houses more than 14,000 sex workers, many of them trafficked).

This notion was introduced after a joint research and interview project carried out across several Northern Indian states in brothels and in street and home-based prostitution communities.

It was found out that sex workers in India fulfilled all the main criteria for Stockholm Syndrome mentioned above in this blog (to read more about findings of this project, click here).

Therefore, this means that not only must hostage negotiators have a keen understanding and awareness of the syndrome, but so too must all those who come into might come into contact with those who have been abused. This includes the police and law enforcement, social services, NGOs and medical personnel.

(image: Omniimage/123rf) 

Lina Kolesnikova, 24/09/2018
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