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Section 11
Stockholm Syndrome: Introjection, & Thought Identification
by Thomas Strentz

Question 11 | Test | Table of Contents

Sveriges Kreditbank in Stockholm, Sweden, was destroyed by the clatter of a submachine gun. As clouds of plaster and heaps of shattered glass settled around the 60 stunned occupants, a heavily armed lone gunman called out in English, “The party has just begun.”

The “party” was to continue for 131 hours, permanently affecting the lives of four young hostages and giving birth, in name at least, to a psychological phenomenon subsequently called the “Stockholm Syndrome.” During the 131 hours from 10:15 a.m. on August 23 until 11:00 p.m. on August 28, four employees of the Sveriges Kreditbank were held hostage. They were Elizabeth Oldgren, age 21, then an employee of fourteen months working as a cashier in foreign exchange, now a nurse; Kristin Ehnmark, age 23, then a bank stenographer in the loan department, today a social worker; Brigitta Lundblad, age 31, an employee of the bank; and Sven Safstrom, age 25, a new employee who today works for the National Government of Sweden. They were held by a 32 year-old thief, burglar, and prison escapee named Jan-Erik Olsson. Their jail was an 11 by 47-foot carpeted bank vault that they came to share with another criminal and former cellmate of Olsson: Clark Olofsson, age 26. Olofsson joined the group only after Olsson demanded his release from the Norrrdkpoing Penitentiary.

Media Exploitation
This particular hostage situation gained long-lasting notoriety primarily because the broadcast media exploited the fears of the victims as well as the sequence of events. Contrary to what had been expected, it was found that the victims feared the police more than they feared the robbers. In a telephone call to Prime Minister Olaf Palme, one of the hostages expressed these typical feelings of the group when she said, “The robbers are protecting us from the police.” Upon release other hostages puzzled over their feelings: “Why don’t we hate the robbers?”

For weeks after this incident, under the care of psychiatrists, some of the hostages experienced the paradox of nightmares over the possible escape of the jailed subjects and yet felt no hatred for their captors. In fact, they described feeling that the subjects had given them their lives back and that they were emotionally indebted to their captors for this generosity.

The Phenomenon
The Stockholm Syndrome seems to be an automatic, often unconscious, emotional response to the trauma of becoming a victim. Although some victims may think it through, this is not a rational choice by a victim who decides consciously that the most advantageous behavior in the predicament is to befriend his captor. The syndrome has been observed around the world and includes a high level of stress, as participants are cast together in a life-threatening environment where each must achieve new levels of adaptation to stay alive. This phenomenon affects both the hostages and the hostage-taker. The positive emotional bond, born in, or perhaps because of, the stress of the siege serves to unite its victims against all outsiders. A philosophy of “it’s us against them” seems to develop. To date there is no evidence to indicate how long the syndrome lasts. Like the automatic reflex action of the knee, the bond seems to be beyond the control of the victim or the subject. The Stockholm Syndrome generally consists of three phases: positive feelings of the hostages toward their captors, negative feelings of the hostages toward the police or other government authorities, and reciprocation of the positive feelings by the captors. Although this relationship is new in the experience of law enforcement officers, the psychological community has long been aware of the use of an emotional bond as coping mechanism by people under stress.

Freud’s Ego
In the structural theory of Sigmund Freud, the ego, governed by the reality principle, assumes an “executive” function. In doing so the ego mediates between the demands of reality, the instinctual demands of the id, and the moralistic dictates of the superego. The ego in a healthy personality is dynamic and resourceful; it utilizes, as needed, a host of psychological defense mechanisms that Anna Freud summarized and described in The Ego and the Mechanism of Defense. The number of defense mechanisms varies depending upon the author. However, all serve the same basic purpose - to protect the self from hurt and disorganization. When the self is threatened, the ego must adapt under a great deal of stress. The ego enables the personality to continue to function even during the most painful experiences - such as being taken hostage by an armed, anxious stranger. The hostage wants to survive, and the healthy ego is seeking a means to achieve survival. The defense mechanisms utilized most frequently by the hostages I have interviewed have been regressive, involving a return to a less mature and often unrealistic level of experience and behavior.

Several theories have been advanced in an attempt to explain the observable symptoms that law enforcement professionals and members of the psychiatric community have come to call the Stockholm Syndrome. One of the earliest concepts formulated to explain it involved the phenomenon of “identification with the aggressor” that Anna Freud described. This type of identification is summoned by the ego to protect itself against authority figures who have generated anxiety. The purpose of this type of identification is to enable the ego to avoid the wrath and potential punishment of the enemy. The hostage identifies out of fear rather than out of love. It would appear that the healthy ego evaluates the situation and selects from its arsenal of defenses a mechanism that had served it best in the past during similar trauma.

Related to identification is the defense mechanism known as “introjection.” Like identification, this mechanism is often associated with imitative learning in which young people take on the admired or wanted characteristics of parents or other models. A person may also interject the values and norms of others as their own even when they are contrary to their previous assumptions. This occurs when people adopt the values and beliefs of a new government to avoid social retaliation and punishment, following the principle, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Identification with the aggressor and the introjection of alien values have been used to explain the behavior of some people in Nazi concentration camps who radically altered their norms under those terrible circumstances.

Thought Identification
Thought identification with the aggressor is an attractive explanation for the Stockholm Syndrome and may indeed be a factor in some hostage situations, although it does not totally explain the phenomenon. Identification with the aggressor is commonly associated with the period at around age 5 when children begin the resolution of the Oedipal complex, give up the dream of being an adult, and begin to work on the reality of the same sex, which is generally healthy. When a parent is abusive, however, we see the identification serving multiple purposes, including protection, and some of the circumstances of the Stockholm Syndrome are reproduced.

I view the Stockholm Syndrome as a regression to a more elementary level of development than is seen in the 5-year-old who identifies with a same-sex parent. The 5-year-old is able to feed himself, speak for himself, and has locomotion. The hostage is more like the infant who must cry for food, cannot speak, and may be bound and immobile. Like the infant, the hostage is in a state of extreme dependency and fright. In addition, like the infant or extremely young child, the hostage is terrified of the outside world and of the prospect of separation from the “parent.”

A normal infant is blessed with a mother figure who sees to his needs. As these needs are satisfactorily met by the mother figure, the child begins to love this person who is protecting him from the outside world. The adult is capable of caring and leading the infant out of dependency and fear. So it is with the hostage - his every breath a gift from the subject. He is now as dependent as he was as an infant; the controlling, all-powerful adult is again present; the outside world is threatening once again. The weapons that the police have deployed against the subject are also, in the mind of the hostage, deployed against him. Once again he is in dependency, perhaps on the brink of death. Once again there is a powerful authority figure who can help. So the behavior that worked for the dependent infant surfaces again as a means of survival.

Personal Reflection Exercise #5
The preceding section contained a detailed explanation of the Stockholm Syndrome. Write two case study examples regarding possible applications of these principles, should you deal with PTSD or STSD clients who have experienced a trauma.

Appeasement: replacing Stockholm syndrome as a definition of a survival strategy

Bailey, R., Dugard, J., Smith, S. F., & Porges, S. W. (2023). Appeasement: replacing Stockholm syndrome as a definition of a survival strategy. European journal of psychotraumatology, 14(1), 2161038.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Kaufman, J. S., Allbaugh, L. J., & Wright, M. O. (2018). Relational wellbeing following traumatic interpersonal events and challenges to core beliefs. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 10(1), 103–111.

Obeid, S., & Hallit, S. (2018). Correlation of the Stockholm syndrome and early maladaptive schemas among Lebanese women victims of beating into domestic/marital violence. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 7(3-4), 171–182.

Sierra-Siegert, M., & Jay, E.-L. (2020). Reducing oneself to a body, a thought, or an emotion: A measure of identification with mind contents. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, 7(3), 218–237.

What are the three phases of the Stockholm Syndrome? To select and enter your answer go to Test.