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The Stockholm Syndrome

Airplane hostages have been known to sympathize with their captors and become emotionally attached in one case even get married. So what is the Stockholm Syndrome and what causes an emotional attachments with the very people who threaten their lives?

The Name "Stockholm Syndrome"
In 1973, four Swedes held in a bank vault for six days during a robbery became attached to their captors; a phenomenon dubbed the Stockholm Syndrome. According to psychologists, the abused bond to their abusers as a means to endure violence. The most notorious instance came when heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, and after some months, re-christened herself "Tanya" and joined their ranks.

Emotional Bond
The Stockholm Syndrome is an emotional attachment, a bond of interdependence between captive and captor that develops 'when someone threatens your life, deliberates, and doesn't kill you.' (Symonds, 1980) The relief resulting from the removal of the threat of death generates intense feelings of gratitude and fear that combine to make the captive reluctant to display negative feelings toward the captor or terrorist. In fact, former hostages have visited their captors in jail, recommended defense counsel, and even started a defense fund. It is this dynamic, which causes former hostages and abuse survivors to minimize the damage done to them and refuse to cooperate in prosecuting their tormentors. "The victims' need to survive is stronger than his/her impulse to hate the person who has created the dilemma." (Strentz, 1980) The victim comes to see the captor as a 'good guy', even a savior. This condition...occurs in response to the four specific conditions listed below:

  • A person threatens to kill another and is perceived as having the capability to do so.
  • The other cannot escape, so her or his life depends on the threatening person.
  • The threatened person is isolated from outsiders so that the only other perspective available to her or him is that of the threatening person.
  • The threatening person is perceived as showing some degree of kindness to the one being threatened.

It takes only 3-4 days for the characteristic bond of the Stockholm syndrome to emerge when captor and captive are strangers. After that, research shows, the duration of captivity is no longer relevant.

Crew Training
Many airlines include as part of training a briefing or provide reading materials to crew regarding the Stockholm Syndrome. To understand the Stockholm Syndrome, you must understand the effects of sensory deprivation. Imagine if you can, being forcibly removed from your daily life (with all its familiar environments, routines and social interactions) and put in a strange place from which you cannot escape. Your only interactions are with your captors, whose behavior can be capricious - that is, beyond your ability to understand why or when they may choose to do something for you, with you or to you. They may withhold food and/or water, in order to raise its value to you in order to receive your compliance with their demands. You may be left in complete silence or darkness with nothing to do, nowhere to go. You may not be allowed to talk or interact with other prisoners.

This is important knowledge to have if ever one was to be in the precarious position of a hostage. Some believe that awareness of the possible emotions will reduce the chances of it happening whilst others argue that no amount of preparation can stop the Stockholm Syndrome from occurring due to the extreme emotional changes from fear to relief.

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