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What Exactly Is Stockholm Syndrome? Psychologists Breaks It Down

Why do kidnap victims stay with their captors? The reasons are varied and the psychology is complex.

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Snapped: Notorious Girl in the Box Airs Saturday, July 17th
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Snapped: Notorious Girl in the Box Airs Saturday, July 17th

Snapped Notorious returns for a new special: The Girl in the Box.

Abducted while hitchhiking in 1977 and imprisoned for seven years, Colleen Stan’s story drops jaws even nearly 45 years later. 

“Snapped Notorious: The Girl In The Box,” a two-hour special airing Saturday, July 17 at 9/8c on Oxygen, dives into the case, featuring a remarkable interview with survivor Stan, now 64 and a grandmother, about her ordeal and the question she constantly confronts. 

“People always say, ‘Well, why didn’t you run away?’” Stan told producers. “I just felt that it wasn’t an option at that time .... I really felt that I’d be hurt, and other people would be hurt if I went against them.” 

Stan’s captors, Cameron and Janice Hooker, had convinced her of that. Obedience was key to survival for Stan, who was shackled by “invisible chains,” criminal behavioral analyst Laura Richards told “Snapped Notorious.” “Oftentimes victims will do anything to survive, and the threat of someone else being harmed that they care about can keep them controlled.” 

Stan’s case of long-term captivity and survival is a uniquely brutal one, but it brings to mind other cases in which victims stayed with abductors. One possible reason often cited is Stockholm syndrome. The term reportedly came up during court proceedings for the Stan case, although it doesn't seem to actually fit with why Stan didn't leave her imprisonment earlier.

Stockholm syndrome describes a psychological phenomena in which hostages bond with their captors and develop feelings of trust or closeness. The syndrome has also been associated with victims of abuse as well as cults.

“Two primary things typically occur,” Steven Norton, a forensic psychologist based in Rochester, Minnesota, told Oxygen.com. “Victims develop a sense of affiliation, support, or sympathy for the hostage takers. They also develop the sense that the hostage takers have a legitimate focus of their view of the hostage takers ... While their initial views are negative, over time, they see the hostage takers in a much more positive light. They also develop a more positive connection with the hostage takers.”

Coined by criminologist Dr. Frank Ochberg, the term Stockholm syndrome came into the mainstream in 1973 when hostages were taken during a bank robbery in Sweden’s capital city. 

“Near the conclusion of the bank robbery some of the hostages actually formed a protective ring around the hostage takers and didn’t want the police to harm the last few takers,” says Norton. “And they had quite positive views of the hostage takers.” 

How does that dramatic shift occur? One possible explanation may be tied to the fact that captors don’t make good on death threats used to cow victims into submission. Being spared and not killed sparks emotions. 

Patty Hearst, the heiress to an American media empire, became “the poster child for Stockholm syndrome” after being kidnapped in 1974. About three months after being abducted, a gun-wielding Hearst helped her captors rob a bank. She also declared allegiance and support for the revolutionary group the Symbionese Liberation Army behind her abduction. At her 1976 trial, Hearst’s lawyer would claim that she had the syndrome.

In June 2002, 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was snatched from her home at knifepoint by a homeless street preacher and his wife who held the teen captive for nine months. Smart was repeatedly assaulted for nine months, a period during which she didn’t try to run. Her case has been brought up before when Stockholm syndrome has been discussed.

“Everything I did I did to survive,” she told the New Yorker in a 2013 interview which notes that Stockholm syndrome doesn’t explain her extended captivity. “Nobody,” Smart told the magazine, “should ever question why you didn’t do something.”

Stockholm syndrome, which is also sometimes called traumatic bonding, has become a familiar term in the past five decades. However, it isn’t a mental health diagnosis

And while the term crops up often, even in connection to pop culture like Disney’s film “Beauty and the Beast,” its occurrence, if it does exist, is rare. “It’s much less common than TV shows and movies would lead you to believe,” said Norton. 

Dr. Karen Egu, a clinical psychologist in California who has studied trauma bonding, agrees that Stockholm syndrome is “a rare phenomenon. The bonding that happens between victims and perpetrators appears to be a survival mechanism,” she said. “We don’t really fully understand why it happens.”

Many researchers question even the very existence of the syndrome. The inability to recreate hostage-captor dynamics makes Stockholm syndrome difficult to grasp and completely understand, according to Egu. “It’s not something that’s been studied extensively."

In her podcast, “Crime Analyst,” Laura Richards acknowledges that a conversation with Jess Hill, author of “See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Violence,” led her to the discovery that “Stockholm Syndrome isn’t real, it’s something created by a male psychiatrist,” she said. “That just blew me away when I spoke to Jess Hill and she told me that.”

“With Stockholm Syndrome there was no data on it,” said Richards. “It was just one male psychiatrist on one case… But he still wrote it up as a syndrome and it’s something quoted. Probably every week I hear someone quote ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ at me, and I have to say, ‘You know, that’s not a real thing.’”

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