Where does the term ‘Stockholm syndrome’ come from?

Patty Hearst is escorted to an elevator by a deputy U.S. Marshal in the basement of San Francisco’s Federal Building, April 12, 1976. “Stockholm Syndrome” is most famously attached to Patty Hearst’s kidnapping and subsequent participation in her kidnappers’ crimes.
Patty Hearst is escorted to an elevator by a deputy U.S. Marshal in the basement of San Francisco’s Federal Building, April 12, 1976. “Stockholm Syndrome” is most famously attached to Patty Hearst’s kidnapping and subsequent participation in her kidnappers’ crimes. | Associated Press

Stockholm syndrome is a mainstay in pop culture. It inspired movies like “Labor Day” and “Stockholm,” books like “Stolen” by Lucy Christopher and the famous Wattpad story turned New York Times bestseller “The Cellar” by Natasha Preston, and songs like those by One Direction and Blink-182.

Most of us likely have an idea as to what Stockholm syndrome is. It’s what happens when someone is kidnapped or held against their will and tries to empathize with their captor for their own safety, but they end up falling in love with their captor — or so we think.

In reality, the so-called diagnosis is more gritty than that, and draws on our own survival instincts.

It isn’t romantic — it’s a matter of life and death.

What is Stockholm syndrome?

Stockholm syndrome is a way to explain certain symptoms people exhibit after traumatic situations like abductions and abusive relationships. It is not characterized as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

It also is not simply falling in love with one’s abuser. What may read as love, is actually a combination of other symptoms, and it’s quite rare.

That it is a condition at all is debatable, with some researchers arguing that it does not exist as anything other than a cluster of symptoms related to trauma bonding, battered person syndrome, emotional abuse and learned helplessness, per Medical News Today.

The symptoms include positive feelings toward the abuser, refusal to act against the abuser, negative feelings about the police or similar authorities and refusal to leave when presented with the opportunity.

How did Stockholm syndrome come to be?

The term Stockholm syndrome came out of a bank robbery and hostage situation that lasted six days in Stockholm, Sweden, per BBC.

On Aug. 23, 1973, career criminal Jan-Erik Olsson fired a machine gun in a bank in the heart of Stockholm and began his attempt at robbery.

Olsson took three hostages: Birgitta Lundblad, Elisabeth Oldgren and Kristin Ehnmark. This number later became four with the discovery of Sven Safstrom hiding in the bank.

He demanded the release of convicted armed robber Clark Olofsson, 3 million kronor, two pistols and a getaway car. To ensure his own safe exit, Olsson’s plan involved bringing the hostages into the car with him.

According to a New Yorker article recounting the events, Olsson “had counted on two factors: a deep-seated Swedish aversion to violence, and the fact that a national election campaign was in full swing — a season, he believed, when politicians would not be apt to take a hard line that might result in violence to the hostages.”

Olsson was wrong in thinking his demands would be met quickly, and the situation spiraled into a dayslong siege, in which the captives actually began to trust their captors more than the police.

The police released Olofsson, but Olsson did not receive 3 million kronor or the getaway car. The Minister of Justice, Lennart Geijer, instructed law enforcement to keep Olsson in the bank and not allow him to leave with the hostages.

In one attempt, police tried to gas the criminals out, which would have also gassed the hostages. They also sent in officers with guns focused on Olsson, though one of the hostages reportedly screamed at them not to shoot, for fear that an innocent person would be caught in the crosshairs, per The New Yorker.

This action has been scrutinized and was interpreted to be some sort of love or affection, rather than a logical response to an entity that had already put their lives in danger.

Once Olofsson made it to the bank, Olsson calmed down and began to relax around the captives. He showed them certain kindnesses, actions that allowed the hostages to feel as safe as they could in their position.

He unbound them and began to speak to them in a gentler manner. They were allowed to call their families to let them know of their situations. Lundblad could not reach her family and Olsson consoled her, urging her to keep trying, per The New Yorker.

It wasn’t that they were nice bank robbers; it’s that Olsson and Olofsson weren’t brutal captors in the stereotypical sense. They simply afforded their captives basic kindnesses during a time of extreme distress. And the hostages had their lives and families to think about.

Safstrom put it best when he said, “When he treated us well, we could think of him as an emergency God.”

In a call with Prime Minister Olof Palme, Ehnmark said: “I am very disappointed. I think you are sitting there playing checkers with our lives. I fully trust Clark and the robber. I am not desperate. They haven’t done a thing to us. On the contrary, they have been very nice. But, you know, Olof, what I am scared of is that the police will attack and cause us to die.”

Dr. Niels Bejerot coined the term “Stockholm syndrome” after the bank robbery-turned-siege. In an interview with The New Yorker, he said, without any real psychological foundation, that there was bound to be a bond between captor and captive after a certain period of time.

Who was Patty Hearst and how was she connected?

Patty Hearst is the woman people tend to think of when they hear the term “Stockholm syndrome.” In 1974 she was abducted from her apartment in Berkeley, California, by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, per Brittanica.

Allegedly, she was brainwashed into joining the group on their anti-capitalist crusade and was captured in San Francisco in 1975 after traversing the country in an attempt to evade capture by the police. Her case was explained away as Stockholm syndrome.

Hearst’s position as a public figure catapulted her case into the spotlight, whereas the original Stockholm case fell to the wayside.