Stockholm Syndrome Explained by the Stanford Prison Experiment

in Article
October 29th, 2014

Stockholm Syndrome can be referred to as a joke in the popular culture, and many people do not take it seriously as much as other common psychiatric problems such as PTSD, a psychological illness usually caused by a traumatic event like physical aggression. It cannot be treated seriously because there is no medical standard to properly diagnose a person with “Stockholm Syndrome.” However, this supposed illness is a real problem that affects the minority of people who are abducted usually by criminals who have no interest in the hostage’s safety.

The first recorded case of hostages with Stockholm Syndrome was during a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden. In August 23 to 28, 1973, the bank robbers negotiated with the police to leave the bank safely. While trying to form an agreement, the majority of the captive bank employees were unusually sympathetic towards the robber, and, even after being set free, refused to leave their captors. The criminologist and the psychiatrist who were investigating the robbery coined the term for their conditions “Stockholm Syndrome.”

There are no obvious symptoms except that the hostage feels deep empathy for the captor no matter what he or she does to the hostage. In extreme cases, the hostage may even want to host a funeral for the captor, or even support the captor’s activities no matter the risk the hostage may be aware of. Many psychological illnesses are related to neurology and can be treated with medications such as antidepressants for depression or antipsychotics for schizophrenia. Even though these “patients” look like they have a typical psychological disorder, they are probably neither neurologically affected nor mentally ill, making medications ineffective. Instead, they are most likely sociologically influenced to feel this way.

There is a scientific experiment that can explain Stockholm Syndrome. This experiment is “the Stanford Prison Experiment.” A group of college students were with consent “arrested” and put in a fake prison to be humiliated like actual prisoners. The results were surprising. The “hostages” who were the test subjects followed the prison guard’s rules without hesitation after a long period of time. In fact, the prisoners were so obedient that it was as though they were born in the prison cells, uninformed about the freedom these students would typically enjoy. These results prove one thing. People almost always obey the orders from the authority without hesitation. In order for there to be conformity, there has to be an exchange of empathy for further cooperation. In order for conformity to happen, there has to also be an agreement between the dealer and the client. An agreement implies that the authority has the client’s consent, a sign that there is empathy between those working together. If the bank robber from Stockholm was an authority for the bank employees, then it is no wonder that the bank employees were feeling empathy for their captors.

This explanation will most likely answer why hostages sometimes have Stockholm Syndrome. Stockholm syndrome is probably not a matter of psychiatry, but a matter of sociology and social psychology. If this explanation is correct, then treating a person with Stockholm Syndrome will have to be like treating a person who is brainwashed by the wrong culture.

-Dongjun Yoo


What is Stockholm Syndrome? – Kathryn Westcott
The Stanford Prison Experiment – Kendra Cherry
What Underlies Stockholm Syndrome? – Neel Burton, M.D.

Tagged , , , ,

2 Comments on Stockholm Syndrome Explained by the Stanford Prison Experiment

  • You may wonder why the citation does not contain all the information I provided on the post, that’s because I took Psychology 101 class and I forgot to post that information to you. Sorry!

  • Great, just ended skimming this article. Very nice information you got there. Surely following your website! Thank you for everything.

Post Your Comment