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Hostage dynamics: Stockholm syndrome

July 26, 2022  By Peter Collins

The behaviour known as “identification with the aggressor” has been described in various forms over many years; however, the term “Stockholm syndrome” was only coined 49 years ago. There is a debate as to who came up with the term to describe this unexpected reaction that hostages had towards their captors. Some say it was Swedish criminologist, Nils Bejerot; others credit FBI Special Agent Supervisor Conrad Hassel for describing the behaviour that was displayed by the hostages during the August 1973 attempted bank robbery, at the Sveriges Kreditbank in Stockholm, Sweden.

In that case, an escaped convict named Jan-Erik Olsson entered the Kreditbank with a submachine gun and took four of the employees hostage. One of the initial demands, made by Olsson, was that his still incarcerated friend, Clark Olofsson, be brought to him along with three million Swedish krona. Olsson was a repeat offender who had committed several armed robberies and acts of violence, the first at the age of 16. During this incident, Olsson fired multiple times at the police, injuring one officer in the hand and another in the face and arms. He spoke twice with the Swedish Prime Minister during the negotiations. The robbery ended six days later after the police deployed gas.

According to an article in The New Yorker magazine written a year after the incident, the criminals did not treat the hostages with kid-gloves. Despite the terror associated with being held against their will and terrorized during the six-day ordeal, when the incident ended the three female hostages kissed Olsson and Olofsson and the male hostage shook hands with his captors. During the incident the hostages even began to display animosity towards the police. Post-incident, they supported the captors in the media and assisted raising money for their defence fund. One of the hostages later became engaged to Olsson.

Stockholm syndrome is not a psychiatric diagnosis but is a way of understanding the positive feelings and emotional response that some people have towards an abuser or captor in some situations.


The syndrome does not occur in all hostage incidents because most hostage situations are too short in duration for hostages, and their captors, to develop the type of relationship that will evolve into Stockholm syndrome.

There are three components to the Stockholm syndrome:

After the initial horror of being taken hostage—the crisis stage—they begin to develop positive feelings towards the hostage takers because they are still alive. This gratitude is stronger if the onset of the hostage situation involved violence.

The hostages develop negative attitudes towards the police. This is a psychological dilemma because they must depend on the hostage takers to allow them to live, but also must depend on the police to be rescued.

Following the hostage situation, hostages retain some empathy and compassion for the hostage takers.

There are several reasons why this phenomenon occurs. For survival purposes, the hostage becomes obedient and compliant so they don’t antagonize the captors, but over time they may regard their captors as fellow human beings. The anti-police sentiment is, in part, a fear that they could be harmed by either the hostage takers in an attempt to prove a point to the authorities, or inadvertently by the police during a rescue attempt. When Stockholm syndrome does occur, the mixed feelings or positive attitudes that the hostages have developed for survival purposes will quickly dissipate if the appropriate form of psychological debriefing is conducted.

Stockholm syndrome is not a psychiatric diagnosis but is a way of understanding the positive feelings and emotional response that some people have towards an abuser or captor in some situations.

In Canada, our police negotiators are trained in how to negotiate with hostage takers and how to have them regard their hostages in a more humane light. They do this by trying to have the hostage takers find out their hostages’ names, if the hostages have any immediate medical care, illnesses or medication needs, and to avoid using the term ‘hostages’ and instead refer to them by name or as persons. Asking the captors to deliver messages to the hostages will humanize the captive (for example: “Please tell Emily that her mother will look after the three children and hope she will be home soon.”) In many scenarios, the longer the incident occurs, the more likely the hostage-takers will develop positive feelings towards the hostages.

The New Yorker journalist, Daniel Lang, interviewed Olsson in prison and confirmed the fact that his eventual humane treatment of the hostages was due to his developing an emotional connection with them. Concern for one’s captive(s) is not always present in situations such as kidnappings, sexual slavery or sex trafficking, for instance.

Lima syndrome is a psychological response in which a captor develops a positive bond with a victim. When this happens, they may become empathetic to the individual’s circumstances or condition. Lima syndrome gets its name from a hostage crisis that began in late 1996 in Lima, Peru. During this crisis, several hundred guests at a party held by the Japanese ambassador were captured and held hostage. My friend and mentor, Dr. Mike Webster, was sent to Peru to monitor the situation on behalf of the Canadian government, and we had several discussions about the event.

The captors were members of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement who demanded the release of their members from prison. Rather than the hostages forming a positive bond with their captors, as happens in Stockholm syndrome, it appears that the reverse occurred: many of the captors began to feel sympathetic to their captives. The effects of Lima syndrome lessened the likelihood of the captives coming to harm while increasing the chances that they would be freed or allowed to escape.

Although many hostages were released during the first month of the incident, it eventually ended in the spring of 1997 when the remaining hostages were freed during a Special Forces operation.

Lima syndrome is not as well studied as Stockholm syndrome. It’s speculated that it developed during the 1996 to 1997 hostage event because many of the hostage takers were in their teens and early 20s and were not as ideologically devoted to the Tupac Amaru. The Lima syndrome may have risen out of a combination of the hostages developing a rapport with their captors and vice versa in addition to the captors’ youth, inexperience and ideology.


  1. Lang, D. (1974) “The Bank Drama: four hostages were taken during a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1973. How did they come to sympathize with their captors?” The New Yorker Magazine
  2. McMains, M., Mullins, W and Young, A. (2020) Crisis negotiations: managing critical incidents and hostage situations in law enforcement and corrections (6th edition). New York: Routledge.
  3. St-Ives, M. and Collins, P. (2011) The psychology of crisis intervention for law enforcement officers. Toronto: Carswell Thompson Reuters

Peter Collins is the operational forensic psychiatrist with the Ontario Provincial Police’s Criminal Behaviour Analysis Section. He is also a member of the crisis/hostage negotiation team of the Toronto Police Service Emergency Task Force. Dr. Collins’ opinions are his own. Contact him at

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