Understanding Stockholm Syndrome: A Phenomenon Traced Back to a Swedish Bank Robbery Half a Century Ago

by Madison Thomas
Stockholm Syndrome

Stockholm Syndrome is a term frequently used today to explain the complex emotional bond that victims in kidnapping or hostage situations may form with their captors. The origin of this term dates back five decades to a botched bank robbery that unfolded in the heart of Sweden’s capital city, Stockholm.

Originally referred to as the “Norrmalmstorg syndrome,” named after the square where the bank heist occurred, the phenomenon has been cited in various hostage scenarios across the globe, including the high-profile kidnapping of American newspaper heiress Patty Hearst in the 1970s.

Below is an in-depth examination of Stockholm Syndrome and the events that led to its naming.

What Constitutes Stockholm Syndrome?

Stockholm Syndrome is the psychological tendency of hostages to forge a bond with their captors in situations involving kidnapping or hostage-taking. Contrary to being considered a mental disorder, it is described by experts as a psychological coping strategy employed by certain hostages to better withstand the physical and emotional abuse meted out to them during captivity. Hostages might even manifest a sense of allegiance to their captors and develop an antipathy toward law enforcement.

The Etymology of the Term

The term Stockholm Syndrome owes its existence to Nils Bejerot, a Swedish psychiatrist and criminologist who consulted with the police during a bank robbery standoff in Stockholm in August 1973. During this event, several hostages seemed to express support for their captors over the authorities. Bejerot initially coined the term “Norrmalmstorg syndrome” to describe this bewildering behavior, but it later gained global recognition as the Stockholm Syndrome.

Susanne Bejerot, daughter of Nils, has stated that her late father did not anticipate the term’s wide-reaching impact. “He never envisioned that the concept would gain such global prominence,” she mentioned in a recent interview.

The 1973 Stockholm Bank Robbery: A Case Study

On August 23, 1973, Jan-Erik Olsson, a 32-year-old convicted thief, attempted a bank robbery in downtown Stockholm while on temporary release from prison. Law enforcement rapidly intervened, leading to a tense standoff.

Armed with a submachine gun, Olsson took four bank employees hostage and made a series of demands that included 3 million kronor, a bulletproof vest, and a getaway vehicle. He also insisted that his former prison cellmate, Clark Olofsson, be released and brought to the bank. Surprisingly, the authorities complied.

Sweden’s then-Prime Minister, Olof Palme, even participated in negotiations. During the standoff, hostage Kristin Enmark conveyed to Palme her fear of the police rather than her captors and urged the authorities to yield to the criminals’ demands. She later revealed having formed an emotional attachment with Olofsson, viewing him as her protector.

Two police officers sustained gunshot injuries before the ordeal concluded on August 28. Authorities eventually deployed tear gas, arrested both Olsson and Olofsson, and rescued the hostages.

Additional Manifestations of Stockholm Syndrome

A subsequent noteworthy instance occurred in 1974, involving Patty Hearst, a 19-year-old granddaughter of a prominent newspaper mogul. Abducted by the Symbionese Liberation Army, an armed revolutionary group, she later publicly declared her loyalty to her kidnappers, criticized her family, and was photographed holding a firearm in front of the group’s flag. Arrested in 1975, she was later pardoned by President Bill Clinton after an initial sentence commutation by President Jimmy Carter.

Furthermore, the concept of Stockholm Syndrome has been extended to describe victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse in childhood, who maintain attachments to their abusers.

Reality or Myth?

Stockholm Syndrome is not officially classified as a disorder by major psychiatric bodies like the American Psychiatric Association or the World Health Organization. Some experts even debate its existence, regarding it more as a survival tactic than a psychological condition. In the United States, certain law enforcement specialists argue that the phenomenon is infrequent and sensationalized by the media. Nonetheless, it continues to be a subject of fascination, finding representation in literature, films, and music.

Prominent films like the 2013 thriller “Labor Day” and the 2018 feature “Stockholm” draw inspiration from the concept, as do songs from musical groups such as One Direction, Muse, and Blink-182.

Reporting was contributed by Olsen from Copenhagen, Denmark, and AP Medical Writer Carla K. Johnson from Washington state.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Stockholm Syndrome

What is Stockholm Syndrome?

Stockholm Syndrome is a psychological tendency wherein hostages or victims in kidnapping situations form a bond or allegiance with their captors. It is considered a coping mechanism rather than a mental disorder.

How did Stockholm Syndrome get its name?

The term originated from a failed bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden, in August 1973. Swedish psychiatrist and criminologist Nils Bejerot coined the term “Norrmalmstorg syndrome” to describe the behavior of hostages who seemed to side with their captors. Internationally, it became known as Stockholm Syndrome.

What happened during the 1973 Stockholm bank robbery?

Convicted thief Jan-Erik Olsson attempted to rob a bank and took four employees hostage. He demanded 3 million kronor, a bulletproof vest, and a getaway vehicle. Clark Olofsson, his former prison mate, was also brought to the scene by authorities. The standoff ended with police intervention and the arrest of both Olsson and Olofsson.

Are there other well-known instances of Stockholm Syndrome?

Yes, one notable example is the kidnapping of Patty Hearst in 1974. She was abducted by the Symbionese Liberation Army and later declared her allegiance to her captors. She was eventually arrested and subsequently pardoned.

Is Stockholm Syndrome recognized as a formal psychological disorder?

No, it is not listed as a formal diagnosis by the American Psychiatric Association or the World Health Organization. Some experts even question its categorization as a psychological condition, viewing it more as a survival strategy.

How is Stockholm Syndrome represented in popular culture?

The phenomenon has inspired various forms of media, including books, films, and music. For example, movies like the 2013 thriller “Labor Day” and the 2018 film “Stockholm” are based on this concept, as are songs by bands like One Direction, Muse, and Blink-182.

Is Stockholm Syndrome considered common?

Some experts, particularly in U.S. law enforcement, suggest that the phenomenon is rare and often sensationalized by the media. However, it continues to be a subject of academic and public interest.

More about Stockholm Syndrome

  • Stockholm Syndrome in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
  • The 1973 Stockholm Bank Robbery: A Detailed Account
  • Patty Hearst and Stockholm Syndrome
  • Stockholm Syndrome in Popular Culture: Movies and Music
  • Nils Bejerot: The Man Behind the Term ‘Stockholm Syndrome’
  • Law Enforcement Views on Stockholm Syndrome
  • Psychological Coping Mechanisms: An Academic Perspective
  • Stockholm Syndrome in Victims of Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse

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Peter Johnson August 26, 2023 - 10:32 am

Didn’t know Patty Hearst case was related to Stockholm syndrome. You learn somethin new every day.

Sara Williams August 26, 2023 - 8:31 pm

Amazing research! Also surprised to know that it’s not a formally recognized psychological condition.

Emily Davis August 26, 2023 - 8:56 pm

Super interesting article! Can’t believe how it all started. And its not even considered a formal psychological disorder? Crazy!

Mike Brown August 27, 2023 - 7:42 am

good job laying out the facts. But u gotta ask, how much of this is just media hype? Even experts are debating it.

John Smith August 27, 2023 - 8:23 am

Really comprehensive look at Stockholm syndrome. Never knew the origin came from a bank robbery, kinda blows my mind.


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