Stockholm Syndrome: A Controversial Way to Understand Attraction

How could repulsion turn into attraction, and even into love?

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

There’s a pair of old adages that most people agree are true, but which contradict one another. First, there is, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” and second, there is, “Out of sight, out of mind.” Professor Vishton reveals which of these adages is backed by neuroscience.

woman in an abusive relationship
Even in significantly negative, adverse situations, according to the mere-exposure effect, a person could begin to grow an attraction toward a person just based on being in their presence for a prolonged period of time. (Image/Shutterstock/fizkes)

What Is Stockholm Syndrome?

In terms of the mere-exposure effect—when you grow more attracted to something or someone the more you’re exposed to it—the adage “out of sight, out of mind” does not apply. In regards to the opposite being true, numerous documented cases indicate a psychological phenonemon called the Stockholm Syndrome.

In these cases, a captor holds someone hostage against his or her will for an extended period of time. Being kidnapped and held at gunpoint is obviously a negative experience.

You’d presume that the hostages would at the very least have strong negative associations with their captors and probably flat-out despise them. While sometimes the hostage does harbor negative feelings toward the captor, in other cases the hostage develops an emotional attachment—in some cases, even a love for their captors.

Perhaps the most famous case was the 1974 kidnapping of Patty Hearst, a 19-year-old from a wealthy, very prominent family in California. Members of a group called the Symbionese Liberation Army, the SLA, kidnapped her from her apartment.

Patty had no political affiliation with the SLA, nor any known affinity for their cause. Yet on April 3rd, she released a tape announcing that she had decided to change her name and join the SLA. She even participated in bank robberies with the group.

Stockholm Origins

Hearst is far from the only documented case of the Stockholm Syndrome. The name actually comes from a hostage situation that emerged from a failed bank robbery attempt in Stockholm, Sweden in 1973. 

The police arrived before the bank robbers could escape with the stolen money. The robbers took refuge and took several hostages with them into the vault of the bank. A six-day standoff followed.

During the continuing negotiations between the police and the robbers, it gradually became clear that the hostages felt sympathy for their captors—even a strong affinity. At several times, the hostages would get on the phone with the police and, in one case, the prime minister of Sweden. They would criticize the police and plead the case that the robbers should be set free.

The standoff ended after several days when the police drilled a hole into the vault and pumped gas into the vault that drove everyone out. Everyone survived.

Some have reported that some of the hostages later married the robbers. This isn’t true, but what is clear is that an affinity formed between the hostages and captors during this experience.

Reaction Formation

The Stockholm Syndrome has classically been described by Freudian theorists as resulting from something called reaction formation. This theory poses that the mind, in order to protect itself from breakdown in a high-stress situation, changes the framework that it uses to interpret the surrounding situation. 

This theory would describe a hostage as initially feeling a strong hatred for the person who kidnapped them. This powerful level of emotion creates an increasing stress on the mind and body.

In order to reduce that stress, the mind reacts by focusing more and more on whatever the most positive aspects of the kidnapper are. Maybe the kidnapper let the hostage stand up and walk around for a minute or gave the hostage a chair to sit in. 

These aren’t really very positive things, but the hostage—according to the theory—greatly exaggerates them in order to cope with this situation. This reaction formation ultimately leads to a sense that the captor is wonderful—and love ensues. That’s the story, anyway.

Where Mere-Exposure Comes In

Research on the mere-exposure effect suggests a much simpler account. Understand, a human response to being held hostage for many days is undoubtedly complex. The experience is highly traumatic and this kind of trauma has a wide variety of effects on many systems within the brain.

It seems likely, however, that the mere-exposure effect has at least some impact. While the kidnapped person is in close proximity to the kidnapper for an extended period, several days—maybe several weeks—being continually exposed to the kidnapper, the victim’s ideas about what seems good, right, and attractive may change.

Professor Vishton explained, “If the mere-exposure effect can function even in this very negative context, the idea that it will have positive effects in more normal circumstances seems quite clear.”

Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.