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Stockholm Syndrome has become a pop culture cliché, but the truth behind it is a little more complicated than TV might have you believe.

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It's a lot of people's worst nightmare:.

They're at the bank, and suddenly they find themselves being held hostage in the middle of a robbery, not knowing if they'll live or die. It's hard to imagine how, in that kind of situation, someone would actually grow to like their captors.

But in 1973, that's exactly what happened during a bank robbery in Sweden, and the name Stockholm Syndrome was born. Ever since, experts have been trying to figure out how and why it happens, and whether it's even something we can call a syndrome at all. More than four decades later, they still aren't sure. [INTRO ♪].

At that bank in Stockholm, four people were held for six days until they were rescued. Afterward, all four defended the robbers, refusing to testify against them, and saying they felt more threatened by the police than by their captors. Someone is said to have Stockholm Syndrome if they formed a positive bond with their captor— a friendly relationship, or at least friendly feelings.

Sometimes, the captor also had positive feelings back. But even though we can describe what it looks like, there's still a lot of debate among psychologists, medical and military professionals, and other experts about whether Stockholm Syndrome actually exists. We know people do have these positive feelings—that's not what's in question.

What we don't know is whether those feelings are part of a specific, unique pattern of thoughts and behaviors that qualifies as a disorder. Part of the problem is that there isn't much scientific research, because Stockholm Syndrome is rare and hard to study. It shows up a lot in popular media, but it's much less common in real life.

For most mental health professionals, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, is basically the authoritative guide to everything mental health. For a disorder to be included in the DSM, researchers and clinicians have to agree on what symptoms and experiences are part of the disorder, creating a list of criteria. There has to be evidence of what it is, as well as how it's different from other disorders— essentially, why it deserves its own name and treatment strategies.

And it has to impact the person in some way, making it hard for them to go about their normal daily life. The latest edition, the DSM-5, describes a bunch of different kinds of trauma-related disorders, where people have typically experienced some very stressful or traumatic event, like an accident or attack. The feelings we call Stockholm Syndrome aren't in the DSM, but they don't match any of the existing trauma-related disorders, either.

For example, it's not the same as PTSD, because that generally involves very negative feelings— although it is possible for someone who has positive feelings about their captors to also experience PTSD when it comes to other parts of their ordeal. Stockholm Syndrome also isn't simply brainwashing, where someone uses manipulative techniques to convince their victims to believe something. With Stockholm Syndrome, the captor doesn't need to actively do anything— it just seems to happen on its own.

So Stockholm Syndrome doesn't match other disorders that can come from similar experiences. But researchers aren't sure that it should get its own diagnosis. A big part of trying to figure that out has involved interviewing people who were in hostage situations.

They've looked for any common experiences, behaviors, and feelings that could be an important part of a diagnosis. They've also tried to learn more about why some people develop Stockholm Syndrome and some don't, since that could help us better define it. From those interviews, they found plenty of people with feelings that matched Stockholm Syndrome.

Even though the people they talked to had been held hostage and you'd expect them to not like the people who put them through a terrible experience, they said positive things about their captors, describing some sort of friendship or bond. They also often experienced negative feelings toward law enforcement, and some people who'd had an opportunity to escape didn't take it. But very little research has described what people experienced afterward.

We don't know whether they have challenges similar to people with PTSD, or if they were affected in some special way because of this unusual positive bond. We also don't know whether Stockholm Syndrome itself was harmful, beyond what you'd expect from being held hostage. There are some common themes to when people experience it, and that's been studied a little more.

Typically, the person was isolated, felt that their life was in their captor's hands, and felt like they couldn't escape. And maybe most importantly, they also saw some kindness, however small. In 2007, an examination of case studies by American researchers collaborating with the FBI suggested that if the captor treated the hostages well,.

Stockholm Syndrome was more likely to happen. Even just a small kindness like not being treated as badly as they possibly could have been. For example, in Moscow in 2002, over 800 people in a theater were held captive for three days by a group of 40 terrorists.

The terrorists provided food, water, and medicine, and let a lot of children go. Five weeks after it ended, a research team from Russia, the US, and Belarus interviewed 11 of the hostages. Ten of them showed signs of Stockholm Syndrome, saying things like they felt bad that the terrorists were killed, and that some of them were good-looking.

The good treatment seemed to be very important to their opinions. So, we don't know exactly what people experience with Stockholm Syndrome, or how it impacts their life afterward, and at least for now, it can't be considered an official disorder. But we're pretty sure the phenomenon exists, even though it's rare.

When people experience these stressful hostage situations, they might end up feeling positively toward their captor, especially if the captor was kind. The question is: why do people end up with those good feelings? Being slightly less awful to them at some point doesn't seem like it should be enough— there's still the fact that their captors took them hostage in the first place.

One reason is that it might be helpful for managing stress. In 1994, a group of researchers from Virginia and Illinois conducted an experiment where 57 airline employee volunteers were fake-kidnapped by a group of FBI agents who acted as terrorists and held them for four days. Everyone knew it was fake, but it was still very stressful for the subjects.

The researchers found that when hostages managed their stress by focusing on their emotions, they developed more positive bonds with the captors, who in turn tended to treat them better. Simply put, it made the experience less stressful. So, Stockholm Syndrome might exist, and it might even be helpful or adaptive in some ways, at least during the event.

But there are still too many unanswered questions to establish it as an actual disorder, and we have a long way to go before we can say that we understand it. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych. If you're interested in learning more about the human mind, including the real science behind other things that are often misrepresented in the media, you can go to and subscribe. [OUTRO ♪].