On March 18, 2015, Harvard Medical School held their Psychiatric Grand Rounds for the academic year. A key presentation was Stockholm Syndrome : A Survivor-Based Critique and Call for a New Framework, presented by Abigail M. Judge, Ph.D, Jaycee Dugard, and Rebecca Bailey, Ph.D. The target audience was Psychiatry; Primary Care; Psychology; Social Work; Neurology; Academics; and Research. The objectives of this presentation were to describe the origins of Stockholm Syndrome as a concept and the limitations for its use; to offer alternative conceptualizations of traumatic bonding for use in treatment, research and theory building; and provide alternative language for use with the media when commenting about cases of abduction, exploitation and violence.
The phenomenon of trauma survivors developing emotional bonds with their abusers/captors has been observed in a range of contexts. However, little research exists regarding how this occurs and even less is known about its positive resolution in survivors. The most commonly cited explanation is Stockholm (SS), a term coined during a 1973 media interview to describe the “positive bond” between hostages and captors. Ever since, SS has been applied to situations involving interpersonal violence and coercion (e.g., child sexual abuse, intimate partner violence, human trafficking).
Despite its widespread use by the media, within the legal system and organizations charged with the protection of children, the concept of SS lacks empirical support and does not comport with current research on post-traumatic adaptation. In addition, the concept has been applied to an increasingly diverse range of crimes, ages and interpersonal contexts, raising questions about its parsimony, validity and continued relevance to theory building and research. Another limitation that has received scant scholarly attention is the term’s insensitivity to survivor experience: the conflation of diverse case dynamics among distinct survivor groups, inattention to developmental factors, and the implication of survivor culpability or that attaching to one’s abuser is an illness. Accordingly, the presentation included a survivor-informed critique of SS based on the current literature and the speakers’ clinical, forensic and personal experience. It also proposed a novel framework, adaptation processes, to replace the language of Stockholm syndrome. Clinical, research and forensic implications were discussed, as well as considerations for the media coverage of exploitation, abduction and violence.