Sri Lankan media gave much publicity to a kidnapped child, Dinidu from Megalewa, recently. It is yet another emotional episode involving several key players. Reflecting on multiple dimensions of this event, I thought of perusing on the strange relationship between captors and captives. Stockholm syndrome is a case in point. Let’s see what it is and how it connects to Sri Lankan workplaces.
Stockholm syndrome is also known as capture-bonding. It essentially speaks of what happens when hostages express sympathy and have positive feelings toward their captors. It is named after the Norrmalmstorg robbery of Kreditbanken at Norrmalmstorg in Stockholm, Sweden.
The event took place in early seventies where several bank employees were held hostage in a bank vault from 23 to 28 August 1973, while their captors negotiated with police. During this standoff, the victims became emotionally attached to their captors, rejected assistance from government officials at one point, and even defended their captors after they were freed from their six-day ordeal.
As Wikipedia tells us, the term “Stockholm syndrome” was coined by the criminologist and psychiatrist Nils Bejerot, using the term in a news broadcast. It was originally known to be defined by psychiatrist Frank Ochberg to aid the management of hostage situations.
Evidence in society
Stockholm syndrome can be seen as a form of traumatic bonding, which does not necessarily require a hostage scenario. It describes “strong emotional ties that develop between two persons where one person intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses, or intimidates the other.”
“They weren’t bad people. They let me eat, they let me sleep, and they gave me my life.” Those are the words of a hostage from Flight 847, which happened sometime ago.
There is another interesting story about a 10-year-old girl, Natascha Kampusch. She had disappeared on her way to school in Austria in 1998. After a long lapse, in 2006, 18-year-old Natascha Kampusch reappeared in a Vienna garden. This is after escaping from her captor’s home while he wasn’t paying attention.
In a statement to the media read by her psychiatrist, Kampusch had this to say about spending eight years in a locked cell beneath her kidnapper’s basement: “My youth was very different. But I was also spared a lot of things – I did not start smoking or drinking and I did not hang out in bad company.”
We have several parallels. Princess Maname who developed a liking towards the Veddah who actually disrupted the journey of the newly-wedded couple, as we have heard in the Jathaka stories and later in the famous Maname stage play, could be interesting evidence.
Local media often highlight the plight of battered wives with alcoholic husbands. Despite the pain and suffering, they still want the husbands who cause all that. It might also be with a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law where the common expectation is a conflict.
Much-highlighted ragging in the university system is another local example. I still recall a few batch mates developed affairs with the very seniors who ragged them. It might be also in other numerous civilian as well as military fronts.
What really happens
Why does the Stockholm syndrome take place? Let’s look into what Sigmund Freud had to say. Bonding is the individual’s response to trauma in becoming a victim. Identifying with the aggressor is one way that the ego defends itself. When a victim believes the same values as the aggressor, they cease to be a threat.
The mind is a set of information-processing machines that were designed by natural selection to solve adaptive problems faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors. That’s how evolutionary psychology tries to explain. According to Azar Gat, an Israeli researcher, war and abductions (capture) were typical of human pre-history. When selection is intense and persistent, adaptive traits (such as capture-bonding) become universal to the population or species.
As he further observes, being captured by neighbouring tribes was a relatively common event for women in human history, if anything like the recent history of the few remaining primitive tribes. In some of those tribes practically everyone in the tribe is descended from a captive within the last three generations. Perhaps as high as one in 10 females were abducted and incorporated into the tribe that captured them.
Syndrome in steps
In the most basic, generalised way, the Stockholm syndrome process as seen in a kidnapping or hostage situation looks something like this:
- In a traumatic and extraordinarily stressful event, a person finds herself held captive by a man who is threatening to kill her if she disobeys him in any way. She may be abused – physically, sexually and/or verbally – and having trouble thinking straight. According to the captor, escape is not an option. She will end up dead. Her family may end up dead, too. Her only chance at survival is obedience.
Implications to managers
- As time goes on, obedience alone may become less of a sure thing - the captor is under stress as well, and a change in his mood could mean harmful consequences to his prisoner. Figuring out what might set off her captor’s violence so she can avoid those triggers becomes another survival strategy. In this way, she gets to know her captor.
- A minor act of kindness on the part of the captor, which can include simply not killing the prisoner yet, positions the captor as the prisoner’s saviour, as “ultimately good,” to quote young Anne Frank’s famous characterisation of the Nazis who ultimately led to her death. In the traumatic, life-threatening circumstances in which the prisoner finds herself, the slightest act of kindness – or the sudden absence of violence – seems a sign of friendship in an otherwise hostile, terrifying world, and the prisoner clings to it for dear life.
- The captor slowly seems less threatening – more an instrument for survival and protection than one of harm. The prisoner undergoes what some call an act of self-delusion: In order to survive psychologically as well as physically – to lessen the unimaginable stress of the situation – the prisoner comes to truly believe that the captor is her friend, that he will not kill her, that in fact they can help each other “get out of this mess.” The people on the outside trying to rescue her seem less like her allies. They are going to hurt this person who is protecting her from harm. The fact that this person is also the source of that potential harm gets buried in the process of self-delusion.
Stockholm syndrome has significant relevance to modern-day workplaces, local and overseas. It might not be possible to observe the exact form capture-bonding or hostage scenarios in workplaces. What we see mostly is the diluted forms of it. Let’s consider a few such scenarios.
I have seen many instances where employees grumble about the difficulties they face while at their work. One may complain about heavy workload or the related pressure. Some even go to the extent of hating what they do. Strangely enough, they hardly quit. Those who complain about a process and when offered a possible solution, rationalise that the old method “really isn’t all that bad”. This could most probably be to avoid change.
Such a case can be a hindrance for change initiatives. Despite the fact that the employees do not like the current state of affairs, they have developed a liking towards that and they resist change, even for better.
A supervisor in factories and other blue collar workplaces can be highly task oriented in pressuring people for performance. He/she might be viewed as a dictator or a forceful enforcer by the employees. Yet, over time they will get used to such a coercive approach. Despite being punished, they will develop a liking towards the abusive supervisor.
In a different setting, a biased appraiser with a high rigidity might unduly give a lower rating to a genuine performer. The person might tolerate once, twice or even more, and get used to the unjust treatment he/she receives. Sadly, it prevents a constructively critical approach from the appraisee in showing the other side of the story.
This may be due to monetary reasons knowing the repercussions of losing a job very well. Or, in other cases, it can be purely an adjustment towards the uncomfortable or unhealthy situation.
Another controversial area in this regard will be sexual harassment in the workplace. The victim through passive silence tends to move on and it might become part of the so-called culture in that workplace. This aspect needs more detailed discussion.
The discussion on Stockholm syndrome should awaken us on the possible ill effects of association with negative behaviours. It can be so subtle that we may not notice in becoming a victim. Self awareness and regulation with support from a mentor will be one way to prevent or mitigate its impact.
Sri Lankan workplaces have it in a subtle way where no one even discusses about it. HR professionals can be vigilant on such cases and also can offer coaching and guiding assistance. Managers can play a significant role with this regard.
(Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri is the Acting Director of the Postgraduate Institute of Management. He also serves as an Adjunct Professor in the Division of Management and Entrepreneurship, Price College of Business, University of Oklahoma, USA.)