Why do kidnap victims sometimes fail to escape, even when they have the chance to run?

With the news from Missouri about the rescue of kidnap victim Shawn Hornbeck, the Steven Staynor, Patty Hearst, and Elizabeth Smart cases immediately come to mind. Why didn’t they run or cry out for help? It seems beyond reason. They all had ample opportunity.

A former FBI profiler appearing on the Today show said that Hornbeck was probably threatened and that he was afraid for both himself and his family. Could it possibly be that simple?

In 1973, a Swedish gunman held four bank employees hostage for almost six days. When released, the hostages expressed sympathy for their captor and defended his actions. It was certainly not the first time that this strange phenomenon was observed, but it did give rise to the term “Stockholm Syndrome,” an adaptive response that has been described in FBI bulletins and in the psychological literature. The victims bonded with their captor, identifying with him and attaching themselves emotionally.

The process involves a psychological defense mechanism that was first identified by Anna Freud, Sigmund’s daughter and a scholar in her own right. In a 1936 publication, Freud coined the term “identification with the aggressor.” Ordinarily, it is a normal and healthy process for people to identify with others, such as parents, and to establish loyalty and to take on their traits and their values. But at times, it becomes a perverted form of learning that is necessary for self protection. The need to defend oneself can involve a response to both psychic and physical threats.

This psychological response has been described in various ways, but it is perhaps easiest to understand in terms of our need for cognitive consistency and our drive to avoid anxiety and distress. A kidnap victim will obviously be terrified. But their life depends on the good will of their captor and their ability meet that person’s demands. A conflict will exist between the need to please and the loathing that is experienced. Psychologically, it is enormously difficult to entertain both thoughts or both motivations.

In the same way that a river will naturally change course when there is a break in a levee, the mind will resolve the conflict in the only way possible: changing one’s feelings about the aggressor. Adopting a positive attitude towards the one on whom your life now depends will serve to relieve the fear and distress, as well as insuring survival. The perpetrator becomes an ally, rather than an enemy. The relief from fear serves as a powerful reinforcement for the change in attitude, making that cognitive adjustment a real personal transformation, rather than just a contrived presentation.

This basic mechanism serves partly as an explanation for the fact that abused children often identify with their tormentors and grow up to be violent spouses and parents. It is also a component in the tendency of battered spouses to remain in abusive relationships, sometimes even defending the “partner” who tortures them.

After Patty Hearst was rescued, some commentators dismissed the possibility that she had been “brainwashed,” arguing that the clumsy band of criminals who seized her could not have possessed any of the sophistication necessary to accomplish such a feat. Correctly understood, the process requires no talent, training or intellect at all. All that is really required is a twisted mind, violent behavior and a threatening disposition, and the ability to isolate the victim from reality.

In these cases, the destruction of the victim’s will is facilitated by the nature of the threats. In addition to being told that they or their families will be killed, what they hear is that the authorities seeking their release are a threat because a rescue will involve violence. They also hear that they have been abandoned by those they love. Both threats become plausible to the victim. The victim will notice that in fact they have not been rescued by their loved ones, and they know that if the police come, they will come with guns drawn.

Over time, when the initial fears have subsided, the surreal essence of their captivity will come to seem normal. The cage will become familiar. It will feel safe and even ordinary, a space that needs to be protected. The point is that over time, one cannot survive emotionally without adjusting and adapting to the reality of captivity, or without accepting the reality imposed by the psychopath in control.

Is this a conscious process of accommodation? Quite certainly not. Could you or any other ordinary person fall victim in the same way? That is hard to know. It would depend on the circumstances, but the answer is most probably yes. What is certain is that it is hard to for us to comprehend how this can happen, because we all believe it could not happen to us, that we would not react in a similar manner.

The latter issue - our difficulty in understanding or accepting how this might happen - is a topic that is itself of psychological interest. It is related to the frequent observation that in the face of tragedy or disaster, observers often tend to “blame the victim” or to focus on how the victim might have contributed to their own suffering. Again, the motivation involves the drive for cognitive consistency. Albert Camus made this point in his novel The Plague. What his characters reveal is that people have a hard time accepting the fact that bad things can happen to good people, and therefore, people will often alter their perceptions of a victim, assuming that they must somehow be at fault. This cognitive distortion provides a sense of relief or relief from fear: “I’m a good person, so it couldn’t happen to me ... I am safe from such harm because I would never have put myself in that position ... if faced with similar circumstances, I would have acted differently.”

In fact, we don’t really know if we might have behaved differently, but we find relief in the belief. That is what makes it so difficult to understand why Patty Hearst, Steven Staynor, Elizabeth Smart and now Shawn Hornbeck didn’t run. It is similarly difficult to understand why some people remain in abusive relationships. From a psychological perspective, it is actually quite easy to understand how they were controlled, even when they were not under direct control. They were each in a cage with bars that were stronger than steel.

Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi,Ph.D.