“I once worked for someone so unpleasant that they still induce a Pavlovian response of self-doubt in me years later. This individual created an office culture more toxic than Chernobyl and yet I clung grimly to my job, jumping through hoops like an eager-to-please performing seal, craving the scraps of praise occasionally tossed my way.  I was brought up to believe that hard work and loyalty to your employer were the main qualities you needed for success so I sacrificed my well-being and integrity flogging this dead horse of a job for far too long. With hindsight, maturity and a Teflon coating of resilience, I now realise I was suffering from a classic case of Career Stockholm Syndrome.”

Lucy Nichols, writing in the New Zealand Herald 12th September 2015

Most people have heard of the term “Stockholm Syndrome” but many have misconceptions about what it actually means.  It is sometimes described as a condition whereby hostages fall in love with their captors, but the reality is both more subtle and more complex.  Whilst the effects vary from case to case, one trait is common to all of them – paradoxical gratitude.  Paradoxical gratitude is the irrational feeling of thanks felt towards a person who is imprisoning you when they carry out a small act of kindness.  When Lucy Nicols was “craving the scraps of praise occasionally tossed my way” she was experiencing paradoxical gratitude.

Stockholm Syndrome occurs with great frequency in hostage situations.  It can be experienced by people who have only been held captive for a couple of hours; it can be experienced by people of any gender; it can be experienced by people who are used to experiencing stress and violence.  As one report recounts:

A detective undercover agent making a buy of narcotics was held captive for 3 1/2 hours while the criminal gang deliberated whether to “waste him or not.” However, the leader of the gang said, “No.” Finally the detective’s back-up team was able to figure out where he was and rescue him. I interviewed this detective two months later. He kept telling me what a good guy the leader was. For two hours he repeatedly stated, “He could have killed me and didn’t.” His superiors who were present kept on yelling at him [expletives deleted] what a mean bastard that crook was, but this under-cover agent persisted in defending the criminal.

This behaviour may seem odd, but there is good reason to believe that we are evolutionarily hard-wired to exhibit it.  In the pre-agricultural age humans existed almost exclusively as semi-nomadic tribes of hunter-gatherers.  Conflicts between tribes inevitably arose, and when they did, they tended to be bloody. Captured prisoners, particularly women, were taken by the victorious tribe to be integrated into their population.  These behaviours can still be seen in the few hunter-gather societies that survive today. 

The anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon, spent many years studying the Yanomami, a society of indigenous tribal Amazonians and reported that 25% of adult male deaths resulted from violence and that women who survived an attack were frequently taken by the victors back to their tribe as wives.  Chagnon calculated that the percentage of women in a tribe who were abductees varied from 11.7% in highland villages to 17% in lowland villages, and that virtually everyone was descended from a captive within the last three generations.

In these circumstances, the selective benefit of a Stockholm-syndrome-like trait is pretty clear.  If you continually resist your captors you will be beaten and killed.  If you try and escape you are most likely to be caught, dragged back, and dispatched.  The chances of you going on to have children bearing your genes is slight.  If, however, you comply, assimilate into your new community, then you are much more likely to have offspring.  As the writer Keith Henson puts it:

Capture-bonding or social reorientation when captured from one warring tribe to another was an essential survival tool for a million years or more. Those who reoriented often became our ancestors. Those who did not became breakfast.

There is not a universal consensus on the conditions that are required for the Stockholm Syndrome to form on the part of some or more of the captives in a hostage situation.  There are however three conditions which appear to be present in virtually all cases of the conditions:

  • Belief on the part of the captive(s) that their life is in the hands of their captor(s)
  • Perception on the part of the captive(s) that their captor(s) have performed an act of kindness towards them – often through providing them with access to their basic needs or simply not actually killing them
  • Perception on the part of the captive(s) that an external force, usually the law enforcement agencies or some other form of authority, is a threat towards them and one against which they can find common ground with their captor(s).  

There are then a number of further conditions which are often seen to increase the likelihood of the development of Stockholm Syndrome

  • The provision by the captor(s) of information about their life or motivation which enables the captive(s) to empathise with them. 
  • Dependence by the captive(s) on their captor(s) for their most basic needs – food, water, access to sanitation etc
  • Shared experience of an adverse environment by captor(s) and captive(s) alike  (e.g. poor diet, lack of sleep and physical discomfort);
  • Threats of physical violence to (or murder of) the captive(s) that are not carried through.  
  • A lack of “dehumanisation” of the captive(s) by the captor(s).  Some captors will specifically aim to dehumanize their captives – forcing them to wear hoods, referring to them by a number rather than a name etcetera.  These type of practices reduce the likelihood for the formation of Stockholm Syndrome.

Most of us will (luckily) not become hostages in the traditional sense.  But without realising it, many have become captives all the same. Our employers do not directly hold our physical lives in their hands – there are no actual guns being pointed at our heads.  They do, however, hold our economic lives in their hands – and the fear of financial death can be almost as great as the real thing.  Each year the Federal Reserve carries out a study on the economic well being of American households – and the results show just how dependent many people are on getting their next paycheque.  47% of people said that they didn’t have the spare money to cope with an emergency $400 bill – around half of these people thought that they would be able to meet it by borrowing from friends or putting it on a credit card.  14% of people surveyed, however, said that they would simply have no way of paying it, and a further 10% said that they would have to sell something to make the payment.  The same study asked if people could survive for three months, if their income suddenly dropped to zero.  66% thought that they could – through a combination of using savings, borrowing from friends, loading debt onto credit cards and selling assets – however 34%, a little over a third of a representative sample of US households, said that they simply couldn’t.  A similar study by the Pew Charitable trust found that more than half of households only had enough liquid assets to cover a single month’s worth of lost income.

For many people then, losing one’s job presents a real risk of losing the ability to live, to keep a roof over their heads and their family clothed and fed.  Research into the impact of job loss and unemployment bears this out.  A large scale, long term study in Germany (a sample size of over 130,000 person-years of observations) found that the damage to well-being of unemployment was greater even than that of the death of a partner.  Whilst the initial impact of losing a loved on was worse than that of losing a job, people recovered from it relatively soon.  Those left unemployed, however, saw little or no improvement over time.

The effects of unemployment are more than just psychological – it has a material, negative, impact upon the physical health and well being of the people who experience it.  A major study of over 11,000 people between 1999 and 2005 in the USA looked at the changes in health of people who were made unemployed.  Crucially the study only looked at people who were made unemployed due to factors out of their control – for instance an entire company closing down and laying everybody off (this is important because it excludes people who might have been made redundant due to an existing, worsening health condition) – the study also controlled for other life events such as divorce and bereavment.  Of the people who said that they did not have any health issues prior to losing their jobs, the odds of being diagnosed with a new health condition  within 18 months of becoming unemployed were 83% higher than those who had remained in work.  The problems experienced were far from trivial – the most frequently reported conditions were high blood pressure and other cardiovascular-related problems and arthritis.

Worryingly, the damage to health caused by unemployment is not temporary, nor is it limited to those who remain unemployed.  Those people in the study who lost their jobs, but found new employment were still at a higher risk of their health worsening than those who retained their jobs throughout the whole period.  Going through the process of being made  unemployed is sufficiently traumatic that it causes physical harm to many – even though they might rapidly find another job.

Not only do our employers hold our economic lives in their hands, many also convince us that we face a common enemy.  Hostages-takers often tell their captives that there is an external force, usually the police, who is is threatening to harm them all, criminal and victim alike.  They may be harming their victims, sure, but they are doing to not out of choice – the external threat forced their hand, they are not responsible themselves. Does that story sound familiar to you in the context of work?  Your business is constantly facing outside pressures – they could be competitors, they could be the economy in general, they could be market forces – what unites them all is that they are large, external, threats.  This is why they have to take tough decisions.  Freeze salaries, demand longer hours, lay people off.  You should be grateful if you still have a job.

Modern workplaces, consciously or not, create the same conditions that cause hostages to experience Stockholm Syndrome.  They hold our lives in their hands, they make us grateful for basic employment, the present themselves as allies against a common enemy.  It is not surprising that some of us end up feeling paradoxical gratitude towards them.