Some argue that Stockholm syndrome or ‘dependence bonding’ is hard to study because it is rare. But what if it is a basic tendency of human nature – only we don’t pay attention to it when it seems ‘logical’. Like when someone bonds with the person, who cares for them. We only notice it when someone bonds with an aggressor. Even though both are examples of dependence bonding.
Bonding can be achieved by threats and oppression – and the victim will find it hard to tell it from actual love that is deserved by merit and appeal. It has massive political implications for the transition to freedom and consolidating it.
Dependence bonding is a survival strategy. Survival, as in not everyday life, not thriving, definitely not prosperity. Calling it a “syndrome” is misleading. It suggests that it is dysfunctional, but under certain situations Stockholm syndrome is not a malfunction at all. It is a survival strategy: A thinking and behavior pattern that serves exclusively the victim’s survival. Nothing more than that. It doesn’t serve growth, prosperity, happiness. It is not a suitable strategy (state of mind) for everyday living. It is the appropriate reaction when escape is not possible – in other words, dependence and helplessness. It is to be avoided when there is any other choice.
The problem is that
1) it is extremely hard to tell real constraints from internalized ones (whether there is really no way out), and
2) once it has developed, it has a tendency to linger – and even to recreate the dependence it was born out of.
After all, that victim of a kidnapping didn’t just pretend to love his captor – he learned to love him.
Otherwise known as terror-bonding, the Stockholm syndrome is more spectacular when it is forged in intense terror and extreme dependence (seeing no way out) and having absolutely no sense of control. When these two conditions are met the victim identifies with the aggressor while his own perspective dissolves. Further symptoms are the sense of helplessness, regression into childlike dependence, and most famously, professing love for the aggressor. The victim feels intense gratitude to the aggressor even for the slightest humane gestures, such as letting them live. The victim blames himself, blames outside forces, but never blames the aggressor. But it may be wrong to limit the scope of this coping strategy to intense fear and obvious aggression. The low-intensity terror and the insecurity of having no control can produce strikingly similar results.
Learned helplessness, fear, blaming those, who are safe to blame, and taking the point of view of the powerful also happen to be core elements of the authoritarian unfreedom – and it is not easy to unlearn, even though this strategy is only suitable for survival under inescapable oppression. If the victim (subject) could escape the situation or otherwise remedy it (exit or voice – Hirschman 1978), there would be no reason to lose his own perspective and replace it with that of the leader. It would be dysfunctional to love his leader and forgive wrongdoings unilaterally. This is why the assessment of whether oppression is inescapable is crucial. But what happens, when victims carry this coping strategy with themselves into freedom?
If a victim of domestic violence would live his life trying to reattach himself to a new aggressor (become dependent from and adopt the viewpoint of random strangers, partners or politicians), we would clearly see the dysfunctional thinking and cognitive pattern behind it. The victim must learn not only that he was a victim, but how it affected his thinking. He must understand that his coping strategy is now dysfunctional, and learn to notice it, when he does it again. In short, he must learn, how to cope under freedom. He must unlearn the helplessness he had internalized under oppression, and he must take the responsibility for things that are within his power to change. As the saying goes, one must learn when to leave, when to take a stand, when to cope, and how to tell the difference:
This analogy provides an insight into what is wrong with the way we perceive democratic transitions and political freedom. When a democracy is established we largely talk about new economic and political institutions. Going through the motions of democracy/freedom is supposed to deliver the state of mind necessary to thrive under it. But it may be a tall order to expect it to happen at once. Can we expect a very large group of people, to simultaneously unlearn their old coping methods (including the ones they are not aware of) and learn to live under freedom? Can we expect someone, who only knew oppression and how to survive under it to find out what to do with his life – overnight?
Poverty (and affluence) can be inherited by internalized thinking patterns as well as material resources. So does freedom and authoritarian thinking. The thinking patterns and mental models developed by people who survived under oppressive regimes have the same potency to linger long after the oppression had been ended – recreating unfreedom in the long run.
And yet we are surprised when entire societies carry on the cognitive and behavioral strategies primed to survive authoritarian oppression into freedom. They have the options of both exit or try to change the system (voice), but they fail to use them. They act as if their dependence on the leader was a law of nature. All it takes is fear and helplessness to kick in the old coping mechanism of dependence bonding – leading to authoritarian thinking habits. And it doesn’t have to be fear for their lives. Loss of status, anxiety, and economic insecurity can also do the job, especially when they are prolonged.
The most obvious symptom in politics is the belief that the system can neither be changed – nor left. It is not an accident that dictators are so fond of walls and sealed borders. If there is no way out, the only sensible coping strategy is to get used to the system. To survive and to find normality in the framework of a political crime. Victims internalize the rules of the system as laws of nature and pass them down to their children to facilitate their coping with it.
And while silent obedience reduces the chances of not surviving, active love for the leader even promises to improve the ‘quality of survival’ dramatically. If nothing else, it lets you believe that your leader loves you back (a comforting thought reducing anxiety), and believe that you can secure relative privileges by submitting even harder. If there is really no way out, the only thing you can change is your own opinion.
“People are adapting to the current crisis … by resorting to survival tactics, a more primitive lifestyle, reduced expectations of oneself and the surrounding world, and declining labor productivity,”
…writes Andrei Kolesnikov at the Carnegie Moscow Center. And why it didn’t lead to political resistance?
“… ordinary people will tighten their belts, as they did under the Soviet regime. As the average Russian turns to bread, potatoes, and vodka… he will go into standby mode, adapting to the “new normal.” He will pare down his expectations of life, of the government, and of everything else, as well as reduce any personal consumption. Indeed, Krasilnikova believes that the average Russian actively hopes for the absence of major changes.”
Lipset’s theory about revolutions happening when things start to get better has a dark flip side: Hoping only that things don’t get any worse during a recession or security threat (survival) is not a friend of freedom. Instead of a desire to grow and prosper, the victim of oppression just wants things not to get worse. Hoping (because not much else can be done) that their economic standing won’t sink any further and the black car won’t stop outside their homes during the night. The frozen terror of helplessness and dependence on the system for survival crowds out aspirations of their own.
Featured artwork: Sunga Park
 Strategies vary, of course. Latin American countries exercised political exile for their oppositions, while North Korea opted for keeping dissenters in camps instead.
 By Bread Alone: Why Poor Russians Aren’t Protesting by Andrei Kolesnikov, January 2016 http://carnegie.ru/commentary/2016/01/18/by-bread-alone-why-poor-russians-aren-t-protesting/ist2