The Stockholm Syndrome and Mediation

By: Donald G. Korman
Florida Supreme Court Certified Civil Circuit Mediator

Stockholm Syndrome: feelings of trust or affection that are felt in many cases of kidnapping or hostage taking by a victim toward their captor.

The term “Stockholm Syndrome” was first used when in 1973 during a failed bank robbery in Stockholm 4 hostages were taken and held by their captors for 6 days. When rescued they defended their captors and refused to testify against them in court.

The most famous example of Stockholm Syndrome in this country involved Patty Hearst, an heir of the Hearst fortune. In 1974 she was taken hostage by the Symbionese Liberation Army, a terrorist organization. She was soon seen starring in videos denouncing her family and capitalism and supporting the SLA.

Subsequently she robbed banks with members of the SLA. There is a famous picture of her taken by a bank security camera wearing fatigues and carrying an assault rifle. When arrested, her lawyer F. Lee Bailey attempted to argue that as a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, she was not responsible for her actions. The defense failed and she was sentenced to 7 years in prison. Her sentence was subsequently commuted, and she was pardoned by President Clinton.

How does the Stockholm Syndrome apply to mediation?

When mediations begin the parties are usually adversarial. During the initial joint session, they often state that while they are there attending in good faith, they are not optimistic that the case will settle; that the other side’s demand or offer is unreasonable, that their opponent’s claim, or defenses are weak. They are seeking to dominate their opponent to capture them. Trying to convince them that the value of the claim is what they say it is.

However, with the passage of time and as the mediator goes back and forth between the parties, fostering dialogue, raising questions, conveying offers and counters, those positions frequently soften. The participants, having invested time and effort to try to resolve the claim on the day of the mediation, often go from being adversarial to collaborative. From seeking victory over their opponent to reaching an acceptable compromise. The process has forged a bond between the parties similar to that between captive and captor.

Obviously, the participants in a mediation are not captives, and they haven’t been kidnapped, but they do begin to empathize with their opponent. As a result, they begin to seek a resolution both sides can accept.

As both a litigator and a mediator, I have participated in many, many mediations. Often when they began settlement seemed unlikely. But often after several hours, attitudes began to shift, and a resolution was reached.

My conclusion: when you mediate be patient. Don’t be discouraged by the initial positions of the party, no matter how forcefully they are presented. I’m not a psychologist, but I believe in the Stockholm Syndrome and with the passage of time and the assistance of a mediator a spirit of “we are all in this together” will develop, the parties will bond and the potential for a settlement will greatly increase.