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How Oppressive Regimes Rob Their Victims of Their Sense of Agency

The term “Stockholm syndrome” may cross your mind every time victims defend the indefensible: their own oppression, domestic violence, a dictatorship. And you may be right. People don’t have separate reactions in store for political and personal oppression. The mechanism for survival is the same.

But calling it a “syndrome” is misleading. It suggests that something is wrong with the victim. But under certain situations Stockholm syndrome is not a malfunction at all. It is a survival strategy. It is a thinking and behaviour pattern that serves only the victim’s survival. It doesn’t serve growth, prosperity, happiness. It is not a suitable state of mind for everyday living. It is the appropriate reaction to situations, where escape is not possible.

Otherwise known as terror-bonding, the Stockholm syndrome is forged in fear and extreme dependence. In the wake of terror of aggression, and seeing no way out, 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 not beating them or letting them live. The victim blames himself, blames outside forces, but never blames the aggressor.

Fear, however, doesn’t have to be shocking and sudden. It can creep up on us slowly and gradually.

This strategy is a useful tool for survival only under oppression.

But what happens, when victims carry this coping strategy with themselves into freedom?

When a victim wrongly believes (or indeed convinces himself) that there is no way to escape or rectify the situation, terror-bonding is indeed dysfunctional.

If he 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 aggressor. No reason to love his captor and forgive him. No use to putting his life in the hands of the aggressor.

If a victim of domestic violence would live his life trying to become dependent from someone, if he was trying and adopt the viewpoint of random strangers, partners or politicians, if he was trying to reattach himself to a new aggressor – we would clearly see the dysfunctional thinking and cognitive pattern behind it.

To the best knowledge of the psychology profession, cognitive behavioural therapy would be in order. 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 internalised 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 to know the difference:

Serenity to accept the inevitable,

Courage to change, what can be changed,

And wisdom to know the difference…

Allow me to use this analogy to describe what is wrong with the way we perceive democratic transitions

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 – practically overnight?

Poverty (and affluence) can be inherited by internalised thinking patterns (World Bank 2015). 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.

Political systems tend to seek their legitimacy in economic or security performance. It is the implicit promise of democracy (at least in third wave countries) – so people have learned to expect that. Freedom of the individual is thus considered secondary. A mere luxury, when safety and economic security is not secured.

If a victim of a prolonged hostage drama would carry on trying to attach himself to new “captors”, everyone would see the need for comprehensive therapy. Rethinking and replacing the cognitive and behavioural patterns of terror-bonding strategy with those optimised for everyday life.

And yet we are surprised, when entire societies carry on the cognitive and behavioural strategies primed to survive authoritarian oppression into freedom. They have the options of both exit or try to change the system (voice), but they cannot see it. They act as if their dependence on the leader was a law of nature. All it takes is fear to kick in the old coping mechanism of terror-bonding. And it doesn’t have to be fear for their lives. Loss of status, anxiety, economic insecurity, and low-level fear can do the job, especially when they are prolonged.

The symptoms in politics

  • The belief that the system cannot be left or changed (no exit, no voice)

It is not an accident that dictators are so fond of walls and sealed borders. Strategies vary, of course. Latin American countries excercised political exile for their oppositions, while North Korea opted for keeping dissent in camps instead.

If there is no way out, the only sensible coping strategy is to get used to the system. Finding normality in the framework of a political crime. Victims internalise 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 and getting used to oppression reduces the chances of not surviving, learning to love the leader actually promises success in the distorted world of oppression. Active love for the leader promises to improve your quality of survival dramatically. If nothing else, it cheers you up. It lets you believe that your leader loves your back, and you can secure your survival by submitting even harder. If there is really no way out, the only thing you can change is your own opinion.

  • Helplessness

People see no way to improve their own circumstances. The absence of internal motivation to do so stems from the experience that things can only get worse.

Instead of a desire to grow and prosper, the victim of oppression just wants things not to get worse. This is the mantra of everyday people in authoritarian countries. Hoping (because not much else can be done) that things don’t get worse. 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.

When internalised, the sense of helplessness can be passed down to the next generation through mental models and thinking habits. This can lead to the deconsolidation of new democracies, as well as authoritarian build-up in established democracies.

  • Eroding trust in a society

It is also erodes trust within a society (and thus social capital). One can be trusted for their moral or competence. But neither of those matters when I know for a fact that they are not allowed to deal with their lives – just as I am. An unfree person is not able to take care of himself – regardless of his morals or in-born competence. The result is the same.

And that is before we take into account the moral erosion under oppressive regimes.

  • Losing their own perspective and adopting that of their leader

How many times have you heard people discussing politics from the viewpoint of their political leaders? This innocent-looking mental habit casts a long shadow on our political behaviour. By confusing our individual viewpoint with that of our leaders, we can end up actively support moves that reduce our freedoms – in order to save time and effort to the leader.

Taking one’s own, individual perspective is indeed risky, as well as painful. It is discouraged and branded evil and selfish by peers. Utilitarianism (adopting the viewpoint of the community or the country and defending its perceived interests) overtakes individual perspectives, and we end up in a system that benefits only itself – i.e. its rulers.

  • We feel for the leader

By adopting his viewpoint, we can feel how hard it must be to protect us from all those fearsome threats and emergencies. We focus on how hard it is for him – and lose our own perspective entirely. We end up genuinely hating those pesky activists, who demand transparency and respect for human rigths, because we understand how much extra work is to our leader to protect us that way.

  • It must be hard and perilous to oppress so many people

Losing ourselves in the difficulty of the task is often an excuse to ignore the moral implications, as we have seen in the Milgram-experiments. We can project the same excuse to the leader (we fear to criticise him, anyway) and fixate on how hard it must be to oppress so many of us. Give the guy a break…

  • Blaming and attacking the weak

Because we can’t blame or challenge the strong. Victim-blaming (or blaming the weak) is a standard symptom of being oppressed. Just as a hostage doesn’t even look for blame in the aggressor, oppressed societies direct their wrath against those, who can be safely blamed: victims of the oppression, each other, or outside forces. Never the rulers.

  • Actively fighting for the aggressor’s interest

“I think you are sitting there playing chequers with our lives. I fully trust Clark and the robber. I am not desperate. They haven’t done a thing to us. On the contrary, they have been very nice. But you know, Olof, what I’m scared of is that the police will attack and cause us to die.”

One of the victims of the infamous Stockholm bank robbery had said this to the Prime Minister, Olof Palme, over the phone.

But we don’t have to go to such extremes to find symptoms of terror-bonding. Try to save the victim of systematic domestic violence and you might end up being attacked by said victim. People, whose livelihood was taken by the regime will nonetheless protest for the “sovereignty” of said regime – and mean it.

Victims of oppression will fight for the aggressor’s right to do as he pleases – and the thinking patterns that enabled it will linger and recreate the oppression if it goes unchecked.

  • How victims become enablers or aggressors

Given the need to maintain the integrity of their self-image, victims are motivated to prove that there could be no way out. There is always oppression, and one can only be one of two things: top dog or underdog. What one cannot be is a non-dog. If freedom is not an option, I am not wrong submitting.

Under these circumstances the one who submits best survives best. The abused wife becomes an enabler to her husband’s aggression thereby securing his goodwill. If she finds someone even weaker than herself, she can become an aggressor too.

  • Regression, infantile dependence and childlike adaptiveness to the will of the ruler

It may be completely wrong to limit the scope of this kind of bonding to situations of explicit terror. The low-intensity terror and the insecurity of extreme dependence can produce strikingly similar results. We are programmed to love and show attachment to the person we are most dependent on during our childhood. This parent-child bonding is supposed to facilitate the mere survival of the child – but not necessarily his thriving later in life.

The distinction becomes obvious when the object of dependence is not a loving parent, but an aggressive one. And yet, the child does everything to please.

Just like a bank robber, a parent doesn’t have to do anything right or refrain from aggression to earn the love of the child – and gestures such as apologising after violence, or putting food on the table serve to reinforce in the victim that it was love.

We expect a lot more from people to earn our love – when we don’t depend from them.

  • Morality is conditional – and right now, it would be a luxury

Can you afford to apply everyday standards to a situation of such extreme dependence and so out of the realm of everyday morality? Of course not. So when you look for guidance as to what is right and wrong, the will of your oppressor will prevail such soft ideas as reciprocity, respect for human life, dignity, let alone happiness.

Where freedom is a luxury, so is morality, and the law (the rules of the oppressor) replaces morals as the source of right and wrong. The victim has long lost his confidence in his own decisions and judgement, anyway. Worse, the oppressed mind will pass this down to his children – at which point it gets even worse because it is supported by parental authority and parental love.

In a society socialised under dictatorship political will overtakes moral considerations. In a society where the state controls everything, legality trumps morality and illegal acts are treated with the scorn deserved by harmful acts. The moral compass is crooked either way.

When societies that have just come out of an oppression, their experience with internalised oppression is deeper and more comprehensive than anything that can befall a single individual. And yet, we expect people to change their thinking habits overnight and without guidance.

They have to change their means of coping with power and authority, and the way they think about society and their own place within it – and they aren’t even aware of the need to change. We are blind to the microhabits that perpetuate and pass authoritarian thinking down the generations. And by these microhabits I don’t just mean actions. They do speak loud, but so do our underdog opinions, our deference to authority, our thinking patterns, and the framework and mental models we use to make sense of the world – in other words, our mental habits.

But they are not permanent either. People have their curageous moments, and they can be easily misled by it. When one allows himself the courage to think freely from time to time, it may become easier to believe that he is no longer in mental cover. This is why I put forth the frames of mind approach, arguing that these states can be manipulated.

There is no therapy after a dictatorship, even though the damage is more profound and less obvious. Worse, even, people keep each other in habit.


Featured photo: Pereszlényi Erika


Hirschman, Albert (1978): Exit, Voice, and the State, In: World Politics, Vol. 31, No.1 90-107

WORLD BANK (2015): World Development Report, 2015: Mind, Society, and Behaviour

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