Reaction Formation, Stockholm Syndrome & S&M Sex

How mightily, sometimes, we make us comforts of our losses!
And how mightily, some other times, we drown our gain in tears! (…)
The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together:
Our virtues would be proud if our faults whipped them not; and
Our crimes would despair if they were not cherished by our virtues.

Displacement, the redirection of uncomfortable feelings towards someone or something less threatening, and somatisation, the conversion of uncomfortable feelings into more tolerable physical symptoms (see previous posts), are both important means of transforming uncomfortable feelings into something that is more manageable. Another such mean is reaction formation, which can be defined as the superficial adoption and exaggeration of ideas and impulses that are diametrically opposed to one’s own. For instance a man who finds himself attracted to someone of the same sex may cope with the unacceptability of this attraction by over-acting heterosexual: going out for several pints with the lads, speaking in a gruff voice, banging his fists on the counter, whistling at pretty girls (or whatever people do these days), conspicuously engaging in a string of baseless heterosexual relationships, and so on. A possible high-profile case of reaction formation is that of the Florida Congressman Mark Foley who, as chairman of the Missing and Exploited Children’s Caucus, introduced legislation to protect children from exploitation by adults over the Internet. Foley resigned when it later emerged that he had exchanged sexually explicit electronic messages with a teenage boy. Other, classic, examples of reaction formation are the alcoholic who extolls the virtues of abstinence, the rich kid who organises anti-capitalist rallies, the absent father who occasionally returns with grands gestes to spoil and smother his children, and the angry person who behaves with exaggerated calm and courtesy. In some cases, this last can result in passive-aggressive behaviour, that is, unconscious resistance to meeting the reasonable expectations of others by such means as creating doubt and confusion; being late on a regular but unpredictable basis; forgetting or omitting significant items or details; withdrawing usual behaviours such as making a cup of tea, cooking, cleaning, or having sex; and shifting responsibility or blame. As the name suggests, passive-aggressive behaviour is a means of expressing aggression covertly and so without incurring the interpersonal and social costs of more overt aggression. It does, however, prevent the underlying problems from being identified and resolved, and can lead to a great deal of upset and resentment in the person or people on the receiving end. An especially interesting example of reaction formation is that of two people who matter deeply to each other, but who argue all the time to suppress their mutual desire. Typically, A accepts that B is really important to him, but B does not accept this of A; thus, B initiates arguments so as to help deny those feelings, and A initiates (or participates in) arguments so as to help cope with that denial, that is, to safeguard his ego, vent his anger, and temper his feelings. Another, rather special, example of reaction formation is the person who hates the group but not the individual members of the group with whom he is personally acquainted; this helps to explain such phenomena as the misogynist who is devoted to his wife or the racist who marries a coloured person.

Behaviour that results from reaction formation can be recognised – or as least suspected – as such on the basis that it tends to have something of a manic edge, that is, it tends to be exaggerated, compulsive, and inflexible. More importantly, perhaps, is that the person’s behaviour does not seem to ‘add up’ in the context of his bigger picture, and may therefore appear to be groundless, irrational, or idiosyncratic. In many cases, the behaviour is also dystonic, that is, out of keeping with the person’s ideal self-image, and therefore damaging to his deep-seated goals and ambitions and ultimately to his sense of worth. If the person is challenged about his behaviour, he usually appears either confused and silent or irritated and evasive. But careful: whereas pointing out a person’s ego defences and observing his reaction might lead you to a better understanding of that person, it is almost bound to cause him significant distress; in terms of helping him, it is likely to be either futile or counterproductive, serving merely to anger or alienate him and to further entrench his ego defences. This is mostly because an ego defence such as reaction formation does not exist in some sort of splendid isolation, but as a symptom or manifestation of some even more profound and pervasive problem – and it is this primary problem, if any at all, that first needs to be addressed.

Reaction formation may at least partially underlie the apparently paradoxical psychological phenomenon that the criminologist and psychiatrist Nils Bejerot named ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ after the events that took place during a robbery of Kreditbanken at Norrmalamstorg, Stockholm, Sweden in 1973. Jan Erik Olsson, a prisoner on leave, entered the bank with the intention of robbing it. When police followed in, he opened fire and injured one policeman. A hostage situation ensued: for six days, from August 23 to August 28, Olsson held four bank employees at gunpoint in the bank’s main vault. Olsson demanded, among others, that his friend and old cellmate Clark Olofsson join his operation; once within the bank, Olofsson established a communication link with police negotiators who, despite hearing death threats and screams, refused to let the comperes escape with the hostages. Eventually, the police drilled a hole into the vault from the apartment above and launched a gas attack. Soon after, Olsson and Olofsson surrendered without any of the hostages being seriously injured. But the strange thing is this. After some time in the vault, the hostages began to form an emotional attachment with their captors. They reported fearing the police more than their captors, and, after their release, they refused to testify against Olsson and Olofsson and set up a fund to cover their legal defense fees. Olofsson claimed that he had not been aiding Olsson but merely trying to contain the situation and safeguard the hostages, and so had his convictions quashed by the court of appeal. He became friendly with one of the hostages, Kristin Ehnemark; they met occasionally and even their families became friends. Another notorious case of Stockholm Syndrome is that of millionaire heiress Patty Hearst, who on February 4, 1974, at the age of 19, was kidnapped from her apartment in Berkeley, California by a left-wing urban guerrilla group calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). On April 3 Hearst announced on an audiotape that she had joined the SLA under the pseudonym of ‘Tania’, and on April 15 she was photographed wielding an M1 carbine while robbing a bank in San Francisco. When she was eventually arrested, she listed her occupation as ‘urban guerilla’ and asked her attorney to ‘tell everybody that I’m smiling, that I feel free and strong and I send my greetings and love to all the sisters and brothers out there’. After almost two years in prison, Hirst had her sentence commuted by President Jimmy Carter; on January 20, 2001, President Bill Clinton granted her a full Presidential Pardon in his last official act before leaving office. Most of human history has been played out in hunter-gatherer societies in which abductions, particularly of women and their dependent children, must have been a very common occurrence. Thus, it is possible to envisage that the capture-bonding psychological response exhibited by Kristin Ehnemark, Patty Hearst, and countless others is not just an ego defense, but also an adaptive trait that promotes survival in times of war and strife. In fact, an inverse of Stockholm Syndrome called ‘Lima Syndrome’ has been proposed, in which abductors develop sympathy for their hostages. On December 17, 1996 members of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement took hostage hundreds of people attending a party to celebrate the birthday of Emperor Akihito at the official residence of the Japanese ambassador to Peru. But within a few hours the captors had released most of the hostages, including even the most valuable ones. If the capture-bonding response is indeed deeply ingrained in the human psyche, then its activation or partial activation could help to explain not only the counterintuitive behaviour of some hostages, but also that of people who engage and persist in, among others, religious cults, abusive relationships, and sadomasochistic sexual practices.

Adapted from Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception.


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