Captivating insights

Understandably, the first priority of the authorities when tackling a hostage situation is to keep the captive(s) physically safe. But Ellen Giebels at the University of Groningen and her Belgian colleagues argue that more attention should also be paid to how to protect hostages’ psychological health.

Giebels’ team conducted in-depth interviews with eleven former hostages. Seven of them had been held in a siege and five had been kidnapped. Sieges tend to be short-lived, lasting days, and the police know the location of the hostages, whereas kidnappings often last months and the hostages’ location is unknown.

All the interviewees described experiencing feelings of helplessness when they were held hostage. However, only the kidnap victims reported feelings of uncertainty and isolation. This often led them to experience an identity crisis. “Now and then it is important to think of who you actually are; you tend to forget because you lack interaction with family and friends”, one participant said. That the police seek ‘proof of life’ from the captors is therefore important not only to establish the hostage is still alive, but also because it will signal to the hostage that negotiations for his release are taking place. The ‘proof of life’ question should be chosen carefully in order to reinforce the hostage’s social identity. “Asking for the nickname of an ex-girlfriend may be considered a good question tactically, but not psychologically”, the researchers said.

All the interviewees described being intimidated, but only the kidnap victims talked about having negative feelings towards their captors. Seven of the participants also mentioned having positive feelings towards their captors. While this is reminiscent of Stockholm Syndrome – the positive bond that can form between captives and captors – the researchers cautioned against considering their participants’ positive feelings as “some psychological artefact”. Those feelings “…result from normal social processes” and from deliberate efforts, like getting to know their captors, intended to maximise their survival chances, the researchers said. “Labelling most hostages as suffering from a syndrome, suggesting there is something wrong with them, may rather damage than help their psychological well-being and recovery”, they argued.

Not all the participants were positive about the police negotiators. One interviewee said “the police officer I talked to said ‘how are you doing?’ in a way you say it when you meet an acquaintance”.

Giebels, E., Noelanders, S. & Vervaeke, G. (2005). The hostage experience: implications for negotiation strategies. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 12, 241-253.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.