Identification with the aggressor is a mechanism for coping with fear and trauma by becoming more like the person(s) causing the fear or expressing positive feelings toward the aggressor.
Identification with the aggressor is often referred to as the Stockholm syndrome, named for a famous incident in 1973, when four Swedish men were held captive by robbers in a bank vault for six days. Upon their release, the men reported having bonded emotionally with their captors. An even more famous incident occurred in 1974, when Patty Hearst, a 19-year-old heiress, was kidnapped by terrorists calling themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army. After months of terror and abuse, Hearst renamed herself “Tanya,” joined the ranks of her captors, and participated in a bank robbery. For the Swedish hostages and Patty Hearst, identification with the aggressors transformed their fear and trauma into a sense of belonging and relief. Law enforcement refers to this “trauma bonding” or “paradoxical attachment” as the hostage-captor effect (HCE).
People respond to terror and abuse in different ways, and certainly most abused people do not become abusive themselves. However, past studies indicated that about 50% of kidnap victims develop Stockholm syndrome, and its development appears to be linked to the degree of humiliation or deprivation experienced. This percentage is questioned by more recent studies that put the figure much lower. Furthermore, although almost half of kidnap victims subsequently develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and PTSD is associated with the level of violence experienced, PTSD does not appear to be associated with the development of Stockholm syndrome.
The Hungarian psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi (1873–1933), a disciple and colleague of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), first described identification with the aggressor in his “Confusion of Tongues” paper. He related how abused children, robbed of their senses by trauma, enter a dissociative trance and become transfixed by the desires and behaviors of the aggressor. Rather than purposefully identifying with the aggressor, their personalities fragment, and they automatically mimic their abuser. This process includes a “confusion of tongues” between the abused child and the abusive adult.
In her 1936 German publication The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence, Anna Freud (1895–1982) elaborated on defense mechanisms first described by her father. For Anna Freud, identification with the aggressor was a defense mechanism to “protect the self from hurt and disorganization.” She related several examples of the phenomenon in young children and argued that it was indicative of a particular stage in the development of the super-ego. Defense mechanisms, such as identification with an aggressor, lessen negative feelings, such as fear and anxiety, without altering the situation but often by distorting its reality. Unfortunately, this stress reduction can cause the defenses to become habitual and possibly harmful. Anna Freud argued that children can become arrested at an intermediate stage in the development of the super-ego, imitating the behavior or assuming the characteristics of aggressors and transforming themselves from the threatened into the threat.
There is no single, widely accepted explanation of identification with the aggressor. The process may well depend on the age of the victim and the particular circumstances. Whereas Ferenczi and Freud were concerned with young children who have no alternative other than to form an emotional bond with the closest adult, traumatized and dissociated adult victims who identify with and even come to care for the aggressor are expressing a pathological response. This is usually an unconscious, but desperate, act of self-preservation that can prevent victims from acting on their own behalf.
Elizabeth Howell has defined identification with the aggressor as a two-stage process. The first stage is an automatic response to trauma which, with repeated activation, gradually enters the second stage of purposeful defense. It is a dissociative defense because the victim also becomes the aggressor.
Identification is central to learning and development, but it also can function as a defense mechanism. Identification with aggressors and assuming their characteristics can counter feelings of helplessness, as when an abused child becomes abusive in turn.
HCE may be a unique type of trauma bonding. In kidnapping or hostage situations, the victim's life is the bargaining chip. During negotiations, the victim may come to see family members or authorities as the enemy, and the victim's feelings of abandonment may intensify with failed negotiations. The captors may portray themselves as the ones fighting for the victim, with family members or authorities failing them. Thus, trauma bonding is to the captor's advantage, because it reduces the likelihood that the victim will fight back, attempt to escape, or eventually testify against the captor in court. Negotiators and the public can even become subject to secondary trauma bonding and begin to identify with captors.
Some researchers have expanded identification with the aggressor beyond traumatic situations, applying it to politics and other fields. For example, it has been argued that habitual identification with the aggressor results in many working-and middle-class Americans voting for exploiters and acting on the behalf of exploiters against their own best interests: by being subjected to power and exploitation, the weak come to identify with the powerful. By identifying with rich and powerful forces who threaten their material existence, people may turn on others who they perceive as even weaker, rather than defending themselves against the exploiters. This is sometimes called the “Kansas syndrome,” referring to Kansans who seem to vote against their own best interests.
See also Ferenczi, Sándor; Freud, Anna; Freud, Sigmund; Super-ego.
Freud, Anna. The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence. New York: International Universities, 1966.
Grzebyk, Patrycja. Criminal Responsibility for the Crime of Aggression. New York: Routledge, 2013.
Chernomas, Robert. “Kansas Syndrome?” Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society, suppl. Special Section: Psychosocial Effects of Neoliberalism 19, no. 2 (June 2014): 196–202.
Howell, Elizabeth F. “Ferenczi's Concept of Identification with the Aggressor: Understanding Dissociative Structure with Interacting Victim and Abuser Self-States.” American Journal of Psychoanalysis 74, no. 1 (March 2014): 48–59. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24603172 (accessed August 28, 2015).
Papiasvili, Eva Dubska. “The Contemporary Relevance of Sândor Ferenczi's Concept of Identification with the Aggressor to the Diagnosis and Analytic Treatment of Chronic PTSD.” Psychoanalytic Inquiry 34, no. 2 (2014): 122.
Reid, Joan A., et al. “Contemporary Review of Empirical and Clinical Studies of Trauma Bonding in Violent or Exploitative Relationships.” International Journal of Psychology Research 8, no. 1 (2013): 37–73.
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