Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Natural Disasters and the Stockholm Syndrome

This past week we witnessed the horrific destruction wreaked by the enormous two mile diameter tornado which devastated the town of Moore, Oklahoma.  We also watched with pride and admiration as first responders and private citizens rushed to pull their friends and neighbors from the wreckage.  Police personnel, firefighters, utility workers, Red Cross volunteers, medics, nurses and doctors all contributed their efforts and expertise to alleviate the suffering and participate in the recovery process.  Even politicians sprang into action promising emergency aid.

In this natural disaster, as in others, we also observed a familiar phenomenon of people praising the Lord because either they or their family members survived the destruction or because the devastation was not even greater than it actually was. (There are a couple of people who are exceptions to this common pattern of response – see video).

Upon reflection, this response of thanking God after a natural disaster seems a bit curious.  If the leader of a cult came and burned down your home and every other home in your town, in the process killing many of your neighbors including children, would you rush to effusively praise the cult leader and contribute to his/her cult because no one in your family was actually killed?  Of course not.  To the contrary, you would want that cult leader and the cult members to be hunted down and brought to justice.

However, if one truly believes that God controls all natural phenomena and is in fact responsible for sending this particular massive tornado, how is God’s role any different here than that of the above mentioned cult leader?  Is God to be thanked for destroying your home, your neighbors’ homes, killing many of your neighbors but just not killing you? 

Perhaps the impetus to thank and praise God after a natural disaster can be understood in the context of the Stockholm Syndrome.  This syndrome describes the phenomenon of some individuals being held captive for an extended period identifying with and empathizing with their captors. The syndrome is named after the robbery of the Kreditbanken in Stockholm, Sweden in 1973.  In this robbery several bank employees were held hostage in a bank vault for six days.  The victims in this case became emotionally attached to their captors, even rejected government assistance and defended the perpetrators after being freed.  The case of Patty Hearst, granddaughter of publishing magnate William Randolph Heart, is cited as another example of the Stockholm Syndrome.  Nineteen year old Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the so-called Symbionese Liberation Army in Berkeley, California in 1974.  She was initially confined to a closet and physically and sexually abused.  However, soon she began to identify with the group and its leader and even participated in a robbery that the group perpetrated and for which she was later convicted.

In the Stockholm Syndrome the captive deals with his/her helplessness by identifying and empathizing with the powerful captor no matter how heinous the captor’s actions. The psychological stress of being helpless in the face of an existential threat, is mitigated by identifying with the one who does wield the power.

Perhaps people with a religious orientation perceive themselves as so helpless in the presence of a natural disaster that they identify with the powerful Deity and adulate Him even though they believe He is responsible for the disaster.

Religions have long struggled with the related issue of Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.  If God is good and God controls the universe, why do good people suffer and villains often prosper?  The Hebrew Bible’s Book of Job deals with this issue and just concludes that humans don’t understand God’s ways.  This explanation not being sufficiently satisfactory, the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and many other religions have further dealt with this issue by invoking the concept of the after-life.  In the after-life all accounts will be squared even if things appear unfair in the current world.

In the absence of religion, the issue of Why Bad Things Happen to Good People does not pose a philosophical problem.  Natural disasters are just natural phenomena that ultimately result from the laws of physics.  Nature does not concern Herself with rewarding or punishing good or bad people.  Nature just is.  Most human beings do however have the capacity to empathize with other people’s suffering.  Ultimately the fact that humans have the capacity to empathize is a result of the natural process of evolution which favored the survival of humans who could cooperate effectively with each other.

We should be grateful for all the individuals who selflessly spring into action when natural disasters strike and those who commit random acts of kindness on a daily basis.  We should also work prospectively to protect our fellow human beings by implementing safety measures.  For example in tornado prone zones, buildings - in particular public buildings such as schools - should be equipped with underground shelters.  Yes, dreaded government regulation may at times be necessary.  (Ditto for gun control regulation).  We should also, based on the best science, take measures needed to mitigate climate change that predisposes to extreme weather events around the globe. 

Most importantly, we need to foster empathy as a universal cultural norm and as an essential value transmitted in our children’s upbringing and education.  We also need to foster an understanding and respect for science as the best basis we have for dealing with the universe around us.


  1. The problem with using the Stockholm Syndrome as a analogy is that the Stockholm Syndrome illustrated TIME in a dysfunctional surround and time in exposure to the person or issue that create a feeling of helplessness / power.