(please see note re: name controversy at the end)

My world needs a captivity environment that convincingly tends to cause Stockholm syndrome in its captives, leading them to willfully serve their captors as pirate lackeys. The caveat here is that the prison works on people of average status as well as the lower class captives. The criminal underground culture of this captivity must induce a loyalty to the illegal lifestyle (the way common impressment worked) but at the higher cost of their regular lifestyle. This is a captivity which tries to cause “regular people” to join them, not merely people with nothing to lose.

The captors

The captors are pirates operating in a secluded haven. No law enforcement knows where they are. The haven is in an environment that can’t be escaped from without aid of a ship. The captors are not seeking ransom, they are trying to impress/recruit captives into service.

The captives

Captives get here accidentally, not abducted. Think like people sailing around and stumble upon some uncharted island, and BAM, captured.

So that makes a difference in class: they had lives and money. They are from a 19th century middle class society with no material needs or chemical dependencies. Textbook impressment normally targets the lower class. The emotional state can be whatever works however. The captivity environment does not have to be perfect, it must only produce severe psychological pressure for these people to develop Stockholm syndrome.


This is targeted for a general audience so gore and violence won’t work for the story. I included the psychology tag for this reason.

What would the captivity in this setting need to afflict captives with Stockholm syndrome?

The name "Stockholm syndrome" is controversial however the phenomenon is not. The term was chosen for this question because the outcome of that process is common knowledge, thus using that term is concise and effective. If you dislike the term, then please substitute the following in its place: "a psychological condition where the captives who are put in danger, have developed sympathy, affection, and loyalty for the persons who cause their danger"


7 Answers 7


Better Jobs (or at least the perception of better jobs)

If the pirates give the captives responsibilities, good conditions and some degree of freedom/control over their own work, why wouldn't they want to stay?

It's worth noting that these jobs don't have to be GREAT, they just have to be better than (or perceived as better than) what the captives had before. From the Wikipedia Article on Stockholm Syndrome:

The hostages defended their captors after being released and would not agree to testify in court against them. It was noted that in this case, however, the police were perceived to have acted with little care for the hostages' safety, providing an alternative reason for their unwillingness to testify.

A factor in "Stockholm Syndrome" wasn't just the captives feeling positively towards their captors, but feeling negatively towards the police. A combination of (1) satisfactory circumstances given by the pirates and (2) captives having some hard feelings towards the outside world (whether that's their previous employers or the government or whatever) should motivate the captives to want to stay captive.

What conditions make for a "better" job? Well, if I was to name one, I'd name autonomy. If you have a captive clean your space station, don't give them a detailed list and a ton of micromanagement. Let them know (1) what their goals are, (2) what tools they have to do it, and (3) how they'll be held accountable. Then be fair and honest with them.

The best way to convince prisoners to like the pirates is for the pirates to be likable. Give them good (or at least better than the outside) circumstances and they'll be loyal.


This is bit of a frame challenge.

In popular culture, we understand Stockholm syndrome as hostages becoming sympathetic of their captors, and defending their actions even after the fact. I'm going to explain my understanding of the genesis of this syndrome because I feel this is important to the point, and also it might cause someone to learn something. Feel free to skip it, or to do your own research and come to your own conclusions.

The concept was coined by criminologist Nils Bejerot as the "Norrmalmstorg syndrome", after the name of a square in Stockholm where in 1973 a bank was robbed. 4 hostages were taken by one man with a second man joining later, and 5 days later were released after a police assault and all was well. Ish.

Kristin Enmark, one of the hostages, was the object of that diagnosis. She was allowed to call the Prime Minister and pleaded for him to allow the hostage takers to walk away. Later, Enmark criticised the authorities that freed her, and she refused to be carried out on stretchers, insisting on walking out instead. She didn't appear traumatised, but rather "fresh and alert". Bejerot offered the explanation of this syndrome. Enmark also notably declined to testify in court against her captors, which furthers the hypothesis.

But it's very important to note Bejerot didn't speak to Enmark before diagonising her with this new ad hoc "Norrmalmstorg syndrome". On the call with the PM, he told her that "you will have to content yourself that you will have died at your post". Police used tear gas despite threats by the hostage taker that he would kill the hostages if they used gas. Meanwhile, Enmark at least wasn't physically harmed by the captors.

The most favorable framing, I think, is that Stockholm syndrome is an unexpected reaction to the trauma of being held captive under intense stress and fear for one's life. This in turn begs the question: What is the expected reaction and why is it expected? Little research has been done on the subject of protracted hostage situations, fortunately owing to them being too infrequent, so I think it would be unwise to make generalisations about it and that it's dubious there is much to learn from Stockholm syndrome scientifically.

A different framing is she was a woman in the 1970s and she didn't react victim-y like she was supposed to. That was sufficient to come up with this Stockholm syndrome on the spot without needing to question the actions of the good guys further, like it was just some case of female hysteria.

The point of all of that is, in my opinion, Stockholm syndrome is rubbish. It's a popular concept that has no basis in reality. We know these days there is no one standard way people react to trauma. Stockholm syndrome was coined in response to one event, to (wrongly, no less) explain the immediate reaction of one hostage in one unique circumstance.

I'm afraid there is no such thing as a single reason that can neatly explain why any and all people from a variety of walks of life would fall in love with the pirate way when their freedom is forcibly removed, so your question doesn't really have an answer.

What you can do in your case is easily explain why people don't leave: because they just can't. A remote, uncharted island in the middle of a vast ocean is extremely difficult to evade if the pirates take away their ships, maps and instruments. You could let the captives to roam freely on the island, and they might very well try to build a raft, and they'll most likely never to be seen or heard from again because they'd be dead on the ocean. That would disincentive others to try.

The pirates don't have to do a thing except welcome those that wish to join, because then the choice is live on your own or with other captives, live with the pirates and all the luxuries that they have, or probably die the high seas. Those that decide to live with the pirates might eventually join them in piracy, especially if they're given status among that group. They might convince others to follow suit. And if they escape or are freed, they might appear as completely converted to the pirates' cause.

But from a certain point of view, that's just making the best of it. You're stuck on an island, your past life is effectively out of reach. If you accept that circumstance as an irrevocable fact, joining the pirates is the best, and approximately only, opportunity you have for a better life. It either gives you access to a ship that can be used to escape, or gives you something to do with your life beyond simply surviving and perhaps reclaim some of the wealth and status you previously had.

You, the author, will have to make some concessions that not everybody will accept to follow the pirate life, yo ho, yo ho, and you'll have to resolve what happens to these people. For those that do choose to follow the life, they'll realistically have different reasons for doing it, because they're simply different people. And if they somehow find their way back to their previous lives, then you can have some guy talk to the press dismissively about their experience and brand them with the Stockholm syndrome all you want.

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    $\begingroup$ I understand the nuanced controversy around the proper name for the prolifically observed pattern that "abused people protect their abusers" but objectively the pattern is true in our world, and carries the common language title "Stockholm syndrome" I understand reservations about attaching one or another name to the observation, but the problem isn't bound to the name. I am open to a better and less controversial name for the phenomenon.. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 14:40
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    $\begingroup$ @VogonPoet The problem is not with the name "Stockholm syndrome". This answer says nothing about that name. The problem is that it was made up by a psychiatrist to explain the actions of one person he had never spoken to, who had publicly criticised him, and whose motivations that psychiatrist did not seem to have any real understanding of. $\endgroup$
    – kaya3
    Commented Mar 12, 2022 at 1:04
  • $\begingroup$ @VogonPoet Is the pattern objectively true? "Abused people protect their abusers" is perhaps disregarding other factors, like being told by your PM you're going to die and that will be too bad. The point is this syndrome is "observed" in a wide variety of situations, by the media rather than by psychiatrists, without really looking at the specifics. The answer here gives you (or at least tries) a plausible reason why some people would decide to join the pirates, not because of some perceived universally-appliable syndrome but because of the specifics of this particular situation. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 9:14
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    $\begingroup$ @AmiralPatate I would advise against relying too heavily on the media. The attachment disorder is a well known phenomenon in psychology. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 12:13
  • $\begingroup$ @VogonPoet Your WebMD source says plainly it "isn’t a psychological diagnosis," and calls it "unexpected reaction". Again, unexpected by whom? By outsiders who view the situation as victims v criminals? By people thrown together in intense situations that may come to see each other as individuals and come to an understanding? Which is sort of the point. For me the real question isn't "how to Stockholm syndrome", rather "what could reasonably cause your worldview to accept joining the pirates", which is what I answered. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 12:38

The pirates are super hot hotties!

ateez pirates


And also they are great people. Fun to be around. Huge senses of humor, artistic, daring, mischievous. And also hot as all stink!

Not only are the pirates awesome people, they act like your accidental captives are just as awesome. They team up with captives to prank other pirates and everyone laughs. One might lend a captive some sweet pirate pants, so your captive could practice her swagger. There are dance parties every night and the pirates are super patient with your captives who need to learn how to dance.

Who could avoid thinking that these sweetest of pirates are anything but the greatest??


(I now realize this is a quite extreme answer, sorry for that)

How do 23 military control a population of thousands of forced laborers..


Nothing else is needed. In the long run, prisoners behave, when other prisoners who don't behave disappear or get punished in other ways. You can force people to hard labor, 24/7 , survivors will obey. They could even love you, or pretend to.

Some notes about Stockholm syndrome

Actually I don't believe in Stockholm syndrome as a real syndrome. It is not a disease. It is a means to survive. Some victims need help afterward because they can't explain their own behaviour and feel guilty about it. Especially when lots of people died. The therapist will diagnose the struggle of the victim as post-traumatic stress, A modern, (eventual) rationalisation or label for this, giving some comfort because it is designated as a disease, called "Stockholm-syndrome". The term is often misused in political discussions.

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The most concise answer I can give is to look at a comic regarding Elan school. Googling Elan School comic will pretty much take you right to it.

What it entails is a correctional facility for youths ran essentially by a cult. It was not physically brutal as much as it was psychologically. Bizarre social norms that seem crazy to us now, but strictly enforced within, must be adopted for months or years at a time just for the hopes of escape being possible. If you don't start acting as demanded, you don't eat, you don't sleep, and you are also punished if the people around you don't conform, pressuring others to enforce rules they themselves only follow to survive. Problem is, those who adapt are given increasing power over those who do not, the sort of power that is encouraged to be abused. This turns into people who have been in the system for a year or more having relearned how to live, living by normally alien social norms, which by now is their entire world and comes with perks largely including what ever abuse they want to give to the newer joins.

It's quite the read, and the facility operated for about 40 years, due to the expansive levels of confinement that make escape practically impossible. Even parental visits and contacts are strictly monitored and punished if the kids don't follow their scripts and try to get their parents to do something to help.

They get used to this new life over a year or longer then enjoy enough of it to return years later as staff once released.


Reward-based incentives

Your captives are rewarded for good, or beneficial, behavior. This starts with their first landing - they are treated very well by the current inhabitants (previous captives) and convinced that this is the good life. Resistance to accept this new home can result in some benefits or privileges being revoked.

Of course, this is a Ponzi-scheme

Over time the number of captives will outnumber the captors, so you need a perpetuating model. One such model is to reward your current captives based on how well they treat any new captives. Kind of the inverse of the mythic 5 Monkey Experiment.

Or you need time

This reminds me of a favorite movie - Papillon - where one of the characters is just ambivalent about leaving after a lengthy 'imprisonment' on an island.

But, maybe it is truly better

Given your description of steampunk and airships braving to leave the cities, perhaps early ships carried advanced technology and advanced machinery. These technological wonders, and their creators, continued to collaborate while in captivity to the point that a Wakanda-esque society evolved. This society is deserved of protection.


Drugs. Lots of drugs.

On Pirate Island, the food options are very limited and one of the two staples is naturally high in compounds that induce suggestibility.

If you drink a slightly GHB laced pineapple juice every morning, you'll do what your boss tells you to.

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    $\begingroup$ Very interesting. Can you add details how this would work? I don’t know about GBH $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Commented Mar 12, 2022 at 15:25
  • $\begingroup$ I was being facetious about GHB, I don't know exactly what real life cocktail you'd use. GHB is (was?) a popular date rape drug; it removes inhibitions, makes women suggestible, and wipes their memory. Rapists slip it into drinks. $\endgroup$
    – user86462
    Commented Mar 12, 2022 at 19:08
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    $\begingroup$ I think there was a Star Trek episode (or several) that used psychotropics to prevent people from leaving some planet. Opiates slipped into the food? Basically I think the trope goes, they eventually forget their former lives, and the hero "reminds them" and everyone gets rescued. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 14:11

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