In 1973, four hostages were seized in a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden. A convict on parole attempted to rob the bank but as the siege situation developed he negotiated the release of his friend from prison to help him. The hostages were held for 6 days in the vault. When the siege was finally over none of them would testify against their captors and they even started raising money for the defence’s legal team. Baffled by the responses of the hostages, further assessment was sought.
A Swedish psychiatrist examined the hostages and described ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. In cases where Stockholm syndrome is present, victims start out as powerless, but go on to develop positive feelings towards their captors. Sympathy for the cause and goals an often follow hostages back into their real life. This can cause cognitive and social problems, and a feeling of dependence on the captor.
Stockholm syndrome probably arises as a coping mechanism. The victim wants to survive, and that is a stronger instinct than hating the person who has created the hostage situation. A positive emotional bond will help survival, but there’s a danger of being spotted as a fraud. So the victim ends up believing that they really do like their captor.
You’re by now, probably wondering why I’m writing about this topic…and whether you’ve accidentally picked up a copy of Psychiatrist Monthly. But actually, Stockholm syndrome is an extreme example of how an imbalance of power in any relationship can have a massive influence on how the parties behave. For this reason, educational establishments (from schools to universities) have very strict guidelines about appropriate relationships between teaching staff and students. Teaching staff (or instructors) occupy a position of power over the student. Instructors grade work, give personal feedback, ensure standards for the course are met. And students will hold the instructors in high esteem because of their position and experience. Most educational establishments would require a member of teaching staff to remove themselves from teaching any student who they were having a relationship with. In this case the student may be so overwhelmed by the instructor’s attention that they may feel unable to say no, concerned about the impact on their progress. And the student will normalise this behaviour in their future life.
When would-be instructors first attend a BSAC Instructor Foundation Course, we run a session on what the ideal instructor would look like. Usual (and valid) responses include knowledgeable, patient, approachable, organised and skilful. Rarely does anyone mention ethical. In PADI’s instructor manuals, there’s a small section on ethics, although it seems to deal more with the ethics of business than the relationship between an instructor and a student. And yet, instructors are in a position of extreme power. On smaller courses, especially technical ones, there may only be one instructor for 2 students. That instructor will play a variety of roles during the course, mentoring and assessing the student.
Diving at all levels in built on trust. Instructors that build a positive relationship with a student will achieve more as they work to develop the student’s skills. But whilst this relationship can be hugely beneficial, they are in a situation where a massive imbalance of power in possible. The risks for student infatuation with the instructor are real. Ask any experienced instructor and they will be able to tell you of the students who came a little too close. In the stress of the course with the worry of whether you’ll pass, those evolutionary survival mechanisms kick in. The need to survive outweighs the desire to fight back against the demands of the course (and the instructor delivering it). Scuba instructors get idolised, and that’s not always a healthy situation. Stockholm syndrome may be at the extreme end of the scale, but the potential imbalance of power exists. Treat carefully my fellow instructors.
Michelle has been scuba diving for nearly 30 years. Drawing on her science background she tackles some bits of marine science. and sometimes has a sideways glance at the people and events that she encounters in the diving world.