A person who doesn’t take excellent chances to escape from their abductor doesn’t always have Stockholm syndrome.

There’s another intriguing reason why the victim continues to stay with their captor despite numerous opportunities to escape.

And it’s called “learned helplessness.”

Learned helplessness is simply that: learning to behave in a helpless way – even when opportunity to resolve the problem presents itself numerous times.

A classic animal experiment demonstrating learned helplessness involved a hungry mouse that was placed at one end of a “tunnel” in a maze-like contraption.

At the other end was food. Half way down the path was a clear partition that the mouse could not get past.

The mouse, smelling and seeing the food, would scuttle down the tunnel, but stop at the partition, scratching up at it, sniffing and looking perplexed.

This trial was repeated over and over, with the same outcome: Mouse perceives goal; moves towards goal; gets stopped by partition; gives up and retreats.

The next phase of the experiment was to remove the partition and see what the mouse did. The mouse had an opportunity to achieve the goal.

But instead of racing the length of the tunnel to get the food, the mouse stopped at the half way point.

It went up on its hind legs and sniffed about, looking confused. It didn’t budge past that point, retreated and scuttled back towards the start point.

Repeated trials had the same result: The mouse would stop at the half way point and never go past.

Learned helplessness is seen all the time in people who become trapped in disparaging circumstances, but when faced with opportunities to escape, do nothing.

An extreme example is the abduction victim who’s held hostage. The victim remains with the captor, even though the captor is abusive, and even though there are opportunities for escape.

The victim’s paralysis isn’t always explained away by Stockholm syndrome. Consider the possibility of learned helplessness.

This may have been the case with Michelle Knight; it’s possible during her 11-year captivity by Ariel Castro that there were opportunities to escape — excellent opportunities — that she passed up.

Initially she had made an escape attempt, but her abductor caught her as she was trying to get over a fence. He reportedly beat her after that for punishment. This one incident would be enough to cause learned helplessness.

However, learned helplessness can also occur in more routine daily happenings in life.

A classic example is staying in a low paying, miserable job rather than seeking a better job; or staying in a bleak or abusive marriage. This isn’t Stockholm syndrome.

Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, health and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of feature articles for a variety of print magazines and websites. She is also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.
Top image: Shutterstock/  Artem Furman