I actually posted this originally over in the Psychology and Neurology SE in hopes of getting specific, helpful, psych-related responses from people who were actually knowledgeable in the field, but they suggested I ask over here in Writing, so alas, here I am.

In the book I'm working on, Group A and Group B are rival organizations gearing up for war. Group A has an agent (we'll just call her Agent) they're planning on sending undercover into Group B so that she might start picking away at them without them noticing, weakening them for when Group A finally attacks. When the story starts, Agent has already been undercover in Group B for almost a year, having spent nearly a year before that immersing herself in her false identity, getting Group B's attention, then being held captive while they tested her loyalty.

Agent ends up essentially becoming an assassin for Group B, hunting, torturing, and killing people for their cause (so of course some of these people actually have ties to Group A, the group she's actually working for).

Meanwhile, a third party group (Group C) is searching for Agent, wanting to get her out of this situation and bring her home. They're shocked to find her working for Group B, so she confesses to them that she's actually working for Group A and they need to leave her alone before they blow her cover. But it's too late—Group B orders her to deal with these people, and she ends up shooting one of them in order to make it look like she's obeying (she's got a plan though and wasn't shooting to kill). To the other members of Group C, it looks like she was following Group B's orders and was lying when she told them she was undercover for Group A. They want to believe she was telling them the truth, but her actions say otherwise, and other things she has done/told them throughout the story lead them to believe maybe she was originally working for Group A but got so deep undercover that her loyalty shifted to Group B. This is kind of what Agent is hoping people will think as well (though she is truly still working for Group A).

So now you've got some background, and hopefully it all made sense. What I'm trying to do is come up with an actual scientific/psychological explanation for the (theoretical) shift in allegiance. Members of Group C will speculate that Agent spent so much time immersing herself in her role and doing such...intimate work for Group B that her loyalty began to shift without her even realizing it. Group B's leader is also very manipulative and they might even wonder if he somehow kind of brainwashed her.

Stockholm Syndrome was the first concept I thought of to describe what [Group C thinks] is happening to this character, but the story is science fiction and takes place in a fictional universe so I can't actually use "Stockholm Syndrome" in as many words because it's so Earth-based. I'm not convinced it's the best fit for this scenario in the story either. Obviously it works in terms of Agent supposedly developing loyalty toward the people she was supposed to be working against. But once she has established her role in Group B, she isn't being held captive or anything (though she was for a time while they were vetting her, and that experience was pretty grueling and traumatic). She's free to come and go from their base as she pleases.

I also tried reading up on dissociative disorder and its variations, and parts of them do and don't fit as well. Agent originally started working for Group A because she owed them a favor, so she doesn't really want to be doing any of this at all, but it's too late to get out now. She has military experience and has survived numerous traumatic events, and obviously her current undercover work would require her to stay mentally and emotionally detached (actually she has always been pretty emotionally detached).

So taking the information you know into consideration (again, hopefully it all made sense), what psychological phenomenon could most accurately describe Agent's shift in loyalty after spending too much time in her undercover role in Group B (or at least what Group C perceives as such)?

  • Do you not want to coin a new term? Cambieri (latin, change) and liege can be combined in a couple ways. It sounds as though her actual psychology is sound - she's still with A the whole time.
    – SFWriter
    Commented Feb 5, 2018 at 22:08
  • No, I didn't really want to come up with a new term. What I'm looking for is something for Group C to talk about, since they've watched her behavior and think she's still with Group B (which was her intention). They'd say something like "She must have Stockholm Syndrome" or "This must be some sort of dissociative disorder" but not in as many words since Stockholm doesn't exist in the fictional setting. So yes, she is psychologically sound, but I need a way to describe what Group C thinks is happening. This is why I wanted to try the Psych SE first.
    – EJF
    Commented Feb 5, 2018 at 22:17
  • 1
    I'm afraid I am not much help then but perhaps 'hostage syndrome' or 'battered woman's syndrome...' ... I feel your pain. :)
    – SFWriter
    Commented Feb 5, 2018 at 22:45

2 Answers 2


That's a lot of double-double agent stuff - kudos to you for writing such a complicated interaction in your story.

I don't think you need any psychology-related words, honestly. What I would use is just a quick dialogue scene to describe the basic symptoms of what Group C believes is happening. Perhaps a doctor or some other authoritative figure could quickly posit this theory to other important members of Group C, getting the message across to the readers? Other members can then agree with the idea.

That way, you can describe Stockholm Syndrome without either using the existing term or creating a new term of your own, and move on with your actual story without getting tied up in medical specifics.

  • 1
    Thanks for the response! I'll probably still do a little research on some of the things the other answer said, but in the end I'll probably just keep things as basic as possible.
    – EJF
    Commented Feb 7, 2018 at 16:46

Two real-psych possibilities, Destructive Cult Syndrome and capture-bonding.

Destructive Cult Disorder.

From the wiki:

Robbins and Anthony, who had historically studied a condition similar to Stockholm syndrome, known as destructive cult disorder, observed in their 1982 study that the 1970s were rich with apprehension surrounding the potential risks of brainwashing.

Other excerpts from the wiki:

Evolutionarily speaking, research evidence exists to support the genuine scientific nature of Stockholm syndrome. Responses similar to those in human captives have been detected in some reptiles and mammals, primates in particular. [snip]

One of the "adaptive problems faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors", particularly females, was being abducted by another band. [snip]

Partial activation of the capture-bonding psychological trait may lie behind battered person syndrome, military basic training, fraternity hazing, and sex practices such as sadism/masochism or bondage/discipline.

Being captured by neighboring tribes was a relatively common event for women in human history, if [early humans were] anything like the recent history of the few remaining tribes. In some of those tribes (Yanomamo, for instance), practically everyone in the tribe is descended from a captive within the last three generations. Perhaps as high as one in ten of females were abducted and incorporated into the tribe that captured them.
[all bolded emphasis by Amadeus]

Your female character being held hostage for such a long time, and possibly repeatedly beaten and raped in the bargain, can activate this capture-bonding as a coping mechanism:

From a psychoanalytic lens, it can be argued that Stockholm syndrome arises strictly as a result of survival instincts. Strentz states, "the victim’s need to survive is stronger than his impulse to hate the person who has created the dilemma." A positive emotional bond between captor and captive is a "defense mechanism of the ego under stress". These sentimental feelings are not strictly for show, however. Since captives often fear that their affection will be perceived as fake, they eventually begin to believe that their positive sentiments are genuine.

When a captor exerts complete and inescapable control of their captive, and can beat and rape the captive at will, captives mentally surrender to this new reality. Then if their captor deviates from this horror with some kind of comfort (including for example not beating or raping, or extra food or a treat, or even a pillow or blanket or heat in the winter) this becomes evidence that their captor is being kind to them and caring for them, and has true affection for them.

Yes that is irrational, the captor invented the rules and administered the beatings and rapes! It is similar to the parent-child dynamic which has the same structure: Mom and Dad make up the rules, you are in trouble if you don't obey them, but then if they forgive you some transgression, it feels like they have done you a favor out of love.

The same irrationality is present in much religion: God (the Father) makes all the rules, and will punish me quite horribly if I disobey, but has the power to forgive me, for which I am expected to love Him, and respect Him, and blame my own weakness and inattention if I inadvertently commit some sin or resent this rule.

Note in all of these the rules and punishments are treated like laws of physics: A parent makes a rule about their child keeping their bed made up, then when the rule is broken, the parent says "Now I have to ground you for a day," as if they have no choice in the matter whatsoever.

Another aspect of this is called propitiation, the captive will voluntarily perform acts (or volunteer for them) that they know their captor enjoys, as preemptive gifts to gain credit for forgiveness of future inadvertent transgressions. Being a good boy/girl by exceeding their master's expectations.

Such acts are a natural response (meaning not necessarily explicitly reasoned out). But they are closely related to wooing: Feeling affection for another, and doing kindnesses to win their affection back. They are not the same thing, winning their affection to avoid a beating did not usually begin with affection for the abuser, but in time the mind can mistake the latter for the former, and the captive can develop true affection for their captor and with it belief that their cause is righteous.

All of which I say to inform your story to remain plausible. It sounds plausible to me already, I like your plot. I will also say this kind of response, especially with prior training in understanding these dynamics, can often be resisted. A tough minded woman can override emotions with rationality and act the part, even over years.

  • 2
    +1 for pointing to the underlying, generic mechanisms behind Stockholm Syndrome. Capture bonding, especially, is core mechanism in humans, and likely to be so in any other species that has inter-tribe conflict.
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 12:45
  • 1
    Thanks for such a thorough response! Your final point about a tough-minded woman being able to resist and stay rational (she's a very rational person) is spot-on, and it's exactly what the character is doing, though it doesn't look like it from an outside perspective. I'll definitely read further into these concepts though.
    – EJF
    Commented Feb 6, 2018 at 17:44

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