In 2004, several accounts of abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners held in the Abu Ghraib prison became publicly known following the release of photographs which provided evidence of physical, sexual and psychological abuse committed by U.S. and British military officers. Examples of the abuse and humiliation which took place include videotaping naked male and female detainees, ordering detainees to publicly masturbate, piling inmates into nude pyramids, placing a leash around a detainee's neck, shoving and stepping on detainees and forcing detainees to engage in simulated sexual positions. News of these seemingly sadistic accounts of abuse generated shock, anger and outrage worldwide, leaving people wondering what drove these military officers to behave in such ways. Social psychological theories may be able to provide an insight into the underlying factors which drove the U.S. and British military officers to take part in such abusive behavior. Group conflict theory (Sherif et al.,
1961/1988; cited in Kenrick, Neuberg and Cialdini, 2003, p. 362) which implicates outgroup biases and dehumanization, as well as social dominance orientation (Pratto et al., 1994, Sidanius and Pratto, 1999; cited in Kenrick et al., 2003, p. 363) may help explain the rationale for the prison guards' abusive behaviour.
Group conflict theory proposes that as groups compete with each other, increasing animosity between the competing parties leads to intergroup conflict and the formation of negative attitudes and prejudices against the opposing party (Sherif et al., 1961/1988; cited in Kenrick et al., 2003, p. 362). The hostility generated from group conflict may also be used by one group to justify existing outgroup biases, negative prejudices and stereotypes (Kenrick et al., 2003, p. 363).
It is well-known that people display an outgroup bias, whereby individuals favour members of their own group and blame outgroups for bad behaviour (Fiske, Harris and Cuddy, 2004).