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What is Contempt?

Discover what contempt means, its causes, and what research says about it.



Have you ever felt judged, shamed, excluded, or unfairly maligned? Have you ever wished you could be less judgmental? Have you ever struggled to repair a relationship only to realize that too little respect remained? If so, these experiences probably featured a hefty dose of contempt.

We feel contempt when we see others as permanently immoral, inferior, or bad and want to avoid and exclude them. Some people develop contemptuous personalities (i.e., they are contempt-prone); this “dispositional contempt” often comes with “dispositional envy, anger, and hubristic pride,” as well as low self-esteem and traits such as narcissism (Schriber et al., 2017). Violations of social mores and hierarchy, specifically, trigger contempt (Rozin et al., 1999). Particularly in dispositionally contemptuous people, perceiving others as incompetent can also trigger contempt (Schriber et al., 2017).

Contempt can be classed as an emotion or attitude but might be more precisely described as a “sentiment” (Gervais & Fessler, 2017). It tends to be “cold”—it probably won’t get you physically “worked up” like anger, fear, or joy, and might even help to regulate the intensity of anger (Fischer, 2011; Fischer & Ginger-Sorolla, 2016). Perhaps because contempt isn’t associated with high physiological arousal, it can last a long time (Gervais & Fessler, 2017). It often precedes social exclusion or “shunning” (Roseman, 2018). Contempt is notoriously damaging to relationships and is associated with anger and disgust.

People express contempt by sneering (Roseman, 2018). We sneer by tightening and raising one corner of our lips (Ekman & Friesen, 1986). People in many countries including Estonia, Japan, the United States, and Scotland agree on the meaning of this expression; it’s as recognizable universally as anger (Ekman & Friesen, 1986).

Here are some examples of contempt:

  • A husband meets his wife’s pleas with nonchalant eye rolls.

  • A teenager blurts “Whatever!”

  • People gossip about or avoid others at lunch or parties.

  • Those who disapproved of Margaret Thatcher in life turn their backs on her coffin as it passes (Schriber, 2017).

These examples highlight the disrespect and social exclusion that are hallmarks of contempt. Schoolyard bullying, overly critical academic peer reviews, and political campaign trash talk also exemplify contempt (Roseman, 2018).

The Impacts of Contempt

Contempt can motivate us to look down upon, exclude, and gossip about other people. When you feel contempt for someone, you might want to expose their flaws and persuade others to share your negative opinion. Any behavior that distances you from another person can be an expression of contempt (Morgan, 2003; Roseman, 2018) (although you might distance yourself for other reasons, such as shyness, self-care, or mere dislike). Behaviors that communicate indifference can also show “passive contempt” (Roseman, 2018).

In Sum

Contempt entails a judgment that another person falls short of a standard we value. It’s a sentiment that can last a long time and often precedes and drives social exclusion–if you view someone as intrinsically bad with no hope for change, your best bet may be to cut ties with them (Fischer & Roseman, 2007). Contempt harms relationships and strongly predicts divorce; this tendency of contempt to break up relationships can be a virtue if the relationship is itself harmful, however. In essence, contempt establishes and maintains hierarchies while dissolving relationships. In someone with moral standards and healthy self-respect, occasional contempt is probably unavoidable (even desirable or necessary). It’s a powerful poison that, in small doses and as a last resort, can be valuable medicine. Although all emotions (or sentiments) have their uses, and all are valid, wield this one wisely and sparingly.

References

  • Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1986). A new pan-cultural facial expression of emotion. Motivation and emotion, 10(2), 159-168.

  • Fischer, A. H. (2011). Contempt: A hot feeling hidden under a cold jacket. Re-constructing emotional spaces: From experience to regulation, 77-89.

  • Fischer, A., & Giner-Sorolla, R. (2016). Contempt: Derogating others while keeping calm. Emotion Review, 8(4), 346-357.

  • Fischer, A. H., & Roseman, I. J. (2007). Beat them or ban them: the characteristics and social functions of anger and contempt. Journal of personality and social psychology, 93(1), 103.

  • Gervais, M. M., & Fessler, D. M. (2017). On the deep structure of social affect: Attitudes, emotions, sentiments, and the case of “contempt”. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 40.

  • Roseman, I. J. (2018). Rejecting the unworthy: The causes, components, and consequences of contempt. The moral psychology of contempt, 107-130.

  • Rozin, P., Lowery, L., Imada, S., & Haidt, J. (1999). The CAD triad hypothesis: a mapping between three moral emotions (contempt, anger, disgust) and three moral codes (community, autonomy, divinity). Journal of personality and social psychology, 76(4), 574.

  • Schriber, R. A., Chung, J. M., Sorensen, K. S., & Robins, R. W. (2017). Dispositional contempt: A first look at the contemptuous person. Journal of personality and social psychology, 113(2), 280.

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