Contempt has been fairly extensively researched as an emotion. Psychologist Paul Ekman defined it as a basic emotion along with joy, surprise, anger, sadness, fear, and disgust. He took these seven emotions to be basic, because they have unique facial expressions, physiological responses, and action tendencies that can be found across almost all cultures.
In fear, for example, the eyes are wide open, causing wrinkles on the forehead, and the lips are stretched horizontally. Fear’s unique physiology and action tendency is the familiar fight or flight response. In contempt, one lip corner is curled upward, producing a distinctly derisive or sardonic smile or sneer. Its unique action tendency is to ignore, exclude, or denigrate the condemned person.
Saying that the basic emotions have unique facial expression is not to say that they are always or even frequently associated with this facial expression, but only that its unique facial expression can be recognized in almost all cultures.
Emotions like grief, envy, relief, pride, trust, nostalgia, loneliness, and contentment are non-basic emotions, because they don’t have a unique facial expression, physiological response, and action tendency.
The basic emotions, in Ekman’s sense, are sometimes said to be simple in the sense of not being composed of other mental states. They are contrasted with complex emotions, which have other mental states as components. Resentment, disappointment, respect, shame, despair, and longing are examples of emotions of the complex variety. Resentment, for example, is a mixture of blame and anger, and disappointment is a combination of thwarted expectation and a low level of sadness.
Whether the simple emotions really are simple is still up for debate. Philosopher Jesse Prinz has argued that at least some of Ekman’s basic emotions are divisible into more fine-grained psychological responses. Surprise, for example, can be divided into a positive sense of interest or wonder, and a negative low level of panic or fear, and anger can be analyzed as aggression combined with goal frustration.
However we settle this question, it is clear that contempt is not a simple emotion. When we have contempt for someone, we see them as “low,” according to some standard we take to apply to people. Contempt is, for this reason, commonly likened to disrespect (Miceli & Castelfranchi, 2018).
But disrespect is not unique to contempt. It permeates all hostile emotions to some extent. If you are angry at a coworker for telling others something you told her in confidence, you don’t respect her as a confidante. It certainly would be odd for you to admit to being angry and also insist that you fully respect her all the same. You might still respect her for her computer programming skills, but if you feel she wronged you, you are thereby questioning her moral character.
Contempt differs from other hostile emotions in combining disgust with disrespect. The disgust component is not the kind of disgust that most people have when smelling vomit or looking at rotting meat infested with maggots, but rather social disgust — the kind of disgust most people have toward social practices like cannibalism, body suspension, incest, zoophilia, female circumcision, the practice of consuming the placenta after childbirth, or traits like greed, sloth, and opportunism.
But you can feel disgust for a person’s practices or traits without feeling contempt for them. For example, you may find your keto friend’s consumption of inordinate amounts of meat disgusting yet not disrespect him. But if you are a committed vegetarian, watching your friend devour the huge quantity of fatty meat stacked on his plate might make you feel contempt for him.
Contempt is all too often an irrational response to other people’s traits or practices. People can be targets of contempt, because they are seen as poor, uneducated, disabled, stupid, lazy, obese, nerdy, awkward, clumsy, arrogant, or lacking competence or status, or because they engage in unfamiliar or embarrassing social practices.
Although contempt often surfaces as an emotion, it can also be a personality trait, namely that of being contemptuous. People who are contemptuous have a greater tendency than others to look down on, derogate, or distance others whose standards or values are appalling to them. Until recently this aspect of contempt was a largely neglected area of empirical psychology. But the science is now catching up. In the first study of its kind, published in the August 2017 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Roberta A. Schriber and colleagues looked at which characteristics are predictors of a contemptuous personality.
Among the study's findings were that dispositional contempt was highly associated with dispositional envy, anger, and hubristic (inflated) pride. Since envy tends to be a response to the accomplishments of others, and hubristic pride is related to one's own perceived superiority, the researchers interpreted these links as suggesting that contemptuous people may be more sensitive to social evaluation and status.
A contemptuous personality was not found to be linked to a greater tendency towards dispositional disgust. This may seem surprising at first, especially if disgust is a component of contempt. The team tested for participants' disgust reactions to potentially disease-causing agents (e.g., “Sitting next to someone who has red sores on their arm”), moral transgressions (e.g., “Forging someone’s signature on a legal document”), and undesirable sexual behaviors (e.g., “Finding out that someone you don’t like has sexual fantasies about you”). Disgust was measured by asking participants to determine their degree of disgust on a seven-point scale to the potentially disgust-inducing scenarios. This measure, however, only yields a correlation between a contemptuous personality and disgust-sensitivity, understood broadly to include disgust-sensitivity to disease-causing agents, moral transgressions and undesirable sexual behaviors. This is consistent with contempt being correlated with a more narrowly defined form of disgust-sensitivity.
The researchers also looked at contempt in relationships. In this context, people prone to contempt scored lower on attachment security. The more self-assured they were, the more likely they were to be attachment avoidant. Lower self-esteem, by contrast, was predictive of attachment anxiety, or what is also known popularly as a dependent attachment style. Since attachment issues typically manifest at a younger age than a contemptuous personality, an insecure attachment style is a potential trigger of the obsession with social status found in contempt-prone individuals.
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Ekman, P. (1994). Strong evidence for universals in facial expressions: A reply to Russell’s mistaken critique. Psychological Bulletin, 115, 268-287.
Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1986). A new pan-cultural facial expression of emotion. Motivation and Emotion, 10, 159-168.
Miceli M, Castelfranchi C. (2018). "Contempt and disgust: the emotions of disrespect," J Theory Soc Behav. 48:205–229.
Prinz, J. (2004c). “Which Emotions Are Basic?”, in D. Evans and P. Cruse, eds., Emotion, Evolution, and Rationality, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 69-88.
Schriber, RA.; Chung, JM.; Sorensen, KS.; Robins, RW.; “Dispositional Contempt: A First Look at the Contemptuous Person,”Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 113(2), Aug, 2017 pp. 280-309.