Motivation and emotion/Book/2022/Contempt

What is contempt, what causes it, and how can it be managed?


Figure 1. A drawing of a contemptuous person

You have just finished shopping at your local supermarket and, because you consider leaving your cart where it is an act of pure selfishness, immoral even, you return it to the shopping cart bay. As you go to leave you notice another individual push their cart to an empty car park and leave it there. You begin to feel a combination of emotions like anger and disgust, your lip will curl and brow will furrow. A need to distance yourself from this person will grow and that person, on seeing your contemptuous expression will feel embarrassed. You have just experienced the emotion of contempt.

Contempt is a cross-culturally recognizable emotion with distinct social, moral and hierarchical functions[factual?]. Behavioral displays include the effective distancing, excluding or ignoring of the target of contempt (Fischer & Giner-Sorolla, 2016). As a predominantly social emotion, contempt plays a key role in social positioning and power structures and dominance hierarchies and contributes to many interpersonal issues facing humankind. From relationship counselling to national diplomacy, a greater understanding of contempt could lead to a improved social relationships for humans all over the world.

This chapter discusses the concept of contempt, it's[grammar?] causes and it's[grammar?] effects.

Focus questions:

  • What is contempt?
  • Why do we experience contempt?
  • What does contempt look like?

What is Contempt?Edit

At first glance, some might consider contempt to be a negative emotion; a relic of our ancestors or maladaptive dysfunction in evolution. Basically, something we don’t need and are better off without. Many social animals, like humans, display anger or disgust. Contempt, however, differs in that it lacks a clear animal origin (Rozin et al., 1999). De Waal (1996) speculates that primates, particularly human beings, chimpanzees and bonobos evolved a sensitivity to social violations. Ekman & Friesen, (1986) note an absence of the unilateral lip curl (a well recognized sign of contempt) in nonhuman primates suggests that contempt may be uniquely human.

Contempt also serves a moral function in that it can be defined as feeling that another person, group or a thing is worthless or beneath consideration. While some researchers like Ekman (1997) argue that contempt is one of the primary emotions, there is still wide raging debate about it’s[grammar?] positioning as an emotion, sentiment or attitude (Gervais & Fessler, 2017). Fischer & Giner-Sorolla (2016) argue that contempt is a distinct emotion due to it's[grammar?] fulfillment of the following criteria:

  1. It is semantically distinct from other emotion terms
  2. It is provoked by distinct antecedents
  3. It is partnered with distinct appraisals and action tendencies
  4. It is accompanied by unique and universal nonverbal expression
  5. It has a distinctive physiological signature

Gervais & Fessler (2017) argue for contempt to be categorized as a sentiment. A review of modern contempt literature outlined 8 features of contempt that cohere across contempt research. While useful, Gervais & Fessler also note that current theories do not account for all of contempt facets, making contempt an exciting field of psychology to explore.

Table 1.

Eight features of contempt

Eight features of contempt
Intentional, or about an object
An enduring evaluation of a person, anchored by character attributions
Follows from cues to another’s low relational value, such as norm violations, incompetence, personal transgressions, and out-group position
Entails loss of respect and status diminution
Creates “cold” indifference through diminished interest and muted prosocial emotions
Associated with “anger” and “disgust,” which are among the proximate causes, concomitants, and outcomes of “contempt”
Can be expressed in many ways, including non-facial modalities
Leads to intolerance, exclusion, and relationship dissolution

Contempt is often discussed as part of what is casually labeled by researchers as ‘the hostility triad’. This triad of contempt, anger and disgust is grouped due to their often overlapping affect (Izard, 1977). According to the CAD hypothesis, contempt, anger and disgust refer to emotions that result from breaches of specific moral codes. Contempt is elicited by "behaviors that neglect the social hierarchy, that undermine one's duties to the community, or that display disloyalty to the community" (Kollareth & Russell, 2017).

Active and Passive ContemptEdit

Contempt can be split into two distinct types, active and passive contempt (Bell, 2013). Passive contempt involves inattention and indifference. Extreme withdrawal and distancing behavior result in the target of contempt becoming essentially beneath notice. Active contempt on the other hand involves more components. The contemptuous person expresses more hostility and active non-identification becomes a driving force in behavior.

The Universal Expression of ContemptEdit

Figure 2. A photo of a man displaying an expression of contempt.

Odds are, you know contempt when you see it. In 1986, American psychologist Paul Eckman[spelling?] and Wallace V. Friesen obtained evidence of a universal expression of contempt. Photographs were taken of models showing 3 proposed contempt expressions. The first expression showed a tightening and slightly raising the corner of the lip unilaterally. The second was same expression but bilateral and the third involved raising the entire upper lip slightly, without tightening or raising the lip corner. The photographs were then shown to participants in 10 diverse countries in order to assess judgments about which expression meant which emotion. Photographs of anger and disgust were also shown. 75% of participants identified the first expression as contempt. Making it as recognizable as both anger and disgust[grammar?]. While there were limitations to the study[Provide more detail], many more recent studies have supported Eckman and Wallace's findings (Ekman & Heider, 1988; Matsumoto,1992).

Contempt and the Brain: The receiving endEdit

A study by Sambataro et al. (2006) studied the effects of a contempt expressions on 24 healthy participants using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Participants viewing contemptuous faces showed significant activity in three sub-cortical regions of the brain: The amygdala (a part of the brain involved in the processing of emotions and memories associated with fear), the globus pallidus (a component of the basal ganglia) and the putamen (a component of the basal nuclei involved in learning and movements regulation). This activation of these brain regions lends support to the characterization of contempt as a basic emotion.

Upwards ContemptEdit

The term 'upwards contempt' could be seen as almost ironic as the common metaphor used for contempt is 'looking down on somebody'. Upwards contempt is feelings of contempt towards those in a higher social, political or legal ranking from one in a more subordinate position. It isn't uncommon to see teenagers being contemptuous of adults, prisoners contemptuous of their guards or worker of their bosses. A considerable factor in upwards contempt is the presence of hypocrisy. If a superior does not adhere to their own stated standards, bitterness and contempt will follow. Another antecedent of upwards contempt is the disdain for the social hierarchy itself. The expectation that established structure and social norms will be accepted and conformed with can elicit feelings of contempt in those of lower status (Miller, 1995; Paul Ekman Group, 2002).

1 Which of the following is Eckmans[spelling?][grammar?] universal facial expression of contempt?

Raising the entire upper lip slightly
A slight, bilateral tightening and raising of both corners of the lip
A tightening and slight raise of one corner of the lip

2 Passive contempt involves active distancing from the target of contempt?


What causes contemptEdit

In the shopping cart example, the antecedent of contempt is the act of leaving the shopping cart and not returning it. But to understand the causes of contempt, we need to look deeper. Contempt may arise from situations such as hearing someone taking credit for something they did not do, gossiping or lying (Fischer, 2016). Anything that “arises from a sense of being morally superior to another person” (Reeve, 2018) will result in the experience of contempt. Some researchers argue that contempt arises from a “violation of communal codes, including hierarchy” (Rozin et al., 1999). There has been research showing contempt arises due to violations of autonomy violations (e.g unjust imprisonment), however this research shows a greater mixture of anger, disgust and contempt (Gervais & Fessler, 2017). Ekman's (1994) cross-cultural views support the arousal of contempt when moral codes or standards have been breached. It is not the act of leaving the shopping cart there, it is the perceived breach of moral behavior with selfish and lazy behaviour. Fischer & Giner-Sorolla (2016) argue that contempt is distinct from similar emotions by how a person experiencing contempt judges a situation. Not only does the contemptuous person view the behavior as abhorrent, they judge the person to be of lower standing.

Figure 3: contemptuous protesters in Washington, D.C.

Table 2.

Examples of antecedents of contempt

Antecedents of contempt
A person seeing someone burn a National flag
A person hearing an oversensitive employee directly criticizing his/her boss.
A person just discovered a cleaning person, who thinks no one is watching, sitting in the chair of the company president.
A person seeing a 16-year old refuse to give up his/her seat on the bus to a crippled old lady

Contempt in groups

While individuals may experience contempt for other individuals, it is also shown that contempt can be towards groups[factual?]. These groups can be of both those of higher or lower social standing[Rewrite to improve clarity]. It is even possible that contempt might also be responsible for an increase in non-normative (Wright, 1990) forms of inter group conflict. A study by Tausch  et  al. (2011) conducted 3 separate surveys of German students, British Muslims and Indian Muslims who engaged in forms of collective action. The researchers found that contempt was negatively related to normative action but showed a significant positive correlation with non-normative action[explain?]. Anger in contrast, was more positively correlated with normative action.

Functions of ContemptEdit

According to the CAD Hypothesis, contempt functions as a method of social regulation. If a member of a group constantly fails to follow social norms, respect authority or fail to perform a duty adequately, they will be the target of contempt. This will force an individual to either change their behavior or face social rejection, a catastrophic hindrance for an individual (Kross et al, 2011). In this way group harmony and cohesion is maintained and standards of behaviour are managed.

Table 3.

The CAD Triad Hypothesis [explain?]

The CAD Triad Hypothesis
Emotion Shrewder Ethic Principal Virtues
Contempt Community Respect, Duty, Heirachy
Anger Autonomy Individual freedom, rights
Disgust Divinity Divinity, purity

Self-Regulatory FunctionEdit

In terms of immediate harm to an individual, contempt might be preferable to more dangerous emotions such as anger. John & Gross (2004) describe a highly effective emotional regulation strategy known as 'reappraisal' in which the meaning of a situation is reassessed in order to change emotional affect. It is possible that contempt could act as a self-regulating mechanism, creating distance between an individual by 'reappraising' a situation and adjusting from anger to contempt, one becomes a target of contempt rather than of anger, preventing a more serious and immediate conflict.

Case study

Clare has been waiting in line to order a drink at the local pub. The line is long and Clare is becoming impatient. Suddenly a stranger tries to cut in line. Clare feels intense anger at the individual and has the sudden urge to grab them. Clare stops herself by reappraising and decides "That person is not even worth the effort". This reappraisal from anger to contempt could have prevented a potentially dangerous conflict!

Consequences of ContemptEdit

Emotional utility is often a double-edged sword and contempt can be devastating to social relationships. American psychologist John Gottman developed the Cascade Model of Relational Dissolution (also known as Gottman's Four Horsemen). In this model, Gottman describes 4 communication styles (criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling) that can predict relationship break down (Lisitsa, 2013). Contempt is the 'third horseman' and the effect of perceived superiority over an intimate partner can result in hurtful behavior such as cruel teasing, disrespectful actions such as scoffing and eye rolling (Gottman & Silver, 2015). According to a literature review this inter-relationship conflict can result in negative health outcomes for the target of abuse (Hysi, 2015).


Is contempt bad? Should contempt be put in the emotional closet and avoided? Well, yes and no. While contempt is not a fun experience for anyone, it serves an important role in both our individual lives and the maintenance and navigation of social norms and expectations. The individual and group regulatory functions of contempt keep us aware of what the boundaries to good behavior are. Management of contempt is necessary if we want to maintain our relationships and our health. While contempt is still hotly debated in contemporary research, it's[grammar?] uniquely human social applications make it an interesting and important direction for future research.

See alsoEdit


Bell, M. (2013). Hard feelings: The moral psychology of contempt. Oxford University Press.

Bzdok, D., & Schilbach, L. (2017). Contempt - Where the modularity of the mind meets the modularity of the brain? The Behavioral and brain sciences

De Waal, F. B., & Aureli, F. (1996). Consolation, reconciliation, and a possible cognitive difference between macaques and chimpanzees. Reaching into thought: The minds of the great apes (pp. 80–110). Cambridge University Press.

Ekman, P. (1994). Antecedent events and emotion metaphors. In P. Ekman & R. J. Davidson (Eds.), The nature of emotion: Fundamental questions (pp. 146-149). New York: Oxford University Press, C. E. (2010). The Many Meanings/Aspects of Emotion: Definitions, Functions, Activation, and Regulation. Emotion Review, 2(4), 363–370.

Ekman, P., & Heider, K. G. (1988). The universality of a contempt expression: A replication. Motivation and Emotion, 12(3), 303-308.

Fischer, A., & Giner-Sorolla, R.. (2016). Contempt: Derogating Others While Keeping Calm. Emotion Review, 8(4), 346–357.

Gervais, M. M., & Fessler, D. (2017). On the deep structure of social affect: Attitudes, emotions, sentiments, and the case of "contempt". The Behavioral and brain sciences, (40), e225.

Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work. Harmony.

Hysi, G. (2015). Conflict resolution styles and health outcome in married couples: A systematic literature review. In 3nd International Conference on Research and Educatıon–“Challenges Toward the Future”.

John, O. P., & Gross, J. J. (2004). Healthy and Unhealthy Emotion Regulation: Personality Processes, Individual Differences, and Life Span Development. Journal of Personality, 72(6), 1301–1334.

Kollareth, D., & Russell, J. A. (2017). On the emotions associated with violations of three moral codes (community, autonomy, divinity). Motivation and Emotion, 41(3), 322–342.

Kross, E., Berman, M. G., Mischel, W., Smith, E. E., & Wager, T. D. (2011). Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(15), 6270–6275.

Lisitsa, E. (2013). The Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. In The Gottman Institute.

Matsumoto, D. (1992). More evidence for the universality of a contempt expression. Motivation and Emotion, 16(4), 363-368.

Miller, W. I.. (1995). Upward Contempt. Political Theory, 23(3), 476–499.

Paul Ekman Group. (2002). Contempt.

Pelzer, P.. (2005). The hostility triad: The contribution of negative emotions to organizational (un‐)wellness. Culture and Organization, 11(2), 111–123.

Reeve. (2018). Understanding motivation and emotion (Seventh edition.). Wiley.

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.

Sambataro, F., Dimalta, S., Di Giorgio, A., Taurisano, P., Blasi, G., Scarabino, T., Giannatempo, G., Nardini, M., & Bertolino, A. (2006). Preferential responses in amygdala and insula during presentation of facial contempt and disgust. European Journal of Neuroscience, 24(8), 2355–2362.

Tausch, N., Becker, J. C., Spears, R., Christ, O., Saab, R., Singh, P., & Siddiqui, R. N. (2011). Explaining radical group behavior: Developing emotion and efficacy routes to normative and nonnormative collective action. Journal of personality and social psychology, 101(1), 129–148.

Wright, S. C., Taylor, D. M., & Moghaddam, F. M. (1990). Responding to membership in a disadvantaged group: From acceptance to collective protest. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 994-1003.

External linksEdit