Contempt is a universal human emotion. While there are minor differences among emotion theorists and researchers, there is general consensus about the features of contempt. First, contempt is an interpersonal emotion; that is, it occurs in social situations, when people are interacting with or observing others. Second, it involves a negative evaluation of another person’s behavior, which in and of itself signals one’s sense of self-importance relative to others. Third, it involves feelings of moral superiority over the other person – that is, the feeling that the person is lower or unworthy. Fourth, it involves positive feelings about oneself.
Contempt is often confused with other emotions, particularly anger and disgust. Research, however, has demonstrated that contempt has its own unique facial expression – a unilateral curl and/or tightening of the lip corner, but only on one side of the face. This expression often occurs with a slight head raise and
tilt, to give the appearance that one is “looking down one’s nose” at the other, and/or turning away at the same time. Studies have also shown that individuals may not use the word “contempt” very frequently, and are generally not able to give a definition of it that includes the various components described above. Yet, most individuals certainly understand the situations in which it is elicited, and can reliably match the universal facial expression of contempt with those situations.
One of the functions of contempt is to create or maintain a social hierarchy. Being contemptuous of another person signifies one’s judgment of the other person’s social rank relative to one’s own. Contempt prepares one to establish one’s dominance in the hierarchy. Expressing that emotion through one’s facial expressions, demeanor, or behaviors sends signals to others of one’s intentions to establish hierarchical superiority. Recipients of those signals may either acquiesce, thereby conferring status to the contemptuous person, or they may prepare themselves for dominance struggles, which may set the stage for a new hierarchy.
Another function of the emotion of contempt is to validate one’s self-worth. Although contempt is normally considered by many people to be a negative emotion, in reality contempt involves positive feelings about one’s own self-worth. Thus, contempt may feel good, even though the situation that elicits it may be viewed as a negative one. Indeed, it may be important for all humans to validate their feelings of self-worth in this manner from time to time.
Although there is a class of emotions that humans share with other animals, there is some evidence to suggest that contempt may be an emotion that is unique to humans. This may be because contempt involves evaluations of one’s moral superiority over others. Complex cognitive abilities are required in order for this evaluation to occur, particularly the ability to know that other people are intentional agents (i. e., they do things because they are motivated to do so), and the ability to evaluate the actions of others according to agreed-upon cultural norms and mores. These cognitive abilities exist in humans, but not other animals.
Contempt has unique interpersonal effects. Because contempt signals one’s moral superiority over another person, it can lead to destructive outcomes in some social relationships.