Disgust and Contempt

Grossed Out vs. Looking Down Your Nose

Why are we fascinated by gross things and feel good about being superior to other people?


Disgust Chart

Defining disgust and contempt

Disgust and contempt are two of the seven universal emotions we all experience. Sometimes people find it difficult to distinguish between the feelings and facial expressions of disgust and contempt. By looking at the definitions of these emotions we can start to understand the key differences between them. 

Disgust arises as a feeling of aversion towards something offensive. We can feel disgusted by something we perceive with our physical senses (sight, smell, touch, sound, taste), by the actions or appearances of people, and even by ideas. Disgust can be broken down into two different categories: “core” disgust and interpersonal disgust.

Contempt is the feeling of dislike for and superiority (usually morally) over another person, group of people, and/or their actions. The basic notion of contempt is: “I’m better than you and you are lesser than me.” The most common trigger for this emotion is immoral action by a person or group of people to whom you feel superior. While contempt is a standalone emotion, it is often accompanied by anger, usually in a mild form such as annoyance. Feeling contempt asserts power or status. Therefore, those who are uncertain about their status may be more likely to manifest contempt to assert their superiority over others. 

Comparing contempt and disgust

It’s important to note that contempt is related to but different from disgust. While both contempt and disgust can be directed toward people and their actions, disgust can also be aroused by objects that are aversive to the senses (taste, smell, sight, sound, touch). Additionally, contempt includes the feeling of superiority over the target of contempt, whereas one doesn’t necessarily feel superior to the person/thing that disgusts them.

Another difference between disgust and contempt is our physical reaction. In disgust, the aversion causes us to move away from the source, whereas in contempt we don’t necessarily want to remove ourselves from the situation. Also, disgust doesn’t feel good- the sensations are unpleasant and, when extreme, lead to nausea. The sensations felt during contempt, on the other hand, are not necessarily unpleasant, and may even feel good. Since feeling contempt can assert a feeling of power, it may be a desirable emotion for some.

As with all other emotions (universal or otherwise), the intensity of contempt varies, though the maximum intensity of contempt does not come near the maximum intensity of disgust.

Feeling disgust and contempt

Disgust is clearly a challenging emotion; it doesn’t feel good, even though, as mentioned earlier, we are more fascinated by what is disgusting than would be expected for an emotion that doesn’t feel good. Certainly when disgust is intense, there is no question that the sensations are unpleasant, leading to nausea. I am less certain that contempt is a challenging emotion; indeed, I believe it feels good to most people to feel contemptuous. We may be embarrassed afterward that we felt that way, but the feelings we experience during the emotion are more pleasant than unpleasant. This is not to say that it is an emotion that has beneficial effects on others; Gottman’s results show that it does not. 

On the other hand, the sensations felt during the experience of contempt are not inherently unpleasant. It is hard to specify a function for contempt other than signaling the feeling of being superior, of not needing to accommodate or engage. It asserts power or status. Those who are uncertain about their status may be more likely to manifest contempt to assert their superiority over other


Recognizing disgust in ourselves

  • Disgust: It should be easy to experience feelings of disgust by thinking of one of the oral incorporation themes or of some morally repugnant act. Pay attention to the feelings in your throat, the beginning of a slight gagging. The sensations in your upper lip and nostrils are increased, as if your sensitivity to these parts of your face has been turned up so you feel them more. After relaxing try again to experience disgust, but as slightly as possible, again focusing on the sensations in your throat and in your nostrils and upper lip. 


Recognizing contempt in ourselves

  • Contempt: It is much harder to identify the sensations associated with contempt. Think of someone’s actions that don’t revolt you but that cause you to feel contemptuous toward him or her. Perhaps it is a person who jumps place in line, who plagiarized, who name-drops. Make certain you don’t feel any anger or disgust, simply contempt. Notice the tendency to want to raise your chin, as if you are looking down your nose at someone. Feel the tightening in one corner of your lips. 


Learn to recognize and respond to disgust and contempt in others

Learn to spot micro and subtle expressions of disgust and contempt (along with the other universal emotions of enjoyment, fear, sadness, anger and surprise) with Dr. Ekman’s online training tools


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