What is Contempt?


The least researched of the seven universal emotions, contempt is the feeling of dislike for and superiority (usually morally) over another person, group of people, and/or their actions. It has been accepted by many emotions experts to be a universal emotion, however, some emotions scientists still don’t distinguish contempt as a distinct emotion.


Dr. Ekman’s original list of universal emotions, discovered during his groundbreaking research in New Guinea in the 1960s, didn’t include contempt but he later added it after his continued cross-cultural research.


Feeling contempt


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. In that way, sometimes people in “subordinate” positions may feel contempt towards those who have a higher social, political or legal ranking. Some examples include the potential contempt teenagers may feel towards adults, workers for their bosses, or prisoners for their guards. While this kind of “upward contempt” is common, the reverse can also be true in which someone with a higher ranking may feel contempt towards those with a lower ranking. This feeling of power and superiority may be a pleasurable experience for some people, whereas for others it can feel embarrassing and/or shameful.


Contempt versus 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, wheareas 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, the intensity of contempt varies, though the maximum intensity of contempt does not come near the maximum intensity of disgust.


Recognizing contempt


Facial expression of contempt

Contempt is the only emotion with a unilateral facial expression, meaning that the expression is not symmetrical. The expression of contempt can occur with or without a hint of a smile or angry expression.


Vocal expression of contempt

Common vocal signals of contempt are smug or disapproving sounds/tone of voice.


Sensation of contempt

Considering people have a variety of reactions to feeling contempt, the sensations associated with the feeling can be quite different depending on the situation. At times, it may be felt with sensations similar to anger (i.e., tension, heat, etc.) and other times may be felt with enjoyment (i.e., elevated, uplifted, etc.). It can also feel uncomfortable and/or embarrassing to feel.


Posture of contempt

It’s common to “puff up” one’s chest, have upright posture, look “down your nose” at others, and/or roll one’s eyes.


The function of contempt


It’s widely believed that the function of contempt is to signal a feeling of superiority, of not needing to accomodate or engage, and to assert power or status.


Contempt in relationships

While to some it may be pleasurable to feel the power evoked in contempt, it can have negative effects in any of your relationships as it fosters a kind of “I’m right and you’re wrong” mentality. Researcher and clinician, John Gottman, has studied how contempt in marriages can signal serious relational issues. According to his research, it is the most reliable predictor of divorce if left unaddressed. Therefore, the next time you notice feeling contempt in any meaningful relationship, it may be worth investigating further.


Additional Resources


Learn to recognize and respond to the emotional expressions of others with our online micro expressions training tools to increase your ability to detect deception and catch subtle emotional cues.


Expand your knowledge of emotional skills and competencies with in-person workshops offered through Paul Ekman International.


Delve into personal exploration and transformation with Cultivating Emotional Balance.


Build your emotional vocabulary with the Atlas of Emotions, a free, interactive learning tool created by Drs. Paul and Eve Ekman at the request of the Dalai Lama.


Read Dr. Ekman’s guide to emotions, the best-seller Emotions Revealed.


Introduce the world of emotions to children in a fun way with Dr. Ekman's official guide to Disney•Pixar's Inside Out.