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The emotional experience that we label contempt has received relatively little research attention compared to many other emotions. Beginning in the 1990s, however, a few researchers began to explore the precise meaning and function of this emotion in the context of modern theories, and some progress has now been made in our understanding.

Kalat and Shiota (2007) define contempt as “an emotional reaction to a violation of community standards” (p. 225).

Contempt overlaps in some ways with two other emotions: disgust and anger; all three emotions can be reactions to moral violations or offenses.

According to Rozin, Lowery, Imada, and Haidt (1999), one feels contempt when one perceives another violating the moral code of community standards. For instance, one may attend a party at which his state senator is present and observe the senator making passes at many of the women at the party.

The individual observing this behavior may think that the behavior is unsenatorial, therefore unacceptable, and may thus feel contempt for the senator. This observer may judge people who are not senators less harshly. However, another observer might see this behavior as unacceptable regardless of hwo is engaging in it and would feel contempt for anyone who behaves as the senator did.

A feeling of anger might be a reaction to a violation of individual rights. For instance, someone who believes that his freedom of speech was violated might feel angry. Disgust occurs in the context of an offense to one’s sense of purity when one feels that something impure or base has occurred. A feeling of moral disgust toward another person is usually accompanied by a wish to minimize association or contact with the other person, almost as if the moral impurity could be contagious.

Fisher and Manstead (2008) and others discuss the social function of contempt. Contempt (along with anger and moral disgust) serves to create social distance between people. They argue that, in contempt, others are blamed for some circumstance; those who feel contempt are sending a messae of rejection and social exclusion. The message further conveys that the object of contempt is perceived as inferior or even worthless.

Fischer and Manstead make the point that, while emotions may have functions, this does not imply that the effects of emotions are always functional. For instance, behaving as if an individual (the “object”) is contemptuous could have the (possibly) unwanted effect of causing irreversible damage to a relationship.

As Fischer and Roseman (2007) point out, expressing contempt is unlikely to improve relationships. Conversely, expressing anger may be helpful for relationships in some circumstances. The purpose of anger is to pressure an individual to give in to one’s position or demands.

While anger conveys a sense that the other is blamed, it does not necessarily communicate that the other is viewed as inferior. In the long run, anger may either improve or harm relationships. An expression of contempt, especially if it originates in an individual who does not typically express contempt, may be an emotion of last resort; the individual has given up on the person toward whom he feels contempt.

See also:
  1. Fischer, A. H., & Manstead, A. S. R. (2008). Social functions of emotion. In M. Lewis, J.M.Haviland-Jones, & L.F. Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (3rd ed., pp. 456 – 468). New York: Guilford.
  2. Fischer, A. H., & Roseman, I. J. (2007). Beat them or ban them: The characteristics and social functions of anger and contempt. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 103 – 115.
  3. Kalat, J. W., & Shiota, M. N. (2007). Emotion. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
  4. 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, 574 – 586.