Contempt is usually a despicable emotion. We can all experience it at some point, but we are not always willing to admit it because it is a socially frowned upon emotion.
Contempt can help someone increase their self-esteem, drive away people they consider undesirable, and reduce inappropriate anger, but at the same time it risks projecting a negative, cold, and unsympathetic image. In this sense, Kant affirmed that contempt denies every person the essential respect they deserve, regardless of whether we disapprove their behavior.
However, other psychologists argue that despising a certain behavior or even character trait does not necessarily imply condemnation of the person as a whole. Despite this, contempt is so frowned upon that researchers from the University of Bonn discovered that we use the word very little, although we do not save on terms related to anger and sadness. In fact, we tend to replace contempt with words linked to anger and hate, since we seem to feel more comfortable with those emotions.
However, regardless of its social desirability, contempt exists and serves different psychological and social functions that we must understand in order to better manage it.
What is contempt for?
Like all emotions and feelings, contempt performs different functions, both on a personal and a social level, so we cannot simply ignore its existence.
1. Associative function: it allows us to react quickly
Contempt is particularly useful for establishing an association between stimuli and emotions, which helps us to react quickly in certain circumstances. In addition, since we associate these emotions with our relevant belief system, contempt also allows us to establish automatic links between certain situations, people or groups in order to respond accordingly or even anticipate an event.
As these associations and emotions consolidate, they become more accessible and help us quickly orient ourselves in our environment. In other words, contempt becomes a kind of compass that allows us to move away from what we do not value and generates rejection. When the distrust response is activated and we perceive little competition, we automatically feel the need to get away from that situation.
Through this ancestral mechanism that often occurs unconsciously, contempt also helps to consolidate our value system and reinforces our self-image since, deep down, it gives us a certain sense of superiority over what we despise. We cannot forget that, in a certain way, this emotion is also aimed at preserving social hierarchies, even if it is not fair and is debatable.
2. Self-regulation function: helps us calm down
Another particularly important function of contempt refers to self-regulation, since in many cases it helps to manage anger or hatred. Psychologists from the Universities of Amsterdam and Kent believe that contempt helps us “cool down” the most dangerous emotions so that we can find calm and composure. It is as if we chose contempt over anger.
In fact, although anger and contempt look alike, they are different. Both emotions involve blaming another for their wrongdoing, but contempt involves the idea that they are inferior, so they are not even worth of our attention or energy, which is why they do not generate anger. We think we can change those we get angry with, but we have given up that hope with those we despise.
In this sense, these same psychologists carried out an experiment in which they verified that people used to exclude and ignore those who were the object of their contempt. Instead, they took an antagonistic attitude against those who aroused their anger. They also found that after a few days, the participants tended to reconcile more with those who had aroused their anger than with the target of their contempt.
Therefore, another function of contempt is to exclude the offender, unlike the target of anger, which is confrontational. For that reason, it is not surprising that Gottman found that the contempt of one of the spouses (or both) is the best predictor of divorce.
Basically, contempt serves to lower the intensity of anger and even replaces it. Although both emotions constitute a reaction to the same event, they warn us that it is necessary to respond differently. It is a reassessment strategy of the type: “This person is not able to change or does not want to, so it’s not worth I get angry.”
3. Social distancing function: protects us from what we reject
Another function of contempt refers to the effort it unleashes to establish the desired distance, either by moving away or making the other move away through the corresponding derogatory expressions. That means it generally works both ways: The person delivering the scorn creates distance, and the recipient responds by walking away.
In interpersonal relationships, contempt creates a social distance “protecting” the interests of the person who projects it. If we despise deceit and lies, for example, we will stay away from people who are false and liars. At the same time, those people will perceive that rejection and move away from us.
From this perspective, contempt has a protective function: It keeps us relatively safe from those behaviors that do not fit with our system of values and vision of life. Contempt reinforces social boundaries when someone displays behavior that we consider inappropriate.
That social distancing function can even have a “positive” effect on the person being scorned (despite the fact that there are much more assertive ways to achieve the same goal).
Research carried out at the Universities of Pennsylvania and North Carolina revealed that in the workplace, although expressions of contempt have a negative effect on interpersonal relationships, they can also lead to an improvement in the quality of task performance. That is, workers who felt slighted felt the need to improve their performance to prove the others were wrong.
Obviously, contempt remains a complex and ambivalent emotion, the mere existence of which generates some rejection. Curiously, contempt breeds contempt. And it is in those cases that it is more socially accepted: When someone responds with contempt to the contempt received.
However, regardless of the assessment we make of that feeling, the truth is that it exists and denying it will not make it disappear. It is better to understand its origin and learn to express it more assertively, so that it serves to protect ourselves but, at the same time, does not harm the other person.
Fischer, A. & Giner-Sorolla, R. (2016) Contempt: Derogating Others While Keeping Calm. Emotion Review; 8(4): 346-357.
Melwani, S. & Barsade, S. G. (2011) Held in contempt: The psychological, interpersonal, and performance consequences of contempt in a work context. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 101: 503–520.
Banse, R., & Scherer, K. R. (1996) Acoustic profiles in vocal emotion expression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 70: 614– 636.