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Explanations > Emotions > Contempt

Contempt is... | Cost of contempt | So what


Contempt is...

Contempt is an emotion felt towards others that puts the person in an inferior, lower status position. The other person is regarded as being less in some way that the person feeling contempt considers important. For example the other person may be seen as:

  • Less intelligent or less knowledgeable
  • Less important
  • Less powerful
  • Less moral or ethical

In the latter case, the person is seen as being bad, for example when they have transgressed values, in which case the contempt may be associated with disgust and other strong negative emotions such as anger and hate.

Feeling contempt is an act of separation as the person creates a relational distance between themself and the other person. This can make contemptuousness rather a cold act, although if values have been broken then there may also be a hotter anger.

Because contempt requires a mental position of superiority, the person feeling this may experience a certain pleasure.

Contempt can be seen in facial expression, in the tightening and slight raising of the corners of the lip, often on only one side of the face.

Cost of contempt

Resentment and revenge

Contempt may trigger resentment in the other person, which is typical of a person who feels themself to be in a lower status position where they are unable to defend themself.

Lower status reduces the power to respond directly, and the resentful person may find devious ways of taking their revenge, which may lead to the contemptuous person being hurt in some way without knowing who has done this.

Marriage failure

In studies of marriage failure, professor John Gottman identified four major emotional reactions that are destructive to a marriage:

  • Defensiveness
  • Stonewalling
  • Criticism
  • Contempt

The most significant of these is contempt. It is perhaps understandable as to be treated with contempt is not nice. A person feeling contempt towards another

So what?

Avoid being considered with contempt by others. If this happens, do not accept the invitation into a lower status position by being resentful. Rather, you can assertively respond as an equal or even take a competing superior position (although this will very likely lead to conflict).

The power of contempt means that even the threat of it can be very effective in changing minds, although the distancing affect of this means person affected must continue to want to be closer. The danger is that it can cause a reaction that pushes them away from you.

See also



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