Emotional Competency

Explore the Logic of Passion

You don't meet my standards

You would never have done that, you are morally superior and you feel contempt for the pathetic person.


  1. Feeling morally superior to an offender.
  2. Disapproving of another’s action.

Root: from Latin contemptus, past participle of contemnere, to despise.

Related Terms

The words appalled, despise, distain, indignation, and reproach are approximate synonyms for contempt. We snub someone when we dismiss them with contempt. Contempt is similar to disgust, but pertains to people and their behavior rather than to chemically toxic substances.

There are some data to suggest that the concepts and labels of contempt, anger, and disgust are related to each other. These emotions arise when moral codes of a community are violated.

Upward Contempt

Upward contempt allows a person of lower status to claim superiority, at least along one attribute. It is a form of rebellion, or a way to cope with humiliation or defeat. It is generally a false display rather than a genuinely felt emotion.

Benefits and Dangers of Contempt

Contempt is a declaration of greater status or power, and can serve as a reward for maintaining high stature. However, it is often counterfeit; people who are uncertain of their stature may show contempt in an effort to raise their image. The pretentious look down their noses at the homeless, the truly compassionate help the homeless.

It becomes dangerous if you humiliate the person you feel contempt for.

Enjoying Contempt

Because contempt declares your superiority, it is often a somewhat enjoyable emotion.

Meeting Expectations

Guilt, shame, and contempt are each based on meeting expectations:

  • Guilt: I did not meet your moral standards and expectations,
  • Shame: I did not meet my own standards of behavior, and
  • Contempt: you did not meet my moral standards and expectations.

Power and Distance

We are most likely to feel contempt for people who are distant from us and low in stature. If they are close to us we feel compassion, and if they are powerful, we feel fear or envy.

Distant Close
Powerful Fear Envy
Powerless Contempt Compassion

Facial Expression

The facial expression of contempt communicates your disapproval.

The facial expression of contempt has these distinctive features:
  • Chin is raised, making it easier to look down your nose at the offender,
  • The lip corner is tightened and slightly raised on one side of the face,
  • A slight smile can show enjoyment
  • This expression is often called a sneer.


[laz] Passion and Reason: Making Sense of Our Emotions, by Richard S. Lazarus, Bernice N. Lazarus

[Ekm] Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life, by Paul Ekman

[OCC] The Cognitive Structure of Emotions, by Andrew Ortony, Gerald L. Clore, Allan Collins

[Gol] Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama, by Daniel Goleman

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Create Your Life, Your Relationships, and Your World in Harmony with Your Values, by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Arun Gandhi

Scalar Ratings of Contempt ExpressionsExternal Link, by David Matsumoto, San Francisco State University

Fear, Sadness, Anger, Joy, Surprise, Disgust, Contempt, Anger, Envy, Jealousy, Fright, Anxiety, Guilt, Shame, Relief, Hope, Sadness, Depression, Happiness, Pride, Love, Gratitude, Compassion, Aesthetic Experience, Joy, Distress, Happy-for, Sorry-for, Resentment, Gloating, Pride, Shame, Admiration, Reproach, Love, Hate, Hope, Fear, Satisfaction, Relief, Fears-confirmed, Disappointment, Gratification, Gratitude, Anger, Remorse, power, dominance, stature, relationships

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