Contempt is the feeling of one who, rightly or wrongly, considers a person or thing too inferior to himself, or vile in itself, or otherwise unworthy of his own esteem and consideration; and the very acts by which this feeling is manifested. By this particular shade of meaning it differs from hatred, which indicates the feeling of one who desires the evil of others but without necessarily implying even a sense of superiority or moral judgment.

Contempt is the opposite of empathy. To be empathetic is to be able to put oneself in the place of others, feel their same emotions and understand their ideas, while to despise them implies an attitude of arrogance and superiority that leads to judge them. Empathy nurtures the bonds of the relationship while contempt breaks them.

Contempt is a negative feeling produced by the belief that someone is inferior to us. This means that it is not just an emotion, but also involves an evaluation that in many cases can border on disrespect.

Often – but not always – contempt appears alongside other emotions, such as anger and disgust. In fact, it’s considered part of the “triad of hostilities” – which is made up of contempt, anger and disgust.

In fact, researchers at the California Institute of Technology have confirmed that in some social situations, anger goes hand in hand with disgust and contempt, causing all those emotions to be involved in the same social evaluation.

Therefore, contempt would be a complex emotion that is based on a negative assessment of a person’s worth, but also elicits feelings of hostility. This was confirmed by a study conducted at the University of Bari, where it was learned that contempt not only “thinks”, but also causes a great activation of the amygdala, the structure of the brain par excellence where emotions are processed.

The causes of contempt

Contempt is usually a reaction to a specific situation, usually to the behavior of a person or group. We may feel contempt because we have been hurt, insulted, or deeply humiliated. We may also feel contempt toward someone who has transgressed a moral code of behavior, as in the case of mistreatment, betrayal, deception, or disrespect.

In fact, contempt is a “moral emotion.” In contrast to other emotions, contempt is usually a response to what we consider a violation of boundaries and norms, both social and personal.

In other cases, contempt does not arise automatically, but is the result of a series of recurring conflicts that have not been satisfactorily resolved and slowly degenerate into a negative attitude toward the other.

But contempt does not depend only on what happens to us, it is not a reactive emotion, but also on how we process the situation. It has been shown that empathic people tend to feel less contempt since they try to understand others instead of judging them. Conversely, more self-centered and narcissistic people tend to feel more contempt. In fact, the more superior the person considers himself or herself, the more he or she will perceive others as inferior and is likely to despise them.

Dispositional contempt

Although contempt is a very powerful emotion with enormous potential to affect our behavior, it has been little studied. Psychologists at the University of California analyzed more than 1,300 people and discovered what they called “dispositional contempt.”

Dispositional contempt is the tendency of some people to dislike, push away and avoid those who violate their standards, so it could be considered a personality trait. They are “professional despisers,” adept at looking down on others with a gesture of rejection and disgust, then walking away with an air of superiority, saying nothing or uttering a vitriolic phrase that will end the other person’s self-esteem.

The interesting finding is that people who displayed dispositional contempt in their relationships were also more likely to be envious of others, react with anger, and display arrogant or exaggerated pride. In addition, they were cooler in their interpersonal relationships, believed they were above average, and had narcissistic traits. They were also extremely perfectionistic and in some cases had antisocial traits.

People with dispositional contempt tendencies were also emotionally fragile, had developed insecure attachments, and had low self-esteem. In fact, the researchers found that contempt was primarily activated when people were involved in situations in which they perceived little power or competence.

This suggests that when contempt becomes a common reaction, it may be hiding a deep insecurity, acting as a defense mechanism to protect a fragile ego.

Damages caused by contempt

Contempt is often present in daily life, varying in intensity. In the work environment, both with colleagues and superiors, it can be the order of the day, although it also manifests itself in relationships with family members and on a social level is expressed towards certain groups that we consider foreign and inferior to our own.

In reality, contempt goes far beyond an offensive phrase. Contempt is also demonstrated through small signals such as the negative and sarcastic tone of voice, a slight eye movement, slightly raising the upper lip or relating in the deepest indifference, behaving as if the person did not exist.

Nurturing contempt is not good for anyone, neither for those who are despised nor for those who despise. Honoré de Balzac said, “the incurable wounds are those inflicted by the tongue, the eyes, derision and contempt.”

Contempt can cause profound damage to self-esteem. The scorned person realizes that nothing is expected of them. Scornful looks or comments intended to show that he or she is nobody to us generate decreased self-confidence and feelings of incompetence. If treated as someone of inferior status, you can begin to feel inferior and act like it. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This pattern replicates itself on a societal level, as demonstrated by research conducted at Florida State University. Psychologists saw that when a group of people was exposed to scorn and exclusion, its members experienced a decrease in self-esteem and a deterioration in the ability to self-control. This means that people not only lose confidence in themselves, but also lose the ability to control their emotions and behaviors, and this will generate new conflicts because they are more likely to break the rules. “Whatever the case, if others don’t care about me, they won’t care about what I do either,” is the thought that arises in their minds.

Contempt is a double-edged sword that ends up affecting anyone who feels it. This feeling feeds off of negative thoughts about another person or group that are burning hot, which not only produces dangerous and destructive conflict but also prevents you from finding inner peace.

Although contempt is expressed coldly, inside it is a boiling feeling, so it is not strange that they found that when one of the members of the couple despises the other and maintains derogatory attitudes, they are more prone to infectious diseases. Contempt is a poison that also destroys the emotional and physical health of those who experience it.

How does anger become contempt?

Often, contempt and anger go hand in hand, so it’s hard to determine where one ends and the other begins. In fact, both emotions have a common origin: guilt.

We despise or get angry at a person because we blame them for what they have done. In the case of anger, we blame the other person because they intentionally did something we consider wrong. In the case of contempt, we blame the person, but in terms of their stupidity, incompetence, or immorality. With anger there is situational blame; in contempt it is dispositional.

This is why, when we feel contempt, we may think that person doesn’t even deserve our attention. It’s a different evaluation pattern because it implies that we’ve given up, we think that person is not good enough, can’t change, and doesn’t deserve that we give them our energy and time.

This inferiority judgment related to lack of control also has several short- and long-term repercussions. Contempt is an emotion that gives way to indifference and leads to excluding the person from their social group or, in the worst case, directly annihilating them, literally or metaphorically.

In fact, emotions have a social function because they generally promote bonds. Anger, for example, involves approaching the person to “attack” them. It is a kind of negative feedback by which we demand that that person change his or her behavior.

Contempt, on the contrary, is an exception because its function is not to create a constraint, but to preserve or if possible increase the distance between people and prevent any possible intimacy.

It is worth clarifying that, in some cases, prolonged anger does not help to change the person, but aggravates their behavior. So anger generates a sense of helplessness that gives way to contempt. This is usually a mechanism that operates below the threshold of our consciousness.

In other cases we may choose contempt more or less consciously, because we know that anger is a poorly viewed and often punished social response. In practice, the negative social implications associated with anger can lead us to choose contempt and indifference, which are more socially accepted because their expression is more veiled, although this does not mean that they cause less damage on a psychological level.

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