The feeling when you look down on someone. You don’t want to have anything to do with a person like this.

You feel contempt for someone who is inferior or unworthy in your eyes, because you believe they possess a negative personal characteristic1. It is not uncommon that some amount of stereotyping or prejudice is involved in contempt2. For instance, people may feel contempt toward bankers (greediness), unemployed people (laziness), criminals (ruthlessness), or uneducated people (ignorance). Although it is the negative characteristic that triggers the contempt, the emotion is felt towards the person. Somehow, that specific characteristic becomes to define that person as a whole.

The result of this judgment is that you feel this person is somehow inferior compared to other people or yourself. When someone feels contempt for people who are also in a ‘lower’ social position than himself, this is called ‘downward contempt’. For example, contempt for people with a lower education, for people who are lower on the corporate ladder, or for people with a less developed cultural taste. However, the opposite also occurs: ‘upward contempt’. This is when people feel contempt towards people who are (in a hierarchical sense) their superior. For example, people may feel contempt towards their bosses, towards government leaders, or towards a cultural elite. In each of these cases, even though the contemptuous person knows that these groups are superior in terms of social standing or power, they feel that these people are inferior in terms of other, more important aspects, such as integrity or solidarity3.

Because contempt inherently deals with a socially constructed ladder, on which some people are higher and others lower, the extent to which people feel contempt depends on how strongly they believe in such a classification. People who genuinely believe that everyone is equal will most likely not feel contempt towards others. However, most social structures have a hierarchical classification of some sort, because it functions to reward people who exhibit praiseworthy behavior and punish people who behave poorly. People who feel contempt have an urge to disassociate from the target, for instance, by avoiding them, ignoring them, or banning them from the social group.

In the comic, Murphy discovers that Patrick, the manager whom he already dislikes, has a very disparaging attitude towards his female employee. His blatant lack of respect and smugness evokes contempt in Murphy.

Movie clips


Typical expressions

“She is such a greedy person.”

“Those people have no manners.”

Murphy's bad day

Comparisons with other emotions

Contempt & Hate

Contempt and hate are both negative evaluations of a person. For example, a group of soldiers may feel both contempt and hate towards a fellow soldier who betrayed them and defected to the other side. The important difference is that hate is an evaluation that someone is evil or dangerous, whereas contempt judges someone to be inferior3. In the example of the soldiers, the contempt is directed at the defected soldier’s lack of loyalty and patriotism, while the hate is directed at the fact that the soldier puts his comrades at danger. Someone can feel contempt for a very lazy person, but not hate him, because he poses no threat. Similarly, someone can feel hate for a tough competitor, as they pose a threat, but not feel contempt, because they are not seen as inferior.

Contempt & Disgust

Disgust and contempt both cause someone to repulse the object of their emotion. The simplest distinction between them is that disgust is usually about physical objects (e.g., rotten food), whereas contempt is about human characteristics (e.g., incompetence). However, this changes when we include moral disgust in the comparison (see disgust explanation), which can also be about more abstract matters. Moral disgust and contempt can be difficult to distinguish. Some scholars propose that contempt is about social distinctions; traits that we have culturally learned to praise or condemn (such as greediness), whereas moral disgust is about deeper, more fundamental values that are ingrained in our biological makeup (such as chastity).

Contempt & Indignation

Indignation and contempt often seem to go hand in hand: if you hear about a politician stealing public money, you are likely to feel both emotions. The most important difference is that indignation is triggered by specific actions (e.g., hurting, stealing), whereas contempt is triggered by knowing about a characteristic (e.g., greediness, ruthlessness). As such, you can feel contempt for someone just for which group they belong to or who they are, without knowing about anything specific they have done. Additionally, when you get indignant about something someone did, you do not automatically feel contempt for them. If you believe that the action was a one-time incident, and not an overall reflection of their character, you can leave contempt out of the equation.

Sources and further reading