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The Science of Contempt


Contempt is the most underestimated feeling. It’s one of the seven basic emotions that every human experiences on a regular basis yet, unlike the others including happiness and anger, we rarely talk about it.

Think about it, when was the last time you had a conversation with someone and they said they’re feeling contemptuous? Probably never, and it’s because so few people understand the feeling.

Today I’m going to teach you what contempt is and why it’s one of the most dangerous emotions.

So, what is it?  

science of contempt

Contempt means hatred or disdain and it’s the feeling people have when they look down on others.

Research shows contempt has three features:

1) Someone fails to meet their behavioral standards whether they’re based on class, culture, morals or religion.

2) They think they are better than someone. A person believes their opinions, time, happiness, etc. are worth less than yours.

3) They want the other person removed from your life. This leads people to humiliate, hurt, and/or use other means to distance themselves from people.

Despite having a deep meaning, the expression is simple. It looks like a smirk, see?

science of contempt

Now that you can recognize contempt, let’s dig into its hidden power.

Contempt: A Warning Sign

Contempt is one of the most dangerous emotions because of its lasting effects. Unlike other negative feelings like sadness and anger that usually fade with time, once someone feels contempt towards another person or thing, it’s difficult for them to let go of it.

I’m going to explain some examples so you know how to recognize contempt in all of your relationships.

Contempt in the workplace

Contempt appears a lot in competitive workplaces where people are trying to keep their job and fight for opportunity to move up.

Here’s an example:

You and a co-worker are both trying to get a big promotion. While you believe that the position will go to whoever proves themselves to be the most capable, your co-worker believes without a doubt that they deserve it. One day you’re finishing up a project but something seems missing so you ask for their opinion. In response, they smirk and make a snide comment. Had you asked them a few months ago, they would have helped you, but the pressure of competition brought out their contemptuous dark side.

Contempt among friends

While your friends aren’t as likely to be as blatantly rude as competitive co-workers, that may not stop them from showing contempt. Most often you’ll see contempt directed as a smirk with condescending comments. If this happens often, you may want to question the authenticity of their friendship.

science of contempt

You’ll also see contempt when your friends judge and put down other people with smirks on their faces. While their contempt isn’t directed toward you, it could be a warning sign that they also judge you behind your back.

Contempt in romantic relationships

Contempt is at its most dangerous in romantic relationships. Researchers have found that contempt among partners is the single greatest predictor of divorce. It doesn’t matter how often couples fight, what their financial state is, or how happy they appear to be, once one partner believes that they are better than the other, the relationship is doomed for failure.

This is because contempt fosters an “I’m right, you’re wrong” mentality that prevents couples from compromising and working through their conflicts.

Contemptuous personalities

Everyone shows contempt from time to time however, there are some people who feel it so often that they have contemptuous personalities. You probably know someone who does; they’re the person who is constantly putting down others while flaunting their own successes.

It’s easy to look at those people and think “How dare they look down on others?” But, life isn’t easy for them. Contemptuous people tend to be insecure bullies who think just as negatively about themselves as they do everyone else. Studies show that people with contemptuous personalities suffer from a comparative complex that prevents them from accepting themselves without looking to others.

Beware of these kinds of people because their self-interest may take priority over yours. But, understand that their behavior is because they don’t think anyone is good enough, especially themselves.

Are you surprised by how powerful contempt is? Humans have six other basic emotions that play equally influential roles in our lives. Sign up for our 10 day FREE email course to learn more:

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About Vanessa Van Edwards

Vanessa Van Edwards is a published author and behavioral investigator. She is a Huffington Post columnist and her courses and research has been featured on CNN, Forbes, Business Week and the Wall Street Journal. As a published Penguin author, Vanessa regularly speaks and appears in the media to talk about her research. She is a sought after consultant and speaker.


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