Contempt is an innate expression of rejection.

“Contempt is a mental attitude that sees another as having contravened a rule or principle. The recipient is moreover viewed as having intentionally broken a rule.”

Darwin stated that contempt originates from dis-smell (the reflex to avoid a bad smell) and primarily involves the involuntary gestures of the nose as if smelling and rejecting the source of a rancid odour.1 Contempt is therefore very similar to the now well established origins of disgust, which evolved from distastefulness and primarily involves involuntary mouth movements associated with the rejection of foodstuffs. The connections between these two emotions are so similar that they may well be connected. Darwin first described the sensory connection of these two emotions a 150-years ago.
Curling under the nose, the upper lip rises. The head tilts away from the offensive thing and leaves the eyes looking down the nose. Muscles at the base of the nose and upper lip moderately contract causing the nostrils to shut in a valve-like fashion. The looking down the nose posture is usually accompanied by a nasal snort as if clearing the airways of a toxic odour. These are the hallmarks of contempt.
These remarkable, distinctive features hint at the evolutionary origin as being a reaction to things that smelt offensive. The emotion has now evolved to include behaviours and thoughts that smell a bit fishy. When contempt is felt due to the thought of an offensive behaviour, it triggers the original physical reflexes. When these expressions are directed at people, they understandably cause them to become passive and reflect on their behaviour. Does an expression of contempt make people instinctively insecure due to thinking they smell bad?

The nasal nerve is one of only two (the other being optic) that emerges directly from the forebrain. Odours can be smelt at a much greater distance than things can be tasted. Also, people typically smell something before they taste it. Smelling is a close, medium and long range sense. It locates odours nearby while detecting airborne contaminants from miles away. This probably has bearing on the mental characteristics whose evolution is based on this sense. Contempt is an intricately subjective emotion that can be manipulated by the mind in ways that other emotions cannot.
Contempt is a mental attitude that sees another as having contravened a rule or principle. The recipient is moreover viewed as having intentionally broken a rule. It’s an emotion that motivates behaviours that enforce social norms and accepted standards. Contempt is an attitude about specific actions, and it marks them as inferior or inappropriate to the situation. Although people may view an individual as contemptible, it’s more accurate to say that specific attitudes, beliefs or behaviours are contemptible. The effectiveness of addressing contemptible issues is also more productive when specifically attributed to characteristics rather than persons.
As people can rationalise an infinite amount of subjective rules, contempt can be applied to virtually anything and anyone. Rules can be contravened by others who have no idea of the rules they have crossed. This means that people can potentially be offended by an infinite amount of issues. Such highly malleable reasoning means contempt often reinforces defence-mechanisms. It can be a long term companion of ignorance and pride where it can be used to reject a great many expressions and behaviours of others. If people perceive an idea, an expression or a behaviour as too costly, inferior or troublesome to consider, they might treat it with contempt as a means of quick rejection even though contempt isn’t the most appropriate emotion. In this way, contempt is used excessively by prideful people as part of a defence-mechanism – commonly referred to as snobbery.

Contempt projects an air of offensiveness or pitiful inferiority onto people. If people are insecure, submissive, or have less authority, they may concede to having done wrong when they have not. They may have conceded mentally or in an outward expression, but in either way they have admitted embarrassment, guilt or shame falsely. In many cases, this is simply due to assuming the other person knows better or it’s not worth contending the point with a superior. This compounds problems for people with low self-esteem.
Contempt can be used as a form of control over social situations. One person expresses contempt and the other becomes insecure and passive as this is a natural response to being treated with contempt. In these situations, people expressing contempt – the aggressors – have more freedom to express their views. Yet there may be no grounds at all for expressing contempt. People who are unsure of themselves are especially prone to being dominated in this way.
A group of six holiday makers agreed to divide their luxury chocolate cake evenly amongst themselves. Apart from Lucy and Jack who ate both, on Friday night the holiday makers each ate one of their two portions. They all praised the cake with glorious celebration. Next afternoon Lucy pops back to their rented accommodation for a bag that was left behind. She opens the fridge to have a drink of cold, freshly squeezed, orange juice and sees the chocolate cake sitting at the back of a shelf. She’s tempted to eat another person’s portion. Lucy’s arm stretches into the fridge but then pauses. Almost touching the fantastic-tasting delight, her hand hovers. Having already eaten her portion, she remembers the taste. She thinks, “No one will know it was me who ate it, and when someone else gets upset, all I’ll have to do is keep quiet.”
Pushing the thoughts of upsetting group members out of her mind she takes the chocolate cake slice and eats it, right there, in front of the fridge. Face smeared with yummy chocolate cake she closes the fridge door smiling. Jack enters the kitchen. Lucy almost jumps out of her skin in astonishment before freezing on the spot in fear. They had both eaten their portions the night before. Jack stared at Lucy in contempt because he was thinking of the upset to others she was willingly about to cause. It could ruin everyone’s holiday! Jack was a good friend who understood the temptation, so he treated her with compassion, and said, “To keep the peace, we’ll have to buy another cake and leave one of your slices for someone else Lucy.”

The example shows how contempt is felt in the present, and how it can relate to the – cause and effect – complexity of events that will ultimately be detrimental to the future integrity of a group. Contempt senses subtle contaminants with a temporal distance. It’s not the cure for what it senses, but it’s a marker that says “AVOID” and “WARNING: POTENTIAL OF CORRUPTION” that aids adaptive responses.


Latin. Contemptus = scorn.

1. The action of despising; the holding or treating as of little account, or as vile and worthless; the mental attitude in which a thing is so considered. (At first applied to the action, in modern use almost exclusively to the mental attitude or feeling).