AskDefine | Define contemptible

Dictionary Definition

contemptible adj
1 deserving of contempt or scorn [ant: estimable]
2 worthy only of being despised and rejected; "a contemptible lack of courage"; "A little, wretched, despicable creature, a worm, a mere nothing...that has risen up in contempt against the majesty of Heaven and earth"- Jonathan Edwards [syn: despicable]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. deserving contempt


deserving contempt


Extensive Definition

Contempt is an intense feeling or attitude of regarding someone or something as inferior, base, or worthless—it is similar to scorn. Contempt is also defined as the state of being despised or dishonored; disgrace, and an open disrespect or willful disobedience of the authority of a court of law or legislative body.
One example of contempt could be seen in the character Ebenezer Scrooge from the Charles Dickens book A Christmas Carol. Scrooge was cold hearted, hating everything about Christmas and looked down upon everyone around him, especially the poor.
Professor Robert C. Solomon places contempt on the same line continuum as resentment and anger. According to him the differences between the three emotions are that:
  1. Resentment is directed toward a higher status individual
  2. Anger is directed toward an equal status individual
  3. Contempt is directed toward a lower status individual
Contempt is most often associated within the confines of the court, in law. However, there are many different forms of contempt including, but not limited to:
  • Civil contempt
  • Constructive contempt
  • Criminal contempt
  • Direct contempt
  • Indirect contempt
  • Contempt within fiction
  • Contempt within marriage


The word contempt originated in about 1393, from the Latin word contemptus meaning “scorn.” It is the past participle of contemnere and from com- intens. prefix + temnere “to slight, scorn.” The origin is uncertain. Contemptuous appeared in 1529.


Contempt is brought about by a combination of anger and disgust. Contempt is not a primary emotion but rather, according to Robert Plutchik’s circumplex model, contempt is actually a mixture of two of the primary emotions anger and disgust. Plutchik’s model shows that like colors, primary emotions can be expressed at different intensities and can mix with one another to form different emotions.


Although contempt may not be a primary emotion as seen in Plutchik’s circumplex model, the argument for whether or not contempt is a ‘basic’ emotion (universally recognized) has been disputed and disagreed on for years. Paul Ekman, a widely recognized psychologist, found six emotions that were universally recognized: anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise. Findings on contempt are less clear, though there is at least some preliminary evidence that this emotion and its expression are universally recognized. Another study by Ekman and Karl G. Heider shows evidence for universality in a study across cultures in which the level of agreement about a contempt expression compared to the other six basic emotions (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise) was greater than 75% in all samples.


According to the analysis of Macalester Bell, contempt has four distinguishing features :
  1. Contempt requires a judgment concerning the status or standing of the object of contempt. In particular, contempt involves the judgment that, because of some moral or personal failing or defect, the contemned person has compromised his or her standing vis-à-vis an interpersonal standard that the contemnor treats as important. This may have not been done deliberately but by a lack of status. This lack of status may cause the contemptuous to classify the object of contempt as utterly worthless, or as not fully meeting a particular interpersonal standard. Therefore, contempt is a response to a perceived failure to meet an interpersonal standard.
  2. Contempt is also a particular way of regarding or attending to the object of contempt, and this form of regard has an unpleasant effective element. However, contempt may be experienced as a highly visceral emotion similar to disgust, or as cool disregard.
  3. Contempt has a certain comparative element. David Hume in his studies of contempt suggests that contempt essentially requires apprehending the “bad qualities” of someone “as they really are” while simultaneously making a comparison between this person and ourselves. Because of this reflexive element, contempt also involves what we might term a “positive self-feeling” of the contemptuous.
  4. A characteristic of contempt is the psychological withdrawal or distance one typically feels regarding the object of one’s contempt. This psychological distancing is an essential way of expressing one’s nonidentification with the object of one’s contempt and it precludes sympathetic identification with the object of contempt.
  5. Contempt for a person involves a way of negatively and comparatively regarding or attending to someone who has not fully lived up to an interpersonal standard that the person extending contempt thinks is important. This form of regard constitutes a psychological withdrawal from the object of contempt.

Facial Expressions

Many research experiments have been conducted to decide if contempt is recognizable across cultures and some researchers believe contempt is too closely related to the emotion disgust. Even Darwin (1872) noted that contempt shares with sociomoral disgust several common features and one can be mistaken for the other. Both contempt and disgust can fit into the hostility triad, sharing the disapproval of others, and can also be included in the ‘CAD triad’ as they exhibit the common theme of violation of moral ethics.
It was Ekman and Friesen’s study that gave the first recorded percentages of more than 75% of all their samples distinguishing contempt over the other basic six emotions. Ekman and Friesen found the facial expression that universally signals contempt—a tightening and slight raising of the lip corner, primarily on one side of the face.
And although they were the ones who recognized that facial expression as the expression that signaled contempt, it was actually Darwin who first recognized the facial expression for this emotion. Darwin was even more detailed in his description of the facial expressions that occur when contempt is being portrayed. He describes that the nose may be slightly turned up, which apparently follows from the turning up of the upper lip; or the movement may be abbreviated into a mere wrinkling of the nose.


The coping behaviors for contempt are neither labeled as withdrawal or approach (can be either). However, the main response of contempt lies within “publicized expression of low regard for the objects held in contempt” (Miller, C.H., 2008). By this reasoning, a person holding contempt would not have the urge to openly confront the person with whom they are at odds with, nor would they themselves try to remove the object of contempt; rather, one who holds contempt would have the tendency to:
  1. Hold the view that others should remove the object of contempt, or
  2. Hold the view that the object of contempt should remove itself
So while one would make their feelings known to others, the person with contempt would not necessarily want to directly deal with the situation at hand. One who is experiencing contempt would exhibit negative affective behaviors that may be labeled as “cold” – this simply meaning that one who is experiencing the emotion of contempt would tend to alienate those responsible.

Cultural Contexts of Contempt

“Ekman and Friesen (1986) identified a specific facial expression that observers in each of 10 cultures, both Western and non-Western, agreed signaled contempt.” In this study, citizens of West Sumatra, Indonesia, were given photos of American, Japanese, and Indonesian peoples. Their ability to classify some facial expressions as contempt versus the other categorical emotions of anger, disgust, happiness, sadness, fear, or surprise (with the level of agreement equating to 75%) shows that generally, across cultures, contempt is universally understood.
“An expression in which the corner of the lip is tightened and raised slightly on one side of the face (or much more strongly on one side than the other) signaled contempt.” This study showed that contempt, as well as the outward expression of contempt, can be pointed out across Western and Non-Western peoples when contrasted with other primary emotions.
Another study by Ekman, Sorenson, and Friesen, published in 1969, studied “Pan-Cultural Elements in Facial Displays of Emotion.” Their findings suggest “that the pan-cultural element in facial displays of emotion is the association between facial muscular movements and discrete primary emotions, although cultures may still differ in what evokes an emotion, in rules for controlling the display of emotion, and in behavioral consequences.”
Although some cultures differ in terms of how emotions are learned, taught and controlled, Ekman, Sorenson, and Friesen have found that cross culturally, emotions can be recognized similarly.

In law

Contempt in the courtroom is essentially seen as a form of disturbance that may impede the functionality of the court. The judge may impose fines and or jail time upon any person committing contempt of court. The person is usually let out upon their agreement to fulfill the wishes of the court. However, the judge is allowed to keep them there for up to six months without a trial by jury to officially convict them of contempt.

Civil contempt

Acts of omission may also fall within the realm of contempt. The judge will make use of warnings in most any situation that may lead to a person being charged with contempt. It is relatively rare that a person is charged for contempt without first receiving at least one warning from the judge.

Constructive contempt

Constructive contempt, also called consequential contempt is when a person fails to fulfill the will of the court as it applies to outside obligations of the person. In most cases, constructive contempt is considered to be in the realm of civil contempt because of its passive nature.

Indirect Contempt

Indirect contempt is something that is associated with civil and constructive Contempt and involves a failure to follow court orders.

Criminal contempt

This includes anything that could be called a disturbance such as repeatedly talking out of turn, bringing forth previously banned evidence, or harassment of any other party in the courtroom.

Direct contempt

Direct contempt is an unacceptable act in the presence of the judge (in facie curiae), and generally begins with a warning, and may be accompanied by an immediate imposition of punishment.

In popular culture

In 1964 a French film was released under the title of Contempt. It was based on an novel called “Il disprezzo” (1954) by Alberto Moravia. The film featured parallels to the Odyssey and works of Dante.

Contempt in Marriage

Carstensen, Gottman, and Levenson (1995) found that “Negative emotional behavior, such as expressed anger, sadness, contempt, and other negative emotions, appears to be the best discriminator between satisfied and dissatisfied marriages”. This is a commonly agreed with idea, that contempt can play a large role in bringing down relationships. This is likely due to its destructive nature similar in some ways to greed or a grudge. Carstensen, Gottman, and Levenson (1995) also discovered that “In terms of speaker behaviors, wives were coded as showing more total emotion, negative emotion, anger, joy, contempt, whining, and sadness.” This supports the stereotypy that women express more emotion than men both in general and in relationships. It also supports the idea that men are less expressive than women and tend to be more defensive minded in conversations.
In the book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking author Malcolm Gladwell discusses John Gottman's theories of how to predict which couples will stay married. Gottman's theory states that there are four major emotional reactions that are destructive to a marriage: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt. Among these four, Gottman considers contempt the most important of them all.


contemptible in German: Verachtung
contemptible in Spanish: Desprecio
contemptible in Lithuanian: Panieka
contemptible in Norwegian: Forakt
contemptible in Polish: Pogarda (uczucie)

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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