The Ugly Dance of Contempt

by Jett Stone, Ph.D

Eye rolls, sighs, snorts and tongue clicks, lip curls, sarcasm, trolling tweets and silent treatment. These are the sights and sounds of contempt. The lopsided sneer makes for the only asymmetrical human facial expression, and is cold heartedly clear in its message to recipients:

I’m up here.

You’re down there.

Contempt is a display of smug superiority over an unworthy person or party. Contemptuous people exclude and dismiss others as irreconcilably inferior or flawed.

Marriage researcher John Gottman and his University of Washington team famously found contemptuous communication between couples to be the biggest predictor of romantic relationship collapse. Gottman anointed contempt – its mockery, sarcasm, and name-calling – the “sulfuric acid for love.” But contempt extends beyond romance.

Contempt is perhaps most evident in our partisan politics, but also exists in the rivalries between sports teams, in the way we parent, and popular beliefs (e.g., kneeling during the national anthem). Contempt is perhaps most oppressive in ethnic or racial stereotypes of The Other. Under the storm clouds of a president who devises belittling nicknames for his foes (classic contempt), America is drowning in this emotion.

While contempt is everywhere, too few of us acknowledge it in daily life. Actually, the term “contempt” doesn’t readily come to mind for native English speakers (at least based on one prominent study in the 1984.) In later research conducted in 1999 and 2000, non-English speakers demonstrated higher rates of accurately labeling “contempt.” Some have speculated that this is because contempt sounds too linguistically similar to “content.”

Iconic minds from Aristotle, Hobbes, Kant, Hume and Nietzsche to Darwin have considered the moral role of contempt, but its essence – its characteristics, expressions, appraisals, and neurobiology remain scientifically controversial and understudied. There’s little consensus as to its “official” categorization or how to reliably measure it. Is its signature sneer worthy of classification as a basic, universally identifiable facial expression along with fear, anger, sadness, joy, disgust, or surprise? Renowned emotion researcher Paul Ekman has data to suggest that it does. Is contempt and disgust the same feeling? Is contempt a concoction of disgust and anger as Robert Plutchnik’s prominent theory holds?

In their comprehensive 2016 paper “Contempt: Derogating Others while Keeping Calm,” psychologists Agneta Fischer and Roger Giner-Sorolla reviewed research suggesting that contempt can be short-lived, long-lasting, or layered upon anger and stereotypes. The authors also differentiated contempt from anger. For instance, anger, when isolated, inspires action whereas contempt brings about avoidance and the belief that another person is beyond repair. Anger may improve a dysfunctional relationship, but contempt alone is unlikely to mend a broken bond after a betrayal. Fischer and Roger Giner-Sorolla summed up the core difference:

“We may think we can change the ones we are angry at, whereas we have given up hope for those we hold in contempt.”

Contempt is often used synonymously with “disgust,” because each is a condemning and distancing emotion. But I align with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and others who consider disgust to be more of a “guardian of the temple of the body,” functioning to protect from contamination, e.g. nasty odors or foul-tasting foods.

Contempt’s eye roll may indeed offer a momentary rush of self-righteousness. But it carries little sway and often inspires counter-contempt or unending power struggles with others about right and wrong. We are each at times carriers and recipients of contempt. And contempt only creates an icy distance between people and tribes, and engenders hopelessness. Martin Luther King, Jr. phrased it this way:

“You can have no influence over those for whom you have underlying contempt.”

So how do we manage contempt’s destructive flow so it moves towards useful engagement? There may be some insights from two influential couple therapy approaches: Gottman Method Couple Therapy and Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT).

In the Gottman method, the stuff of contempt – mockery, name-calling – is seen as abuse (one of the ‘Four Horseman of the Apocalypse,’ along with conflict, defensiveness, and stonewalling.)  In this approach, the therapist quickly halts any devaluing communication, calls contempt by its name, and then urges the offender to rephrase their thoughts. The therapist arms an antagonistic couple with creative tools to respectfully address each other.

EFT, rooted in attachment theory, is less focused on tools and instead expands and articulates destructive emotions with the aim of mending broken bonds. While there is no protocol specifically for contempt, EFT conceptualizes change as occurring after “corrective” emotional experiences in the here and now. This happens by identifying the music, e.g. the marginalized shame, self-contempt, or helplessness, which can fuel a pair’s rigid interactions or “dances.”

There’s certainly overlap between these interventions, but the question remains whether to view contempt as a toxic spill to clean up, an ugly dance to re-choreograph, or perhaps something in between.

I align more with this idea of contempt as a dance – less of an emotion to control and more one to mutually uncloak in a two-step, with active engagement. Only through this stumbling back and forth with The Other can we can eventually find a workable, respectful routine. To disagree without being disagreeable is to, at the least, acknowledge a shared principle of mutual basic dignity (even if we step on each other’s toes in the process). When we are in motion and making steady eye contact, there’s less of an opportunity to roll our eyes.

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