Social and Moral Emotions. The Positive and Negative Consequences of Contempt

Essay, 2021

15 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Contempt is considered to be “one of the most dangerous emotions” by some researchers (e.g., Fischer, 2011) and is described as “a negative feeling that embodies the judgement of regarding someone as inferior to oneself’ (Fischer, 2011). Although contempt has been in­cluded in the list of universal basic emotion by Paul Ekman (Ekman & Friesen, 1986), it’ status is still discussed due to its features (Gervais & Fessler 2017). However, society is clearly awar e of contempt, as demonstrated by various well-known sayings such as "Familiarity breeds con -tempt" or "Contempt is the weapon of the weak (...)". Despite its recognition in society, con­tempt is the least discussed emotion in the psychological literature (Haidt, 2003; Fischer, 2011; Dastani & Pankov, 2017). This essay will examine the social and moral function of the emotion contempt along with its positive and negative consequences for society in general as w ell as in specific situations.

In order to properly discuss and investigate in which contexts contempt is a helpful or harmful emotion, ‘emotion’ itself must be examined along with its functions. Paul Ekman (1992) defines emotion as "the primary function to mobilize the organism to deal quickly with important interpersonal encounters”. Applied to a social setting, the key function of emotions is to solve problems, which are important for social relationships (Keltner & Haidt, 1999).

Thus, emotions play have a functional role in guiding individuals in human interactio ns. However, emotions can also lead a person to irrational action and are even “almost guarant eed to be wrong sometimes” (Giner-Sorolla, 2012). Lazarus (1982), for example, argues that fa ulty operations are rooted in cognitive inputs, thus appropriately caused by faulty processing by thepersonof stimuli. Mackie & Smith (2015) conducted a study in which they activated different social identities in the same individuals and measured how participants experienced twelve different emotions while each of their different identities was salient. The researcher made different iden­tities salient by making them think about a group affiliation (e.g. “Think about yourself as an American”) and asked the participant to report to which extent they experience the twelve dis­tinct emotions in general. They found that the participants reported significantly different emo­tional profiles, depending on the group affiliation which was salient at the time. Therefore, the experience of emotions is determined by social categorization. Baumeister, Vohs, DeWall & Zhang (2007) found that emotions have an indirect influence on behaviour through retrospec­tive evaluation of emotional states and past actions, rather than causing behaviour directly. Ac­cording to this theory, emotions are working like a feedback system which have affective re­sponses to inform cognition and guide behavioural choices of the individual. This is also high­lighted by the theory of action, which states that people do not always consider between behav­ioural options when confronted with the need to act. Instead, a person's action is guided by patterns they have established in advance (Gollwitzer, 1999). These theories provide evidence that emotions can be biased by various influences such as group dynamics or personal experi­ences. It demonstrates how emotions can be both useful guides to behaviour on the one hand and can lead to irrational action on the other hand. Considering contempt as an emotion suggests that contempt can guide behaviour and also lead to irrational action, thus having both positive and negative effects on society.

Keltner & Haidt (1999) describe four levels of social functions of emotion: the individ­ual level, the dyadic level, the group level and the cultural level. At the individual level emo­tions serve two main social functions (Oatley & Jenkins, 1996). The first is the assumption the conscious experience of emotions caused by appraisal processes informs the individual about specific social events or circumstances to which they typically have to react and change (Cam­pos, Campos & Barrett, 1989). The second is that certain physiological and cognitive processes related to emotions prepare the individual to respond to problems or opportunities rooted in social interactions (Oatley & Jenkins, 1996). At the dyadic level, emotions support communi­cation between individuals by helping them to better understand each other's beliefs and inten­tions as well as to organise the interaction in meaningful relationships (Keltner & Haidt, 1999). At the group level, emotions contribute to the identification of group members and help to de­fine group limits. While positive emotions give group members the sense of communal identity, negative emotions towards nongroup members sharpen boundaries (Keltner et al., 1998). Fi­nally, at the cultural level emotions support socialisation practices that help children learn the norms and values of their respective culture (Keltner & Haidt, 1999). This variety of different functions shows how emotions have adapted to serve different purposes for humans. Many emotions are related to morality, such as anger, disgust and others (Giner-Sorolla, 2012). Green, Sommerville, Nystrom, Darley & Cohen (2001) conducted two fMRI studies to show that emo­tions play an important role in moral judgement and moral decision-making. Moral emotions are the outcome of interactions between norms, values and contextual aspects of social situa­tions and are elicited in response to the enforcement of social expectations (Moll et al., 2005). These findings further suggest that emotions can both guide an individual's behaviour, such as in meaningful relationships, and lead to irrational action, for example by excluding people for their affiliation to an outgroup.

Among other emotions, such as anger, disgust, guilt, shame, sympathy and others (Giner-Sorolla, 2012), contempt is considered to be a moral emotion, since it is triggered in response to a specific event, usually the behaviour of another person, that affects a person's moral values (Fischer, 2011), elicited by disapproving another person’s immoral actions (Das- tani & Pankov, 2007). Hutcherson & Gross (2011) investigated the role of emotions in moral judgement. The researcher designed five studies to identify the distinction between moral dis­gust, anger and contempt. In one of the studies, they used a questionnaire to assess responses to moral violations from 106 undergraduate students from the Stanford University. They found that while moral disgust concerns another individuals’ immoral intentions, contempt is evoked by a person’s immoral and incompetent acts (study 3). These findings strongly highlight that contempt helps a person to identify an immoral and unintelligent person or group well as in­competence in general. Recognising immorality and incompetence can be seen as a positive consequence as its benefits society by helping to identify the violation of group norms.

Fischer & Roseman (2007) reported similar findings when they investigated the differ­ent characteristics of contempt and moral anger. The study was carried out at the University of Amsterdam and included three separate questionnaires. The results show that contempt and anger often occur together, and also that contempt is often accompanied by anger, but anger is not so often accompanied by contempt. This finding implies that people often experience con­tempt in addition to anger. Further evidence suggests that contempt develops from previously experienced anger and lack of control (Fischer, 2011; Ufkes, 2011) or a lack of intimacy (Fischer & Roseman, 2007). The studies indicate that anger is a more situational emotion (Fischer, 2011) which leads the individual to act and confront in the situation (Hutcherson & Gross, 2011; Fischer & Roseman, 2007). Dastani & Pankov (2017) argue that contempt does not motivate to confront. Contempt is uniquely related to the judgement of incompetence (Hutcherson & Gross, 2011), which is supported by Gervais & Fessler (2017) who describe contempt as an absence of respect. The research results show that the social function of con­tempt is the social exclusion of a person (Fischer & Rosemann, 2007; Fischer 2011). However, contempt, similar to anger, emerges following repeated moral transgressions, but differs from anger in its appraisals, actions and emotional aims. Contempt occurs when the character of a person or group is seen as poor and unwilling to change, leading to attempts to socially isolate them (Fischer & Giner-Sorolla, 2015). Another, more applied study explored how anger and contempt affect consumer responses to corporate wrongdoing. They found that anger leads to constructive punitive actions, while contempt leads to destructive actions. (Romani, Grappi & Bagozz, 2013). All these findings demonstrate how contempt leads a person to exclude the target of their contempt in the long term, rather than finding a constructive solution to resolve the problems. By having a morally poor act of an individual or group attributed internally and consistently, a person feels a certain loss of control, thus the incompetence or immorality of the target of contempt is unchangeable. With motivation to permanently exclude the incompetent or immoral person, the respective society and group would no longer suffer from that person's behaviour. From an evolutionary perspective, this can be considered as a positive consequence of contempt to improve a group's performance and chances of survival, when relying on the group is crucial for survival. By excluding incompetent and immoral persons, they can no longer harm the rest of the group with their actions.

Steiger & Reyna (2017) investigated how contempt, among other emotions, is associ­ated with different violations of moral values. In their first study, they collected data from 423 participants using an online survey that includes ratings of moral emotions, moral judgement and moral relevance. The results revealed that contempt has a unique association with loyalty and a negative association with harm/care values, suggesting contempt reduces a person's con­cerns about other people's moral behaviour. This is further underlined by the second study in this research, which shows that contempt decreases the valuation of moral domains. Consistent with previous research outcomes, these findings support the claim that contempt aims to iden­tify immoral individuals, as well as incompetence, and ultimately leads to social exclusion (Fischer & Roseman, 2007; Gervais & Fessler 2017). Contempt helps persons to protect the group from immoral individuals and to define moral values in the respective group. Witnessing the exclusion of certain people due to their behaviour helps group members to recognise and learn group norms and ideals. In addition, it motivates individuals to behave morally to prevent a social exclusion, which is also a positive effect of contempt.

Apart from manifesting on an individual level, emotions can also emerge on a group base. Group-based emotions differ from individual emotions and result from the activation of different social identities within an individual (Mackie & Smith, 2008). Regarding ingroup identity, the more a person identifies with the group, the more their social behaviour will be

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Social and Moral Emotions. The Positive and Negative Consequences of Contempt
University of Kent
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covid-19, coronavirus, corona, pandemie, pandemic, emotions, morality, social psychology
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Duc Minh Vu (Author), 2021, Social and Moral Emotions. The Positive and Negative Consequences of Contempt, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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