In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink, he talks about research done by John Gottman, a man who could, after watching just a three-minute video clip of a newly married couple, determine if their marriage would last or not.  His success rate was staggering.  After spending years conducting marriage counseling and research, his success in predicting success in marriage came down to his ability to recognize the emotion of contempt during conversations with the couple.

But what is contempt?  When you feel morally superior to someone, you feel contempt towards them.  When a person does something, says something, or their physical presence is offensive to you, but not in the same way as disgust, you are feeling contempt.  In Emotions Revealed, Paul Ekman reminds us that, even though it is a feeling of superiority, contempt may be felt by subordinates towards their superiors.  Many people have been in a conversation with their boss where they walked away thinking that the boss “just doesn’t get it,” “has lost touch with reality,” or “has no idea what he is doing.”  That feeling of superiority you get when your friend says something to you and you respond with a “whatever” is the emotion of contempt that we want to identify.

Contempt is one of the 7 Universal Emotions that Dr. Paul Ekman identified in his research that began in the 1950’s and, as we have talked about in previous posts, we will not know what has caused the emotion, just that it is occurring, putting the ball into your court to figure out the root cause of the emotion.

As we break down contempt, the required characteristics are the ones you MUST see to classify it as contempt, while the optional characteristics are the ones that may accompany the required ones.

One note on contempt is that it is only displayed on the lower portion of the face and that it is always a unilateral expression, meaning that it is only show on one side of the face.  This is also the only emotion and expression that occurs on only one side of the face.

Required Characteristics

Lower Face:

–       There is a tightening or puckering of the lip corner that angles the lip upward, on only one side of the mouth

Optional Characteristics

Lower Face:

–       You may see both lip corners angle up slightly, but only one side will be puckered and tighten

–       You may want to raise your chin towards them as if you are looking down your nose at them

–       If emotions begin to blend together, contempt and happiness could result in a “smug” contemptuous smile

If you look at the picture at the top of this post of “The Donald,” you can see the left side of his mouth has been turned upward and slightly puckered, as if you pushed your pinky finger into it (Dr. Evil style.)  As you might imagine, Donald Trump feels contempt for many people that he encounters, and this is often the expression that he displays.

As you practice identifying this emotion in front of a mirror, try to display the emotion on both sides of your face. Often times people will find that they can only pull this off on one side (without grossly distorting their face.)  The more capable you are at identifying the emotion on yourself, the better you will be able to identify it on others.

Adding this emotion and expression in with the other domains of profiling, such as Proxemics, can provide you greater clarity into the dynamics of the group you are observing.  Especially when it occurs in micro-expressions, you can gain a great deal of information about the perception of the individual group members.

Other thoughts on contempt?  Let us know.

References for information from this post came from the following books and training:

“Emotions Revealed” Paul Ekman. St Martin’s Press, New York, NY. 2007

(Specifically Chapter 8 – Disgust and Contempt)

“Telling Lies” Paul Ekman. W.W. Norton & Company Inc, New York, NY. 2009.

(Specifically Chapter 5 – Facial Clues to Deceit)


Paul Ekman’s Micro-Expression Training Tool – Advanced

Paul Ekman’s Subtle Expression Training Tool

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