Dispositional Contempt: A First Look at the Contemptuous Person

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Abstract

Contempt is a powerful emotion. Marriages fail (Gottman, 1994), coworkers are shamed (Melwani & Barsade, 2011), terrorism is tended toward (Tausch et al., 2011). Despite its importance, contempt has not been investigated at the level of personality. The present research examines how our contemptuous reactions can be conceptualized and measured as a stable individual-difference variable with a range of theoretically predicted correlates. First, we introduce a measure of dispositional contempt, the tendency to look down on, distance, and derogate others who violate our standards. We then unpack the dynamics of dispositional contempt. Across 6 studies using self-report and emotion elicitation in student and MTurk samples (Ns = 165 to 1,368), we examined its (a) nomological network, (b) personality and behavioral correlates, and (c) implications for relationship functioning. Dispositional contempt was distinguished from tendencies toward related emotions and was most associated with dispositional envy, anger, and hubristic pride. Somewhat paradoxically, dispositional contempt was related to being cold and “superior,” with associations found with narcissism, other-oriented perfectionism, and various antisocial tendencies (e.g., Disagreeableness, Machiavellianism, racism), but it was also related to being self-deprecating and emotionally fragile, with associations found with low self-esteem, insecure attachment, and feeling that others impose perfectionistic standards on oneself. Dispositional contempt predicted contemptuous reactions to eliciting film clips, particularly when targets showed low competence/power. Finally, perceiving one’s romantic partner as dispositionally contemptuous was associated with lower commitment and satisfaction. Taken together, results give a first look at the contemptuous person and provide a new organizing framework for understanding contempt.

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