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May 2017
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Every one of us, even if it is probably in different ways and in different amounts, feels emotions and every day we experience how our thoughts and behaviour are affected by these emotions. Emotions, other than making our existence more colourful, are also important for species’ and individual development and  adaptation. Such an assumption is not only useful for the more simple and well-known emotions, but also for more complex emotions related to social interaction. Here we will analyse the adaptive value and how two emotions, which are related to one another, manifest themselves: the fundamental emotion disgust and the more complex one contempt.

The adaptive value of emotions

The so called basic emotions like happiness, sadness, fear, anger and disgust are activated by people or objects which have a strong significance for the individual or species. In this sense, happiness and sadness are the typical emotions associated with the presence or loss of attachment figures, respectively, such as parental figures, a partner, children, companions or friends, whilst fear and anger are evoked by competitors, enemies or events that happen in one's territory. Lastly, disgust is related to food and indicates the presence of harmful substances.
Similarly, also complex emotions, such as embarrassment, shame, guilt, envy, jealousy and contempt, have an adaptive value. In fact, being closely related to the perceptions we have of ourselves and how we relate to our external environment, these emotions allow us to adjust our social interactions for the best. From this point of view it appears to be interesting to describe and compare, from an evolutionary and adaptive perspective, two emotions which, although they have received less attention than others, are nevertheless important from a functional point of view. They are the fundamental emotions disgust and contempt, the latter being an emotion which is close to disgust but which is more complex.

The adaptive value of disgust and contempt

Diversely from the majority of emotions, disgust is stimulated by a trigger which is not alive, rather it is something inanimate: food. Disgust is considered to be a fundamental emotion and its signs are recognised universally and, according to the current interpretation, its function is to protect us from the risk of coming into contact, and especially ingesting, potentially harmful substances. We experience disgust through sensory stimuli: seeing, touching and being hit by a smell of something that repulses us and makes us want to move away from where we are so that we can look away, shake our hands or spit out what is in our mouth.
Contempt also has an adaptive value and, from an evolutionary point of view, it can be considered as a way to express ourselves which serves to prepare individuals or groups for facing something dangerous. Diversely from disgust though, contempt is stimulated by a live object, thus it is related to social interaction. Contempt is therefore considered to be a complex emotion, not just because of its stimuli, but also because it is harder to recognise compared to other primary emotions and because signs of it appear later on. Contempt develops in humans between 15-18 months old and it is thought that the social and cultural rules a child learns during growth influence contempt and the expression it.

Signs of disgust and contempt

Disgust is recognised and shows itself through typical facial expressions which cannot be controlled, such as nostrils flaring and the mouth opening as if to get rid of what is inside the nose and mouth. When disgust is quite intense it can be accompanied by nausea and vomiting and, usually, when faced with an object which induces disgust, the whole body contracts and tries to move away from the object in question. Furthermore, we also makes noises which show we are disgusted. There are also some similarities between how we show disgust and contempt; for instance, the facial expression for contempt is the same as that for disgust, only it is less intense and, if the contempt we feel for someone is very strong, it can make us nauseous and be repulsed, the signs of which are very similar to those of disgust towards a repulsive smell.

A peculiar characteristic of contempt, compared to disgust and other emotions, is the important role played by verbal responses: when experiencing contempt, we often make sarcastic or ironic jokes and we mock, scorn or, in extreme cases, insult the object of contempt.

What are disgust and contempt related to?

Rozin and Fallon are two psychologists who have studied the emotion of disgust and who claim that the object which triggers this emotion is almost always of animal origin or may be a living and intact animal (such as a cockroach), part of a living being (such as an amputated leg) or pieces of animal origin (such as blood or guts). In addition, although it is noted that objects which induce disgust vary from culture to culture, rather than from individual to individual, there are some, such as faeces, urine and mucus, which unify all the inhabitants of the earth in unanimous revulsion.

Contempt, by contrast, is mainly expressed in situations of social interaction. In particular, contempt toward another individual is mainly caused by unconventional behaviour, the betrayal of trust, transgression of social conventions, behaving aggressively and violently and unjustified attitudes of superiority, insincerity and falseness.
It is also been noted that there are significant differences between males and females in terms of feeling contempt: for males, a betrayal of trust and unjustified attitudes of superiority are the most common triggers; for females, the triggers are unconventional behaviour and falseness.


From what has been reported here, we can see that, although some emotions have not been studied as much as others, all emotions are extremely important for our well-being and the preservation of our species. As far as disgust is concerned, its oldest function prevents the body from coming into contact, ingesting, inhaling or touching food or substances which are potentially harmful to the body. Regarding contempt, this emotion allows individuals to modulate their social relationships, making them more functional, and to compare themselves to others in terms of values and socially shared behavioural norms, even when very close to experiencing this feeling.

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