Identifying Contempt

Emotions are essential to our lives as humans functioning in a society. Our expressions constantly broadcast information about how we are interpreting our internal and external stimuli. No matter how in control of your life you think that you are, the generation and expression of emotions is a process that is entirely outside our higher brain’s cognitive function. We only become aware of our emotion after it has already begun. The expression of an emotion is instant, brief and distinct, no matter how intently one tries to control it. For example, a smile whether masked or outright conveys happiness or pleasure while eyebrows pulled together and down combined with raised lower eyelids and a firm upper lip are clear signs of anger.

It has been suggested that verbal communication accounts for a mere 7% of communication. Interestingly enough, we are all proficient in reading emotions of other people (some more than others). A profound example is the relationship of a mother and a newborn baby. The facial expressions that a newborn baby makes are subtle however the mother is able to discern the emotion of the child and therefore determine the cause of that emotion with relative ease. This maternal instinct is innate with all women, which indeed makes them better truth detectors by nature.

One of the most influential scientist in the 19th Century was Charles Darwin. Most famous for his work on the Theory of Evolution, Darwin’s findings laid the foundation for much of current understanding of the world today. His research and theories have indeed made him a household name. With evolution being his hallmark, it would seem the rest of his research has faded into the background. One of his later books ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals’ put forth exceptional theories on emotions and how they are linked between all primates. While controversial at the time, the broad appeal of the Theory of Evolution had an infinitely greater impact on the history books leaving his research on emotion confined to an appendix.

In 1950s, Dr. Paul Ekman inspired by Darwin’s research had taken up the mantle of the research into emotions. At the time, the consensus among researchers was such that emotions were unique to a culture and were learned from the previous generation. Diving headfirst into the most remote locations of the world, societies virtually untouched by the rest of world, Dr. Ekman sought to test this theory. Dedicating forty-five years to the study of emotions, Ekman concluded that emotions are universal across all cultures. Over the course of his research, Dr. Ekman indentified all emotions the human face was able to convey and pinpointed precisely the muscles involved with the expression. His revolutionary research has shaped the training for FBI agents, TSA workers, CIA personnel, etc. The mystique of Ekman’s findings even lead to the successful TV series ‘Lie To Me’ (an excellent show I’d personally recommend).

The emotion I would like to turn your attention to is that of contempt. Contempt may be crudely defined as a combination of both anger and disgust. Contempt is related to disgust but is different in the sense that we do not feel contempt towards a smell, taste, or touch (like we would with disgust). Contempt is only experienced towards other people or the actions of people. The anger element of contempt is mild and can be described as the anger level one would associate with annoyance. Contempt is the feeling of being superior to others either morally, physically, or mentally. One may feel contempt for other people admiring one’s lavish possessions or vanity. One may feel contempt for the rival who has been humiliated. Contempt may be classified as a negative expression however the feeling one receives while experiencing contempt is indeed pleasuring (whether we’d like to admit it or not). However, after the pleasurable feelings on contempt have faded, we may feel shame for having enjoyed being contemptuous.

The facial expression that represent contempt is very unique; it is the only one-sided facial expression. Contempt may be expressed on the right or left side of the face and can vary in intensity. The universal element of the contempt expression is the raised and tightened corner of the lips. When the contempt expression is overt, the brow may lower and the lower eyelid may raise on the same side as the raised lip corner. If the contempt expression is slight, the lip corner may only raise slightly and briefly.

Here are some examples of contempt.

A quarterback observing his replacement.

A poker player wielding a superior hand.

A celebrity encountering the paparazzi.

We can easily recognize the expression of contempt however it is impossible to definitively say what one may be channeling that emotion towards. It is sufficient to say that the more focused a subject’s attention is on the current activity, the likelihood that the current activity’s participants are the target of emotions rises. For example, a bold and witty criminal may feel contempt during a police interview. It is most likely true that he is feeling that contempt towards the interviewer however it cannot be proven. While the emotion can be identified, the trigger to that emotion can only be assumed (with greater accuracy depending the stakes of the activity).

I’ve chosen to write about this emotion because it an emotion that I see the President demonstrate often. One of the most resounding examples was the Presidential Debate held just one week ago. These facial expressions were so clear and telling that even the RNC was able to pick up on them.

Within about twelve hours of the debate the RNC produced the following attack ad. The title is ‘Smirk’ and draws special attention to the President’s facial expressions. If you were to watch the debate a second time, you would see additional clear examples of contempt. Watch carefully below and pause the video at 0:45.

There is a distinct raised right lip corner indicating contempt. In the seconds after, the President works to suppress this emotion and return to a more pleasant disposition.

Now as I stated above, the trigger of that emotion is not able to be discerned simply by one’s facial expressions. We can only infer to the roots of the contempt. Was the contempt flashed at Mitt Romney personally? Was it rooted in contempt for the American people? Or was it contempt for the situation that the President was currently in (handily losing in an activity he feels is beneath him to an opponent he views as inferior)? Perhaps his policies give better indication to whom he feels contempt for.

This Thursday for the VP debate, pay attention to what both Paul Ryan and Joe Biden say but also stay keen to their facial expressions. If you’re watching closely enough, you’ll be surprised as to what you’ll find. I would expect to see plenty of surprise (raised eyebrows, lifted upper eyelids and a furrowed brow) from Joe Biden as Paul Ryan lays out his principles and perhaps some contempt. Even keep an eye out for slight anger expressions (eyebrows draw together and down with a firm upper lip). On Thursday, Mike will preview the VP debate airing 9 EST on all major networks and online.

-Dean Jones

PS. If you’re interested in the works of Dr. Paul Ekman in the field of emotions and facial expressions, I highly recommend his book Emotions Revealed. There is a nice blend of theory, cultural evidence, and illustrative examples that provides for an intermediate study of emotions and how to recognize them in others.