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On the deep structure of social affect: Attitudes, emotions, sentiments, and the case of “contempt”

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 March 2016

Matthew M. Gervais
School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287-2402; Center for Human Evolutionary Studies, Department of Anthropology, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Daniel M. T. Fessler
Center for Behavior, Evolution, and Culture, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1553; Department of Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA


Contempt is typically studied as a uniquely human moral emotion. However, this approach has yielded inconclusive results. We argue this is because the folk affect concept “contempt” has been inaccurately mapped onto basic affect systems. “Contempt” has features that are inconsistent with a basic emotion, especially its protracted duration and frequently cold phenomenology. Yet other features are inconsistent with a basic attitude. Nonetheless, the features of “contempt” functionally cohere. To account for this, we revive and reconfigure the sentiment construct using the notion of evolved functional specialization. We develop the Attitude–Scenario–Emotion (ASE) model of sentiments, in which enduring attitudes represent others' social-relational value and moderate discrete emotions across scenarios. Sentiments are functional networks of attitudes and emotions. Distinct sentiments, including love, respect, like, hate, and fear, track distinct relational affordances, and each is emotionally pluripotent, thereby serving both bookkeeping and commitment functions within relationships. The sentiment contempt is an absence of respect; from cues to others' low efficacy, it represents them as worthless and small, muting compassion, guilt, and shame and potentiating anger, disgust, and mirth. This sentiment is ancient yet implicated in the ratcheting evolution of human ultrasocialty. The manifolds of the contempt network, differentially engaged across individuals and populations, explain the features of “contempt,” its translatability, and its variable experience as “hot” or “cold,” occurrent or enduring, and anger-like or disgust-like. This rapprochement between psychological anthropology and evolutionary psychology contributes both methodological and empirical insights, with broad implications for understanding the functional and cultural organization of social affect.

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