Theses and Dissertations

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Dr. Jennifer Welbourne

Second Advisor

Dr. Pingshu Li

Third Advisor

Dr. Jorge Gonzalez


Organizational behavior research on the “moral emotions” has rapidly increased in the past few years (Greenbaum, Bonner, Gray & Mawritz, 2020). However, specific emotions have been researched to different extents. In particular, contempt has received relatively less attention than other emotions, perhaps, due to the confusion surrounding its distinction from related emotions such as disgust and anger (Greenbaum et al., 2020). At the same time, there is evidence of contempt being experienced since antiquity (Pakaluk, 2018), across cultures (Ekman & Friesen, 1986), and more recently in organizations (Pelzer, 2005). I argue that it is important to understand the role of contempt in organizations further. Therefore, in this dissertation I seek to extend knowledge of contempt’s elicitation and functionality in the workplace, specifically, examining the following research questions: (1) How do values influence the elicitation of contempt at work? (2) What are workplace behaviors associated with feeling contempt? (3) Does feeling contempt have [a] associative, [b] social-distancing, and [c] self-regulatory functions in the workplace?

To address these research questions, I draw from Fischer and Giner-Sorolla’s (2016) general model of contempt and Schwartz’s values theory (Schwartz, 1992) to argue that contempt is elicited in the workplace when employees appraise a coworker as being inferior relative to the self. Further, I argue that appraisals of relative inferiority are based on the focal employee’s (i.e., the “contemnor”) perception that the target’s values hierarchy conflicts with their own personal values hierarchy. I argue that such perceived value incongruence between the contemnor and the target elicits contempt towards the target, which then motivate contemptuous behaviors that manifest in the form of workplace incivility. Furthermore, I argue that feeling contempt, as well its behavioral outcomes serve a functional purpose for the contemnor (i.e., the employee feeling contempt). Specifically, I argue that feeling contempt and behaving contemptuously reaffirms the contemnor’s values and increases his or her self-appraisals of morality. Additionally, I argue that contempt and its behaviors serve a social-distancing function, increasing the distance between the contemnor and the target. Lastly, I argue that contempt has a self-regulatory function, reducing feelings of stronger emotions, such as anger and disgust, towards the target.

To test my hypotheses, I conducted two studies. The first study employed an online experiment using workplace vignettes to closely examine the elicitation of contempt from a values perspective. Results from a multi-group structural equation modeling (SEM) analysis unexpectedly found that, across conditions, workers that highly prioritize self-transcendence values were less likely to feel contempt for the fictitious coworker presented in vignettes. At the same time, results from this study did not find support to suggest that workers feel more contempt for the fictitious coworker that displays low levels of their prioritized values nor that perceptions of value incongruence elicit contempt.

The second study employed a three-wave time-lagged online survey to examine the elicitation of contempt and its behavioral and functional outcomes in the workplace. In contrast to Study 1, results from a longitudinal SEM analysis found support to suggest that workers felt more contempt for coworkers that fail to uphold their prioritized value than for coworkers that regularly uphold their prioritized value. However, consistent with Study 1, results from this study also found no support to suggest that perceptions of value incongruence mediate between observing displays of value deficiency and feeling contempt. In addition, results from Study 2 found evidence that contempt motivates uncivil behavior towards targets of contempt and that contempt leads to increased moral self-appraisals and increased distance between the target and the contemnor. However, counter to my hypotheses, contempt did not regulate future feelings of anger or disgust, instead they were positively associated.

Taken together, these studies contribute primarily to moral emotions research in organizational behavior. They integrate research on values and contempt to investigate the elicitation of contempt from a perspective of values. Accordingly, they contribute to ongoing discussions on the different domains of appraisals from which contempt can be elicited. In addition, Study 1 identifies self-transcendence as a value prioritization that leads workers to be less likely to feel contempt. Further, this dissertation integrates workplace incivility with research on contempt and values. Specifically, it identifies feeling contempt and observing deficiency in a prioritized value as predictors of uncivil behavior towards the target. Additionally, this dissertation contributes to literature on contempt’s functionality. While multiple perspectives propose that contempt can serve various functions, empirical tests are scarce. Findings from this dissertation support the argument that contempt serves an associative function (i.e., it leads to relative moral self-appraisals) and a social-distancing function.

Finally, this dissertation also contributes to practice. While organizational behavior scholars argue that understanding moral emotions is critical to understanding organizational ethics and morality, examinations of contempt in organizational behavior are minimal. This dissertation examined how contempt can be elicited at work, as well as its behavioral and functional outcomes. Accordingly, managers and organizations can gain a better understanding of both the antecedents and consequences of contempt at work. Specifically, results from this dissertation find that observing coworkers lacking in a prioritized value elicits feelings of contempt, while workers that prioritize self-transcendence are less likely to feel contempt for their coworkers. With regards to consequences, the results find that contempt leads to uncivil behavior towards the target, increased distance between the target and the contemnor, and appraisals of moral superiority. As such, feeling contempt may be functional for the contemnor but incivility has no functional role, while it can harm the target. Thus, it may be beneficial for managers to create distance or allow for natural distance between workers that prioritize conflicting values, allowing for feelings of contempt but reducing uncivil behavior.


Copyright 2021 Gerardo A. Miranda. All Rights Reserved.