A Question For The Ages: Why Are Yawns Contagious?
February 19, 2013

A Question For The Ages: Why Are Yawns Contagious?

You’re sitting in the front lobby of your favorite restaurant waiting patiently to be seated when the lady next to you yawns. Then you yawn. Then your significant other yawns, then your children, and repeat until its time to eat. Why is that?

It’s a question we’ve surely all pondered. Even more surely, we’ve heard crazy superstitions and nonsense answers: why are yawns contagious? Changes in atmospheric pressure, subconscious influence, the mirror neuron effect, and the list goes on and on.

Tons of scientific research lends to the theory that contagious yawning is an empathetic act. Just like smiling, frowning, or crying, when we see someone emoting, that emotion is thrust upon us whether we like it or not. That statement holds even more truth when the person we see emoting is someone we know or love.

If your wife cries, it makes you sad. If your baby laughs it makes you smile. Simple.

Research From the University of Pisa published in 2011 suggests that “the more you bond, the more you yawn.”

As National Geographic explains, “The findings suggest that yawning is a form of empathizing with people experiencing a feeling, which—in the case of yawning—usually means stress, anxiety, boredom, or fatigue.”

“This is the important point: By reenacting the mechanism, it’s like you share emotions, so your response is higher because you mirrored each other’s emotions,” said study co-author Ivan Norscia of the Natural History Museum at the University of Pisa in Italy.

In the study, the researchers spent a year collecting behavioral data from more than a hundred adults of different nationalities.

“The scientists recorded several variables, such as the subjects’ relationships to one another, countries of origin, genders, and styles of yawning, i.e., open-mouth versus suppressed yawning.”

The research team then developed a statistical model based on their data and verified the effects of each variable on contagious yawning.

“In the model, only social bonding emerged as a predictor of response to another person’s yawn, according to the study, published December 7 in the journal PLoS ONE.”

The research provides “a pretty compelling case that empathy may be involved in contagious yawning among humans,” said Andrew Gallup, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University who has also studied yawning.

It doesn’t stop with humans though. Research published on redOrbit even concluded this to be true in chimpanzees.

“In the study, 23 adult chimps were shown several nine-second video clips of other chimpanzees yawning. Not only was the yawning contagious, but chimpanzees yawned 50 percent more often when the ape in the video was a member of their own social group, as opposed to a stranger.”

Contagious yawns are also less likely amongst children, since it’s based on empathy, and young children usually have yet to develop such complex emotions.

Ironically, I’ve yawned probably more than 20 times while writing this blog, but I don’t know any of subjects of the experiment, any of the people in the stock photos used for the featured image of this blog, or any of the chimps for that matter. Yet for some reason, I can’t stop yawning. I must be filled with empathy.

The reason for my questioning this yawn phenomenon is, one day I was playing Xbox Live, and I heard one of my teammates yawn. (For anyone who doesn’t know, Xbox Live is the hub used for online gaming through Microsoft’s Xbox 360 console, and includes chat capabilities with microphones/headsets.) When I heard the guy yawn, I yawned; then one of our other teammates yawned. We proceeded to pass it around like a hot potato two or three times.

Strange. We were complete strangers, and couldn’t see one another, so the suggestions of atmospheric pressure, and mirror neurons are completely out. Although I don’t consciously have empathy for strangers who I play with online, there’s really no other explanation.

Image Credit: Bevan Goldswain / Shutterstock

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