Contagious Yawning
Those who feel for others "catch" yawns.

November 5, 2003

You see someone yawning.
You hear someone yawning.
You read about yawning.
You think about yawning.

Now, you want to yawn. If this describes you, then you have just "caught" a yawn. Between 40 and 60% of the population is susceptible to contagious yawns, but the reason why yawns are catching is unknown. Steven Platek, Ph.D. and a team of researchers from the Department of Psychology at the State University of New York (Albany, NY) investigated contagious yawns with a series of experiments. Their data suggest that being aware of one's own mental state ("self-recognition") and the ability to see things from another person's point of view ("mental state attribution") may make people susceptible to contagious yawns.

Experiment 1

Dr. Platek and his team tested 65 college students on the Schizotypal Personality Questionnaire (SPQ). This questionnaire measures personality traits such as social anxiety, odd behavior, suspiciousness, odd speech and unusual perceptual experiences. People with schizophrenia have problems with self-awareness and show little or no contagious yawning.

Subjects also viewed 24 short videos of other people yawning, laughing or showing no behavior. The researchers watched the subjects through a one-way mirror and counted the number of times the subjects yawned, laughed or did something else.

Results:

  • Yawning videos caused subjects to yawn 41.5% of the time.
  • Non-yawning videos (e.g., laughing videos) caused subjects to yawn only 9% of the time.
  • A significant negative correlation of SPQ score and contagious yawning was found. In other words, the higher the SPQ score, the lower the number of contagious yawns.

These data support the hypothesis that "self-awareness" is related to contagious yawning.

Experiment 2

The researchers hypothesized that people who could "put themselves into other people's shoes" would be more susceptible to contagious yawns. To study this relationship, the scientists had some subjects from experiment 1 listen to stories about the beliefs of other people. The subjects were then asked questions to measure how they understood that a character in the story could hold a false belief. Other questions measured how subjects understood that a character in a story committed a social error (a faux pas).

Results:

  • There was no correlation between the number of contagious yawns and the ability of a subject to know that a story character held a false belief.
  • Subjects who had a better understanding that a story character committed a social error had more contagious yawning.

These data support the hypothesis that "mental state attribution" is related to contagious yawning.

Experiment 3

Self-awareness was measured by the speed at which subjects could identify their own faces on a computer screen. These self-recognition speeds were compared to the number of contagious yawns each subject displayed.

Results:

  • Subjects who were susceptible to contagious yawns identified their own faces faster than subjects who were unaffected by yawns.

These data support the hypothesis that "self-awareness" is related to contagious yawning.

Why are yawns contagious?

These experiments suggest that contagious yawning is related to a person's self-awareness and ability to see things from another person's view. In the words of Dr. Platek and his colleagues:

"Seeing or hearing about another person yawn may tap a primitive neurological substrate responsible for self-awareness and empathic modeling which produces a corresponding response in oneself."

The researchers also suggest that animals, such as chimpanzees and orangutans, who are capable of self-recognition and mental state attribution should be susceptible to contagious yawns. In 2012 (Demuru and Palagi), other researchers demonstrated that bonobos are susceptible to contagious yawns. Perhaps you can make some observations of such behavior the next time you are at the zoo.

Yet to be answered: Are yawns contagious to orangutans?

References:

  1. More about yawning from Neuroscience for Kids
  2. Provine, R.R. Contagious yawning and infant imitation. Bulletin Psychonomic Soc., 27:125-126, 1989.
  3. Provine, R.R. Yawning: effects of stimulus interest. Bulletin Psychonomic Soc., 24:437-438, 1986.
  4. Provine, R.R. Faces as releasers of contagious yawning: an approach to face detection using normal human subjects. Bulletin Psychonomic Soc., 27:211-214, 1989.
  5. Provine, R.R. Yawning as a stereotyped action pattern and releasing stimulus. Ethology, 72:109-122, 1986.
  6. Provine, R.R., Hamernik, H.B. and Curchack, B.B. Yawning: relation to sleeping and stretching in humans. Ethology, 76:152-160, 1987.
  7. The neuropharmacology of yawning
  8. Demuru, E. and Palagi, E., In Bonobos Yawn Contagion Is Higher among Kin and Friends, PLoS One. 2012;7(11):e49613. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0049613.
  9. Yawning: no effect of 3-5% CO2, 100% O2, and exercise

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