We’ve all heard it before: yawns are contagious. While that fact is true, a recent study from Duke University found that “contagious yawning” is not as strongly related to empathy, tiredness and energy levels as we thought.
Many people closely associate contagious yawning and empathy. For instance, studies have shown that psychopaths are less likely to contagiously yawn because they have no empathy. However, this study is suggesting that contagious yawning decreases with age and can lead to new insights on diseases like autism and schizophrenia.
“The lack of association in our study between contagious yawning and empathy suggests that contagious yawning is not simply a product of one’s capacity for empathy,” said study author Elizabeth Cirulli, Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine at the Center for Human Genome Variation at Duke University School of Medicine.
Contagious yawning is a widely studied issue and is different from spontaneous yawning, which occurs when someone is bored or tired. Spontaneous yawning happens in the womb and contagious yawning doesn’t occur until early childhood. The study from Duke states people with autism or schizophrenia, which involve impaired social skills, “demonstrate less contagious yawning despite still yawning spontaneously.” These findings could lead to insight on these diseases and the general biological functioning of humans.
After studying 328 people, researchers found 222 of them yawned contagiously. “Age was the most important predictor of contagious yawning, and even age was not that important. The vast majority of variation in the contagious yawning response was just not explained,” Cirulli said.