About half of adults yawn after someone else yawns due to a universal phenomenon called “contagious yawning. Contrary to popular belief, a new study from Duke University suggests that contagious yawning is not strongly related to variables like empathy, tiredness, or energy levels.
Previous studies have suggested that there is a connection between contagious yawning and empathy. However, researchers at The Duke Center for Human Genome Variation found that contagious yawning may decrease as people age and may not be associated with empathy.
The study, titled “Individual Variation in Contagious Yawning Susceptibility Is Highly Stable and Largely Unexplained by Empathy or Other Known Factors,” was published March 14 in the journal PLOS ONE. This is one of the most comprehensive studies to examine the factors that influence contagious yawning to date.
"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. The researchers emphasized that a better understanding of the biology involved in contagious yawning could ultimately lead to a better understanding of illnesses such as schizophrenia and autism.
A 2010 study from the University of Connecticut found that most children aren't susceptible to contagious yawning until they're about four years old and that children with autism are less likely to yawn contagiously than others.