So in my last post I explored the idea of empathy being correlated with yawning. Psychologists and researchers believe that the contagious yawn (seeing other people yawn and then yawning in response) is due to the amount of empathy you possess; one who is empathetic toward others will participate in the contagious yawn, one who is not empathetic will not. But I’ve found evidence making the claim that yawning has nothing to do with empathy.
Image taken from http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/thoughtful-animal/2012/05/17/contagious-yawning-evidence-of-empathy/
“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.”
-Elizabeth Cirulli, assistant professor at Duke University School of Medicine
Rather than empathy, research is showing that yawning is correlated with age.
According to the Huffington Post, 328 people were measured through multiple variables of cognition, emotion and fatigue before viewing a yawning clip that lasted approximately three minutes. 222, or 68%, yawned at least one time in the duration of the clip, and some people yawned up to 15 times.
The article goes on to state that over 80% of people under the age of 25 yawned in a contagious manner, while approximately 60% of 25-49 year old individuals did. 41% of people who were 50+ yawned contagiously. The results of this experiment and the hypothesis of the yawning theory is that the older you age, the less you yawn contagiously.
However, only 8% was shown to be accountable for age. So it seems that neither empathy or age is in direct correlation with contagious yawning – so what is?
“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.”
Multiple articles supporting that yawning and empathy are not correlated continue to mention that there may be genetics linked to contagious yawning. The hypothesis here is that those with disorders such as autism do not participate in the contagious yawn. Yet, when you think about it, that statement supports the empathy theory because autistic individuals are missing that social or certain cognitive development which is attained in early childhood years, i.e. the same time when empathy is developed. Therefore, their empathy is altered/impaired, and results in them not participating in the contagious yawn.
As it stands, there currently is not enough evidence to support the theory of empathy not being linked to yawning. Although it sounds strange, and we want to reject the theory, there are far more studies that show the correlation between yawning and empathy than those that reject it. In the same sense, there is not enough evidence to accept or reject the alternative hypothesis either. As time goes on I’m sure we will find more experiments that support both sides.