I’m sure you’ve all heard that watching someone else yawn makes you yawn. I have, and I am certainly a victim to this. However, not everyone participates in the contagious yawn. What separates those who participate in the contagious yawn and those who do not? Psychologists have a theory that your response and participation to others’ yawning is correlated with how nice of a person you are.
The word that psychologists often connect with yawning is empathy. Empathy, by definition, is the ability to understand and connect with others’ emotional states. Empathy is a part of cognitive development that each child is supposed to attain as they grow up. Their environment and genetics play a significant factor in the exposure to empathy attainment. Psychology Today reported that a 2010 study from the University of Connecticut found that most children aren’t vulnerable to contagious yawning until they’re approximately four years old, which is said to be because the toddlers have not understood the concept of empathy yet.
According to Josh Clark, Leeds University in England conducted a study involving eighty students. Each person was instructed to sit by themselves in a waiting room, along with a disguised assistant who yawned in order to receive responses from the individuals. The students were then given a test showing various images of eyes and asked what emotion each image exhibited.
The eighty students were split in half – half psychology majors, half engineering majors. The hypothesis was that the psychology students would yawn more than the engineering students because their profession encourages empathy and emphasizes understanding others’ emotions. The study showed that the psychology students yawned contagiously an average of 5.5 times in the waiting room and scored 28 out of 40 on the emotional test (70%). The engineering students, who were predicted to score lower because of the personality traits associated with those who excel in science and mathematics, yawned an average of 1.5 times and scored 25.5 out of 40 on the following test (approximately 63%). One could argue that 25.5 opposed to 28 does not make a significant difference, but it must be noted that the emotional test has potential for factors of error. 5.5 in comparison to 1.5 is a substantial difference. One thing I found intriguing about this study was that women were not reported to be more empathetic than men, which you would expect because the typical stereotype of women is to be caring, nurturing, etc.
In 2008, The University of London also conducted a study on this theory, but used dogs rather than humans. The simple fact that a dog is a man’s best friend convinced Ramiro Joly-Mascheroni that a dog was the perfect player in displaying empathy.
Jason Goldman wrote, “In one condition, the experimenter, who was a stranger to the dogs, attracted the dogs’ attention and then initiated a genuine yawn. The yawn was repeated for five minutes after re-establishing eye contact with the dog, which meant that the number of yawns varied between ten and nineteen per individual. In the control condition, the experimenter displayed a fake yawn, which mimicked the mouth opening and closing actions, but not the vocalization or other subtle muscular changes.”
Image taken from: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/thoughtful-animal/files/2012/05/dog-yawn.jpg
(a) the dog watches the stranger yawning
(b) the dog begins to yawn while the stranger finishes his yawn
(c) the dog finishes its yawn
The results? Human yawning made 21 out of 29 dogs, or 72%, yawn in response. It was reported that none of the dogs yawned in the control condition.
So, as it stands, this study along with many others claim that yawning is correlated with how nice of a person, or being in general you are. Stay tuned for my next blog which will explore the null hypothesis stating that yawning and empathy have nothing to do with each other.