Always catch yourself yawning after seeing someone else’s mouth gape open?
According to a new study, it’s not necessarily about your lack of sleep. Rather, it could be a sign of empathy.
“Contagious yawning,” as it's called, is already a well-documented phenomenon. (If you’re yawning right now just reading this piece, you probably know it well.) But previously, there wasn’t much scientific evidence to suggest why this happens.
So researchers at the University of Pisa in Italy followed more than 100 friends and family members over five years and secretly recorded every time they yawned. When they analyzed the 1,461 resulting instances, they discovered an interesting pattern: Although men and women spontaneously yawned on their own in equal rates, women were much more likely to yawn if someone else had yawned first.
Not only was there a clear gender disparity, but people were also more likely to catch a yawn if it was from someone they felt close to.
“There is growing evidence that yawn contagion is an empathy-based phenomenon," the authors wrote in the study. Since women are seen as the more empathetic sex, both in traditional gender roles and in some past research, the authors propose that this trait could explain the difference in yawning.
Having the ability to replicate someone else's yawn might seem silly. But the researchers suggest that it's actually a sign of a larger, biological advantage: “The ability to preconsciously decode and replicate the emotions of others, e.g. via yawn contagion and facial mimicry, may allow women to respond with more appropriate behaviors toward others and to be more successful in forming enduring alliances,” the authors wrote.
So next time you catch a yawn, instead of reaching for the coffee, consider that it might just be a sign of your biological ability to form a deeper bond with a friend.