Study of the Day: Those Who Love One Another, Yawn Together

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The phenomenon of "yawn contagion" goes beyond copycat tendencies. New behavioral research shows it may be a sign of empathy.

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PROBLEM: The phenomenon of contagious yawning is widely known but little understood. Clinical, psychological, and neurobiological studies have suggested a link between yawn reciprocation and human empathy, but there has been no behavioral evidence to back up this belief.

METHODOLOGY: University of Pisa in Italy researchers Ivan Norscia and Elisabetta Palagi observed the yawning behavior of 109 adults for over one year. They tested the effect of several variables, including country of origin, sex, social bonding, and yawn characteristics, on the spread of yawning.

RESULTS: Only social bonding predicted the occurrence, frequency, and pace of yawn spread. More precisely, contagion was highest in response to family, then friends, then acquaintances, and finally strangers -- the same pattern observed in other measures of empathy.

CONCLUSION: You're more likely to reciprocate yawns that originate from people you are close to than from a stranger.

SOURCE: The full study, "Yawn Contagion and Empathy in Homo sapiens," is published in the journal PLoS ONE.

Image: Yuri Arcurs/Shutterstock.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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