Yawning is contagious – that we already know – but now scientists have shown that women are more likely to be infected with a bout of contagious yawning than men for the simple reason that they feel greater empathy towards other people.
It is well established that many individuals will yawn when they see or hear someone else yawn, or when they even think or read about yawning. It is also known that yawning is likely to be more contagious between close friends and family members than between strangers.
However, what was not known until now is that women are significantly more likely than men to take up yawning when in the company of someone close to them who has already yawned. Researchers believe this indicates a biological difference between the sexes in their ability to feel empathy – the capacity to understand and share the feelings of others.
An analysis of yawning in men and women observed without their awareness in their “natural” environments of the office, over dinner or at social events, has revealed a significantly increased tendency for women to yawn, compared to men, after seeing a close companion yawn.
The researchers who conducted the study believe the findings indicate a deep, biological difference between the sexes in terms of their empathic emotions. Women are more in tune with the psychological state of the companions, which is why they are more likely to engage in contagious yawning, the scientists said.
“The degree of social bonding between individual is important for contagious yawning, but so is gender. These two variables interact with one another to influence whether someone is likely to take part in contagious yawning,” said Elisabetta Palagi of the University of Pisa in Italy.
“Women are much more empathic than men in several aspects of their lives and this has a biological basis because women have evolved for maternal care. Our question was, if females are more empathic than males, can we use contagious yawning as an indicator of this empathy? The answer is yes,” Dr Palagi said.
The study, published on-line in Royal Society Open Science, confirmed that both men and women wore more likely to yawn contagiously in the presence of close friends or family, but it also for the first time established that under “natural conditions” women were significantly more prone to contagious yawning than men.
Previous studies in human and in animals have suggested that contagious yawning is linked with how closely related individuals are, which suggests that it has evolved as some kind of bonding mechanism to maintain empathy within a close-knit group of individuals.
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