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Does yawning show empathy?

Yawning is a mysterious behavior that has long fascinated scientists and laypeople alike. Though commonly associated with tiredness, yawning does not seem to be linked to sleepiness alone. Instead, yawning appears to be triggered by complicated social and biological factors. One intriguing theory posits that yawning may actually be a sign of empathy and emotional closeness. But is there any truth to the idea that yawning shows empathy? Let’s take a closer look at the evidence.

What causes yawning?

Before examining the empathy hypothesis specifically, it helps to understand why we yawn in general. Scientists still debate the evolutionary origins and purpose of yawning. However, several theories have been proposed:

  • Yawning may help cool the brain. The deep inhalation of air during a yawn brings cooler air into the nasal and oral cavities, potentially lowering brain temperature.
  • Yawning may promote wakefulness or transition between sleep stages. Yawning often occurs when people are bored or drowsy.
  • Yawning may aid lung function. The powerful stretch of yawning may help flex the lungs and improve breathing.

These physiological theories help explain why yawning might be beneficial within an individual. But they do not account for the social influences on yawning. Understanding those social triggers can provide insight into a possible link with empathy.

Yawning is socially contagious

One of the most curious things about yawning is its tendency to spread in social settings. If someone in a group yawns, odds are that others will start yawning as well. This social contagion effect has been documented in multiple studies:

  • In one experiment, people watched video clips of people yawning. Those who saw more yawns were significantly more likely to yawn themselves.
  • The contagiousness even translates across species. In a study of chimpanzees, the apes yawned more after watching videos of humans yawning.

Yawning contagion suggests a neurological basis for empathy. Seeing, hearing, or even reading about yawning activates the same brain networks we use for first-hand yawning. This activation then triggers an actual yawn response. Scientists believe contagious yawning may have evolved as a mechanism for nonverbal communication and social bonding.

Yawning correlates with empathy

Intriguingly, the tendency to “catch” a yawn seems related to empathic ability. Studies have found that contagious yawning is more common among:

  • Close friends and family members compared to strangers
  • People who score higher on empathy assessments
  • People who are better at recognizing others’ emotions

In less empathic individuals like those with autism or schizophrenia, contagious yawning is diminished. The fact that susceptibility to contagious yawning tracks so closely with empathic capacity in both humans and nonhuman animals strongly implies a social function.

How yawning and empathy may be linked

If yawning truly reflects empathy, how might the two phenomena be connected? A few hypotheses exist:

  • Mimicry – Contagious yawning could be a form of mimicry, an unconscious empathic response we’ve evolved to build social closeness through imitation.
  • Sign of mental state – Yawning may function as a cue indicating someone’s current state of boredom, anxiety, or drowsiness. Empathic people may be better at catching these cues.
  • Arousal mechanism – Yawning could help maintain optimal levels of brain arousal and attention. Empathic people may be more attuned to the arousal states of others.

In these ways, the act of yawning and the propensity for contagious yawning may both tap into a fundamental capacity for understanding others’ internal states.

Limitations of the empathy hypothesis

While the links between yawning and empathy are quite compelling, some limitations exist in the research so far:

  • Correlation does not prove causation. More studies are needed to demonstrate that empathy directly causes contagious yawning.
  • Yawning frequency does not perfectly predict empathy. Some people yawn more frequently for biological reasons.
  • Yawning contagion can occur without awareness or conscious feeling of empathy.

There may also be confounding variables influencing both yawn contagion and empathy. For example, people with higher mirror neuron system activity could show more mimicking behaviors in general, including yawning.

Overall, the empathy hypothesis remains scientifically plausible. But more research is needed to conclusively determine if yawning and empathy are intrinsically linked.

Studies investigating the empathy-yawning connection

Here is a summary of key studies that have explored the potential relationship between yawning, contagiousness, and empathy:

Study Methods Key Findings
Platek et al. 2003 Tested contagious yawning in response to stories depicting yawning vs. control stories in 328 participants. More contagious yawning after yawning stories. Degree of contagion correlated with scores on empathy scales.
Nori et al. 2014 Measured contagious yawning frequency in people with schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorder, and nonclinical controls. Fewer contagious yawns in schizophrenia and autism groups, suggesting role of social cognition in contagion.
Massen et al. 2015 Studied yawning contagion in chimpanzees watching videos of ingroup members, outgroup chimps, humans, and control videos. More yawning in response to ingroup members, suggesting social closeness primes contagion.

Practical applications of yawning research

Understanding the mechanisms behind yawning and its relationship to empathy could have some interesting applications:

  • It could lead to new diagnostic tests for disorders like autism, psychopathy, or frontal lobe dementia that affect empathic capacity.
  • It suggests novel interventions for improving empathy through exposure to yawning stimuli.
  • It implies that medications reducing yawning could interfere with empathy and social bonding.
  • It gives insight into the overlap between motor mimicry and emotional contagion in human evolution.

In summary, while yawning measures may one day prove useful in psychology, much more research is still needed to determine their clinical validity and usefulness.


Does yawning show empathy? Based on current evidence, it seems plausible that frequent contagious yawning is a behavioral indicator of higher emotional empathy and social closeness. Yawning likely involves motor mimicry and shared neural networks that underlie empathy. Still, more research is needed on the direct relationship between yawning and empathic processes. Not everyone who yawns frequently is empathic, and not all empathic people have contagious yawning tendencies.

However, the empirical associations between yawning, contagion susceptibility, and empathy measures are quite compelling. At the very least, it seems clear that contagious yawning requires some level of neural simulation and emotional understanding. While yawning itself may not automatically reflect empathy, the phenomenon offers a window into our complex capacity for sharing experiences and connecting with others.