I remember seeing a Mythbusters episode where they weren’t able to bust the myth that yawns are contagious (they ruled it was “plausible”). In a paper published this year, two Italian researchers, Ivan Norscia and Elisabetta Palagi, carried out a more thorough experiment. The goal was to determine what are some variables that play a factor in yawn contagion. Their abstract:
The ability to share others’ emotions, or empathy, is crucial for complex social interactions. Clinical, psychological, and neurobiological clues suggest a link between yawn contagion and empathy in humans (Homo sapiens). However, no behavioral evidence has been provided so far. We tested the effect of different variables (e.g., country of origin, sex, yawn characteristics) on yawn contagion by running mixed models applied to observational data collected over 1 year on adult (>16 years old) human subjects. Only social bonding predicted the occurrence, frequency, and latency of yawn contagion. As with other measures of empathy, the rate of contagion was greatest in response to kin, then friends, then acquaintances, and lastly strangers. Related individuals (r≥0.25) showed the greatest contagion, in terms of both occurrence of yawning and frequency of yawns. Strangers and acquaintances showed a longer delay in the yawn response (latency) compared to friends and kin. This outcome suggests that the neuronal activation magnitude related to yawn contagion can differ as a function of subject familiarity. In conclusion, our results demonstrate that yawn contagion is primarily driven by the emotional closeness between individuals and not by other variables, such as gender and nationality.
The gist? You’re more likely to yawn after seeing a relative (rather than a stranger) yawn.