Now Ivan Norscia and Elisabetta Palagi have developed this line of enquiry, showing that we're more likely to catch a yawn from relatives than acquaintances, and more likely to catch them from acquaintances than strangers - presumably because we have more empathy for people with whom we're emotionally intimate.
The study was entirely observational. The researchers hung out in offices, restaurants, and waiting rooms and observed discreetly the yawning behaviour of the people about them. If one person yawned, the researchers waited to see if anyone else present yawned within the next three minutes. Data from one researcher was lost because they also caught the yawns and fell asleep (not really, I made that up). Sometimes the researchers knew the relationships of the people they were watching, other times they eavesdropped Bond-style on conversations to discern the social ties.
earlier study found that yawns are contagious even when they're "seen" non-consciously by people with damage to the visual part of their brains).
"The importance of social bond in shaping yawn contagion demonstrates that empathy plays a leading role in the modulation of this phenomenon," the researchers said. "Not only is contagion greater between familiar individuals, but it also follows an empathic gradient, increasing from strangers to kin-related individuals."
|It's a hard life|
Norscia, I., and Palagi, E. (2011). Yawn Contagion and Empathy in Homo sapiens PLoS ONE, 6 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0028472
Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.