Individual Variation in Contagious Yawning Susceptibility Is Highly Stable and Largely Unexplained by Empathy or Other Known Factors

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The contagious aspect of yawning is a well-known phenomenon that exhibits variation in the human population. Despite the observed variation, few studies have addressed its intra-individual reliability or the factors modulating differences in the susceptibility of healthy volunteers. Due to its obvious biological basis and impairment in diseases like autism and schizophrenia, a better understanding of this trait could lead to novel insights into these conditions and the general biological functioning of humans. We administered 328 participants a 3-minute yawning video stimulus, a cognitive battery, and a comprehensive questionnaire that included measures of empathy, emotional contagion, circadian energy rhythms, and sleepiness. Individual contagious yawning measurements were found to be highly stable across testing sessions, both in a lab setting and if administered remotely online, confirming that certain healthy individuals are less susceptible to contagious yawns than are others. Additionally, most individuals who failed to contagiously yawn in our study were not simply suppressing their reaction, as they reported not even feeling like yawning in response to the stimulus. In contrast to previous studies indicating that empathy, time of day, or intelligence may influence contagious yawning susceptibility, we found no influence of these variables once accounting for the age of the participant. Participants were less likely to show contagious yawning as their age increased, even when restricting to ages of less than 40 years. However, age was only able to explain 8% of the variability in the contagious yawn response. The vast majority of the variability in this extremely stable trait remained unexplained, suggesting that studies of its inheritance are warranted.






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Bartholomew, Alex J, and Elizabeth T Cirulli (2014). Individual Variation in Contagious Yawning Susceptibility Is Highly Stable and Largely Unexplained by Empathy or Other Known Factors. PLoS One, 9(3). 10.1371/journal.pone.0091773 Retrieved from

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