Yawns — they can spread rapidly, especially during dark winter mornings and long business meetings.
But according to a new study, women are more at risk than men of “catching” them.
The study, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science by a group of researchers from the University of Pisa in Italy, suggests that although women and men yawn “spontaneously” at the same rate, women are more likely than men to be “infected” with yawns.
In other words, women are more likely to yawn right after someone else near them has.
“We demonstrated that yawn contagion is gender affected,” said Elisabetta Palagi, a behavioural biologist and co-author of the study over the phone from Pisa.
Palagi and her team believe women are more likely to catch yawns than men because they say women are more empathetic and attuned to other people’s emotions.
There’s some academic research to support the claim that women are more empathetic, including a 2009 Spanish study of just over 500 male and female teenagers.
In the yawning study, the Pisa team covertly observed more than a thousand bouts of yawning over a five-year period in train stations, airports and on the street, without people aware they were being watched.
They then eliminated subjects and yawning instances for control purposes, such as yawners who did not know each other — the paper also found people are more likely to catch yawns from friends, family or coworkers, than strangers — to get down to about 100 instances of yawning contagion in order to examine any difference between men and women.
“We typed in mobile phones or wrote on notebooks, every yawn that was emitted by each person, the time and who could perceive it,” wrote researcher Elisa Demuru in an email.
“If a person who perceived a yawn yawned within a three-minute time slot, that yawn was considered as contagion.”
Yawns that were not preceded by another yawn within five minutes were classified as “spontaneous.”
The researchers even used their own friends as guinea pigs, secretly monitoring their yawns when they came over for dinner and drinks.
“They were at my house, so, no problem. It is (a) very, very cheap,” way of doing research, said Palagi with a laugh.
The team also collected data on subjects in Madagascar, where they went to study lemurs for a different project. The airport, Palagi said, was ideal for data collection as people standing in lineups would often cause a chain-yawn reaction.
It’s not the first study to explore empathy and yawn contagion.
A 2015 Baylor University study found that psychopaths, who are known to have less empathy, are less likely to catch yawns than other people.
Palagi said future research could include a more controlled experiment in a lab, or a comparison of yawning between species.
She said she’s always been fascinated by yawning, which she calls “a very strange behaviour.”
“Yawning is contagious, but why we spontaneously yawn — it is another story,” she said. “It is extremely difficult to understand.”
She calls it a “subtle and unconscious” form of communication.
“When we are all together around the table for dinner and one or two people around the table begin to yawn, and the other ones follow them, OK it’s time to go to bed.”