Yawn

This column was originally published in The Observer Magazine / Guardian online

Here’s a simple personality test to try on whoever is sitting opposite the table from you as you read this column. When you’re fairly sure that he or she is looking at you – but without checking too obviously – yawn. Does the other person follow suit?

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If so, this suggests that your companion is a fairly empathetic person (or, at least, has a fair amount of empathy for you). A growing body of evidence suggests that contagious yawning is closely linked to empathy. For starters, babies don’t catch yawns. Rather, yawn contagion starts to appear around age 4-5, around the same time as empathy. Second, people with psychopathic personality traits, and people with autism – a condition associated with lower levels of empathy – are also less likely to catch yawns. Third, the closer you are to someone, the more likely you are to catch their yawn. A recent study found that yawn contagion was highest between family members, lower for friends, lower still for acquaintances and lowest for strangers (the same is also true amongst chimpanzees and bonobos). Finally, a study published earlier this year found that women – who, on average score higher than men on tests of empathy – are also more likely to catch yawns. Oh, one more thing. Did you yawn while reading this? A study conducted more than 20 years ago found that simply reading about yawning is enough to cause many people to do so.

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