Contagious yawning, empathy, and their relation to prosocial behavior

J Exp Psychol Gen. 2018 Dec;147(12):1950-1958. doi: 10.1037/xge0000422. Epub 2018 May 17.


Humans express facial mimicry across a variety of actions. This article explores a distinct example, contagious yawning, and the links to empathy and prosocial behavior. Prior studies have suggested that there is a positive link between empathy and the susceptibility to contagious yawning. However, the existing evidence has been sparse and contradictory. We present results from 2 laboratory studies conducted with 171 (Study 1) and 333 (Study 2) student volunteers. Subjects were video-recorded while watching muted videos of individuals yawning, scratching, or laughing. Empathy was measured using the Interpersonal Reactivity Index. Although subjects imitated all facial expressions to large extents, our studies show that only contagious yawning was related to empathy. Subjects who yawned in response to observing others yawn exhibited higher empathy values by half a standard deviation. However, we found no evidence that the susceptibility to contagious yawning is directly related to prosocial behavior. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2018 APA, all rights reserved).

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Empathy / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Imitative Behavior / physiology*
  • Male
  • Social Behavior*
  • Students
  • Video Recording
  • Yawning / physiology*
  • Young Adult