By Colin Allen, published on March 1, 2003 - last reviewed on January 23, 2015
Why is yawning more contagious for some people and not others? The
reason may be empathy. Researchers have found that people who score high
on empathy are more likely to stretch their jaws when they see others
doing so. The same research found that people with mild schizotypal
traits— healthy individuals that exhibit traits associated with
schizophrenia—were less likely to yawn when they see others do
Steven Platek, Ph.D., at Drexel University in Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania, had 65 subjects watch videos of people laughing, yawning
and staring blankly. "Those who showed contagious yawning were more
likely to perform better on our empathy test than those who did not,"
says Platek. Forty percent of the subjects yawned in reaction to the
videos; while subjects who were less likely to yawn showed some
schizotypal traits. While none of the subjects were found to be
schizophrenic, Platek notes that a yawn test may help identify some
people with the disorder.
Though a common characteristic of schizophrenia is lack of empathy,
people who don't yawn should not consider themselves schizotypal. The
research was presented at the Eastern Psychological Association Annual
Meeting in Baltimore, Maryland.