A yawn can travel around a room faster than a biscuit tin, which is quite a feat when you've got the family round.
Now a new study has not only confirmed that yawning is particularly contagious between friends and family, but that women are twice as likely to ‘catch’ a yawn than men.
Rather than pointing to one sex being more impressionable than the other, the new research concludes it's down to women having more empathy.
The study, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, observed participants “in their natural environment” and said the individuals were unaware of being watched.
Over a period of five years, 1,461 bouts of yawning were observed (which sounds low to those of us constantly sucking in oxygen at our desks, but fine) and revealed a difference between the sexes.
The rate of yawn-catching was “significantly lower between acquaintances than between friends and family members, and significantly higher in women than in men. These results not only confirm that yawn contagion is sensitive to social closeness, but also that the phenomenon is affected by the same gender bias affecting empathy.”
Women are believed to have evolved empathy skills beyond men's in line with the traditionally female role of caregiver. According to the team, facial mimicry such as contagious yawning is a behavioural manifestation of empathy.
Elisabetta Palagi, from the University of Pisa, Italy, who led the research, said of the results: “The degree of social bonding between individuals is important for contagious yawning, but so is gender. These two variables interact with one another to influence whether someone is likely to take part in contagious yawning.
“Women are much more empathic than men in several aspects of their lives and this has a biological basis because women have evolved for maternal care. Our question was: if females are more empathic than males, can we use contagious yawning as an indicator of this empathy? The answer is yes.”
The study concluded: “This result further supports the empathic ground of yawn contagion, in the light of the existing psychological, clinical and neurobiological evidence in favour of higher empathic abilities of women compared with men.”
So there you have it: science has basically confirmed we're simply better people. “No, no, nothing to do with my ill-advised weeknight pub crawl, I think you'll find I'm just really amazing at sharing and understanding the nuanced feelings of others.”
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