It’s a well-known fact that yawning is contagious and can spread around a room in a matter of seconds, but it turns out the phenomenon is more common among women.
During tests, researchers found that while men and women yawn spontaneously at equal rates, women are more likely to yawn in ‘reply’ to another person’s yawn.
Yawning in response to someone else is a recognised sign of empathy, which suggests that women are more empathetic and attuned to others than men.
The research was carried out at Pisa University in Italy.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the internal emotional states of others, and previous research has already shown that women are better at it than men.
For example, research has revealed women more often mimic the facial expressions of others, showing they are picking up on the other person’s state of mind.
A team led by Elisabetta Palagi, set out to examine whether women are more likely to unconsciously mimic another person’s yawning.
To test their theory, the experts secretly observed people in hundreds of work and social situations over a period of five years.
They particularly noted if subjects ‘returned’ another person’s yawn within three minutes.
The authors, writing in the journal Royal Society Open Science, defined yawning scientifically as ‘an involuntary sequence of mouth opening, deep inspiration, brief apnoea [stopping breathing] and slow expiration’.
While they said men and women yawned spontaneously at equal rates, they discovered that once someone had yawned, female participants were more likely to yawn as well.
Explaining why they think women are more likely to unconsciously mimic somebody else’s sleepiness, the researchers said that having a close emotional bond with the ‘trigger’ yawner – if they are friends or relations – makes a person more likely to pick up on their mood than that of a stranger.
The rates of contagion were significantly lower between acquaintances than between friends and family members, and significantly higher in women than in men.
The phenomenon has been seen in other social animals, such as chimps, dogs and wolves.