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The Mythbusters have "confirmed" the contagiousness of yawning between humans and this study concludes it may be part of a neural network involved in empathy.

This hypothesis is supported by another study that found that children under the age of 4, and children with autism, are less susceptible to contagious yawning.

Yawning also seems quite common in the animal kingdom

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and apparently humans can "infect" dogs with their yawning, which made me wonder:

Is yawning contagious across species? Are there studies researching this?

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nice one, I noticed (in a classroom) that coughing is coutagious, didn't knew about yawning –  Guillaume86 Mar 25 '11 at 17:46
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Anecdotally, I felt a need to yawn just looking at those pictures! –  Larian LeQuella Mar 25 '11 at 17:55
    
Normally I like Mythbusters, but that one was terrible. 4% difference and it's confirmed? I'm not sure a sample of thousands of yawns and/or people would even have an error rate lower than the 2% to explain that difference. –  NickC Mar 25 '11 at 23:38
    
I once was given the delightful explanation that a differential in air pressure triggered you to yawn to "pop your ears". That act itself caused a teeny change in the room's air-pressure, which triggered the next person to need to yawn! If that explanation is true (and how could such a perfect, logical explanation be wrong?) then yawning must be contagious across species... –  Oddthinking Jun 2 '11 at 2:16
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3 Answers 3

A 2008 university of London study showed that dogs can catch yawns from people who are strangers to them. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7541633.stm

Anecdotally, my cats often catch yawns from me!

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Mainstream media routinely get scientific studies wrong. And not just slightly – completely, to the point that the opposite of what the study found gets reported. It would therefore be nice to have the actual studie rather than “just” a news report about it, even if the report comes from a respectable organisation such as the BBC. –  Konrad Rudolph Sep 7 '11 at 14:38
    
My cat just caught a yawn from me few hours ago. –  ajax333221 Jan 23 '12 at 5:27
    
The study (presumably Joly-Mascheroni, R. M., Senju, A., & Shepherd, A. J. (2008). Dogs catch human yawns. Biology Letters, 4, 446-448.) can be found at rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/4/5/446.full –  Henry Apr 2 '12 at 12:26
    
I've never seen my cat catch a yawn from me, but I've surely caught a yawn from her before! :) –  Sam I Am Apr 17 '12 at 4:09
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The 2011 IgNobel price in physiology has been awarded to a group for their paper

Wilkinson, A., N. Sebanz, I. Mandl, and L. Huber. “No Evidence of Contagious Yawning in the Red-footed Tortoise Geochelone Carbonaria.” Curr Zool 57, no. 4 (2011): 477–484.

It is freely available on the web: http://www.currentzoology.org/paperdetail.asp?id=11922

They have a nice summary of the current state of affairs. While contagious yawning is known to occur in some species, the reason for it is still not understood. There are several hypotheses to explain contagious yawning in humans, and each hypothesis makes a different prediction for what other animals should experience contagious yawning:

  • One hypothesis states that "yawning is a fixed action pattern for which the releaser stimulus is the observation of another yawn". This hypothesis would predict that contagious yawning should be observed in all vertebrates that yawn.
  • Another hypothesis states that this is an act of "non-concious social mimicry", in which case it should be observed in those species where "perception and action rely on common neural representations and social relations are of import".
  • Yet a third hypothesis relates contagious yawning to empathy, in which case only the higher primates should show it.

Aim of the study was to find an animal that does not show empathy or non-social mimicry and see if that species showed contagious yawning. If so, it would support the first hypothesis, if not, it would rule it out.

The result of their paper:

The results revealed that there was no overall difference in responding across conditions suggesting that tortoises do not possess the ability to yawn contagiously

So we have at least one species that yawns, but doesn't yawn contagiously.

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Three things:

  • Current research shows that yawn contagiousness in humans is related to empathy (and is a partial explanation as to why young children are not affected, and why the yawner doesn't even need to be alive [cartoons yawning for example].

    http://health.howstuffworks.com/mental-health/human-nature/behavior/contagious-yawn.htm http://news.discovery.com/human/yawning-social-behavior.html
  • Corrolation != causation, nor does a tiny bit of empirical evidence prove anything (and does not count as an experiment)
  • Please; never confuse mythbusters with having anything to do with the scientific method on a regular basis

That said. Humans tend to "catch" yawns from other species, and other higher level species seem to "catch" yawns from humans. This has not been shown to work on lower animal species such as cats/dogs/turtles/fish/whatever. Strangely, this behaviour doesn't stand out within a species (dogs yawn when other dogs yawn).

Long story short...there is no evidence to support an answer one way or another. Even in humans only 40%-60% (at best) find a yawn to be contagious.

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I absolutely agree that "Mythbusters" is not to be taken too seriously. That's why I used quotation marks. And the interesting thing is that it's still unknown why we even yawn. Animals might yawn for different reasons than humans. –  Oliver_C Mar 26 '11 at 12:23
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You've asked us to avoid trusting Mythbusters' science, but then answered a skeptical question with your own conjecture and facts and figures that are not referenced in away. –  NickC Sep 6 '11 at 18:12
    
Added links that reference the empathy aspect of yawning. The mythbusters comment is a reminder that, although entertaining, is not about the scientific method. –  iivel Sep 7 '11 at 0:40
    
Zombie Feynman has a differing view. –  Oddthinking Apr 2 '12 at 0:48
    
Your first link is unreferenced, apart from a broken link to the Daily Telegraph. This answer would be better with links to primary sources. –  Oddthinking Apr 2 '12 at 0:51
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