Women are more likely to be affected with contagious yawning than men because they are more understanding towards others. It may sound a bit sexist, but a study backs this up.

Researchers from the University of Pisa in Italy secretly observed more than 100 people in their natural environments during the five-year study. Most of the participants are friends and family, making it easy for the research team to log when the subjects yawned and what made them yawn.

The team logged their observations during dinner, travel and even during work hours. The study's lead author Elisabetta Palagi secretly observed her own husband's yawning.

The team found a pattern: people often catch the contagious yawning from someone they are close to. They also discovered that women are more likely to catch it than men.

Majority of the data showed women are more empathetic than men, on average. This suggests that contagious yawning is established on empathy, which is the ability to understand and mirror the feelings or emotions of another person. The findings were published in the journal Royal Society Open Science on Feb. 3.

"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," said Palagi.

Liz Cirulli, a geneticist from Duke University, said that despite making a good case, the research team didn't measure the empathy levels of the participants. Rather, they assumed that the female participants were naturally more empathetic than the male participants.

Cirulli, who was not involved in the research and also did a study on contagious yawning, said that the basis on empathy would make sense but it wasn't clear in Palagi's study if that's what's really happening. 

Past studies among animals and humans found that contagious yawning is associated with the level of closeness among individuals.  

Andrew Gallup from the State University of New York, Oneonta, said other research found no gender bias when it comes to contagious yawning. Gallup said until other researchers arrive at the same conclusion as Palagi's, he won't be convinced contagious yawning has anything to do with gender.

Photo: Josh Sniffen | Flickr

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