New research from Lund University, Sweden, has shown for the first time that chimpanzees catch yawns from humans, and that the susceptibility to contagious yawning develops gradually with age – just like it does in humans...
Yawning together is not just a sign of being tired at the same time. Previous research, on adult humans, chimpanzees, bonobos, baboons and dogs, has suggested that contagious yawning may be used as a measure of empathy, that is, the ability to feel or imagine others’ emotional experiences. One argument for this is that we tend to be more susceptible to catching yawns from those we are close to.
As a way of examining the role that empathy with the yawner played for contagion, the study also compared the chimpanzees’ reactions towards yawns from their human surrogate mother and a stranger. Contrary to prediction, there was no difference in the likelihood of yawning when engaging with an unfamiliar person from someone with whom the chimpanzees had a close relationship.