We’ve all been there: We’re with our loved ones when suddenly someone’s mouth stretches wide open, their eyes squint shut, and they draw a long, loud breath. Despite our best efforts, our mouths begin to tug open, and before we know it, we’re in a full-on yawn, too, trying to force out words that sound like “You may me yaw…”
It’s called contagious yawning, and studies suggest that it’s one way that people express empathy for one another and form social bonds. But yawning isn’t just contagious among human beings.
A new study confirms what dog guardians have long suspected: Dogs catch human yawns, too. A team from Sweden’s prestigious Lund University studied a group of 35 dogs, both puppies and adults, and found that 69 percent yawned in response to human yawns. Broken down by age, the results showed that puppies under 7 months old rarely yawned when people did, which confirmed the scientists’ hypothesis that puppies develop the propensity for contagious yawning as they mature, just as human children do.
The researchers concluded that contagious yawning is a sign that dogs can possess “affective empathy,” or the ability to understand human mood and emotion. But of course, guardians whose dogs have bounced around excitedly in response to their enthusiasm or lain by their side when they were sick in bed will readily attest to that.
And empathy doesn’t stop with dogs. Studies have shown that chimpanzees, elephants, rats, and many other animals display empathetic behavior. Chimpanzees who had access to tools almost always provided a fellow chimpanzee who had access to juice with the tool necessary to reach the juice, even if the helper did not receive a reward. Rats repeatedly chose to free a fellow rat from inside a container, even when it meant that they would then have to share a food reward. And elephants have displayed grief and winced at each other’s pain.
The research begs the question: Since human beings are the only species who routinely subjugate, use, and abuse other species, is it time for a study to determine whether we possess the empathy gene?