Why Is Yawning Contagious?

Yawning is contagious. When one person in the room yawns, invariably other people will yawn. That spontaneous behaviour will make people think they themselves are bored, drowsy or otherwise ready for a nap. I am so susceptible to this that I am uncontrollably yawning while writing this at 9AM on a weekday; that’s the pernicious nature of yawning.

What’s the deal with yawning?

Contagious yawning comes from some deep wiring in our subconscious and ties into our capacity for empathy and social bonding.

Yawns become contagious around age four– that’s the same age we get our socialization happening: language use, preschool, complex decision making all happen at this time too. Children on the autism spectrum are less likely to catch yawns than others. The more severe their condition, the less common the behavior gets. If autism involves an inability to inter-operate with the work around you or the emotional contexts of those around you, it says a lot that there is a relationship.

Scientists still can’t fully explain spontaneous yawning but all air breathing vertebrates yawn (reptiles on up). The number of species that have the phenomenon of contagious yawning is much smaller: humans, chimpanzees and dogs. In other words: people yawn; the closest primate species to us yawns; and man’s best friend yawn.

Yawning when others yawn, is a sign of empathy. It displays an ability to follow social cues. This is about emotional contagion. Making a marketing push go viral is also about emotional contagion. No one ever said, “I need the Hamster Dance for my day.” The viral earworms out there are all emotional and, on some level, irrational. Just as the guy yawning next to you should not make you tired by his yawning, people should be impervious to the viral videos and marketing that nevertheless gets traction.

“Emotional contagion seems to be a primal instinct that binds us together,” said Molly Helt, co-author of a study on autism and its impact on yawning. We are social animals. We look for cues. Cues don’t even have to be entirely legitimate. If I fake a yawn in a crowd, others in the crowd may elicit real yawns. We’re not limited to drowsiness inducement. We’re also prone to contagious laughter and contagious crying. These are exercises in social bonding. We behave like others to gain trust to display commonality. We behave like others because the leaders establish that a behaviour is okay to replicate.

Contagion and Social Proof

Contagious yawning is like the establishment of social proof. If we see that others are doing something, we feel okay following suit. Even if the article of proof is manufactured and honed, the followers may elicit legitimate versions of your crafted message. This is how things take off– people take a cool idea, see how many people are behind it already and feel comfortable running with the idea.
When you build an idea (information on a product, a message that needs uptake or similar), there are ways to get emotional contagion:

  • Share to draw in: when friends share, there is a window where your message appears often, but not so often that it drowns the audience.
  • Quantify: make sure your social sharing widget has a count. Big numbers impress. Even small numbers are still numbers. Don’t miss a chance to demonstrate social proof to press adoption.
  • Share to push out: the social sharing tools and widgets, like AddThis (, are critical to empowering people to share a message.
  • Don’t Overthink It: Social proof can be as basic as, “My buddy Brad likes this!” That humanizes the social proof. It puts a human face to the message. People are more likely to follow through and read if they see an image of a person in the call. People like people.

People are open to emotionally contagious ideas. You can make your idea emotionally contagious if you find a pernicious hook and tie it to people’s capacity to follow others.

Helt, Molly S., Inge-Marie Eigsti, Peter J. Snyder, Deborah A. Fein (2010). Contagious Yawning in Autistic and Typical Development. Child Development, 81(5), 1620-1631. Retrieved from

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