News / Science & Technology

Chimps Respond to Human Yawning

Chimpanzees at the Chimp Eden rehabilitation center, near Nelspruit, South Africa, Feb. 1, 2011.
Chimpanzees at the Chimp Eden rehabilitation center, near Nelspruit, South Africa, Feb. 1, 2011.

Multimedia

Audio
Joe DeCapua
A new study says as chimpanzees grow, they increase their ability for empathy – the ability to recognize emotions in others. Researchers say they learned this by watching chimps yawn when they see people yawn.


Elaine Masden and her colleagues at Lund University in Sweden base their conclusions on studying the primates in a sanctuary. But you have to ask – why study contagious yawning?

Laughing, she said, “I don’t know. It’s a really peculiar effect. It’s such a small thing, but that nonetheless most of us experience. Most of us when we see or hear others yawn or just think about yawning or read about yawning then we ourselves begin to yawn. So it’s something that most people are familiar with.”
Dr. Madsen -- an evolutionary psychologist -- says not everyone reacts the same way. About half of people tested do not respond to contagious yawning.

“It begs the question, why? If it’s something that we find all over the world, why do only roughly half of us do it?

Not that she’s pointing fingers, but among those who generally do not respond to contagious yawning…

“Psychopaths, for example, don’t show contagious yawning. And we know that they are very low on – what’s called – effective empathy. There are two types of empathy that researchers usually operate with. One is cognitive empathy, which is a very high level of empathy where you sort of imagine how someone else must be feeling or thinking. And then there’s the more simple kind of empathy, which is more immediate and we see that in animals. The kind of empathy where, for example, if you see someone caught their hand you instantly feel in in your stomach. It hurts. Psychopaths, for example, don’t experience this effective empathy. They can be very clever, but they don’t experience this effective empathy,” she said.

So psychopaths don’t have as much effective empathy as a chimpanzee.

In humans, children begin to yawn when they see other people yawn starting at around four years old. It indicates they’re beginning to develop empathy. The yawning response – or yawn contagion – is strongest between people who know each other well.

There are a lot of theories as to why people and some animals yawn. Madsen thinks it could be something to synchronize group behavior.

Madsen and her colleagues studied 33 orphaned chimps, ranging from infants to eight years old. They had the chimps watch them as they yawned, opened and closed their mouths in fake yawns and wiped their noses. The chimps only responded to the yawns, but only if they were at least five years of age. Any chimp younger than that appeared immune to contagious yawning – just about the same as humans. So empathy develops over the first few years of life.

Madsen said, “Some people have looked at adult chimps and have shown them cartoons of other chimps yawning and that sets off their yawning as well. The stimulus, the yawn stimulus, can be very simple and still set off a yawn. We seem to have this very strong inclination to copy the yawn, whether it’s from a cartoon, whether it’s another human that the animal sees. I also catch their yawns. It also works the other way around. So very simple stimulus can make us yawn.”

Madsen said that the research poses more questions than it provides answers. So, a lot more study is needed as to what it all means.

This contagious yawning that’s seen between people and chimps is not common between people and other animals. In fact, cross species yawn contagion – that’s the scientific term – has previously only been demonstrated in dogs -- but not until the dogs are at least seven months old. Dogs can become so in-tune with their owners yawning that they not only copy the behavior, but get sleepy as well.

You May Like

Turkey: No Ransom Paid for Release of Hostages Held by IS Militants

President Erdogan hails release of hostages as diplomatic success but declines to be drawn on whether their release freed Ankara's hand to take more active stance against insurgents More

Audio Sierra Leone Ends Ebola Lockdown

Health ministry says it has reached 75 percent of its target of visiting 1.5 million homes to locate infected, educate population about virus More

US Pivot to Asia Demands Delicate Balancing Act

As tumult in Middle East distracts Obama administration, efforts to shift American focus eastward appear threatened More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Towni
X
Deborah Block
September 21, 2014 2:12 PM
A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Town

A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Difficult Tactical Battle Ahead Against IS Militants in Syria

The U.S. president has ordered the military to intensify its fight against the Islamic State, including in Syria. But how does the military conduct air strikes in a country that is not a U.S. ally? VOA correspondent Carla Babb reports from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Alibaba Shares Soar in First Day of Trading

China's biggest online retailer hit the market Friday -- with its share price soaring on the New York Stock Exchange. The shares were priced at $68, but trading stalled at the opening, as sellers held onto their shares, waiting for buyers to bid up the price. More on the world's biggest initial public offering from VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York.
Video

Video Obama Goes to UN With Islamic State, Ebola on Agenda

President Obama goes to the United Nations General Assembly to rally nations to support a coalition against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. He also will look for nations to back his plan to fight the Ebola virus in West Africa. As VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports, Obama’s efforts reflect new moves by the U.S. administration to take a leading role in addressing world crises.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Militant Assault in Syria Displaces Thousands of Kurds

A major assault by Islamic State militants on Kurds in Syria has sent a wave of new refugees to the Turkish border, where they were stopped by Turkish border security. Turkey is already hosting about 700,000 Syrian refugees who fled the civil war between the government and the opposition. But the government in Ankara has a history of strained relations with Turkey's Kurdish minority. Zlatica Hoke reports Turkey is asking for international help.
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid