Gwyneth Paltrow recently informed her GOOP followers how to upgrade their ill-formed plebian yawns into a physiologically superior act. Her horrid tutorial, thankfully, incurred the wrath of the internet because, as is often the case, it reeked of moral superiority. Plus, we yawn because we just can’t help it.
Scientists once said the purpose of our gasps was to cool down the brain, but the explanation didn’t account for what most people know from life-long yawning experience: it’s contagious. Over the past few years, scientists have sought to figure out why. One leading theory implicates empathy: We yawn in response to the sight of others yawning because we feel emotionally compelled to follow their lead.
But, what about the other way around? If empathy drives contagious yawning, are people with a lower capacity to feel others’ feelings less susceptible to catching them? According to a new study, those with psychopathic traits are more immune to contagious yawning.
In the study, published in Personality and Individual Differences, psychologists from Baylor University recruited 135 college students. Using a standard measure for diagnosing psychopathy, called the Psychopathic Personality Inventory (PPI), researchers determined where participants fell on a range of one to Patrick Bateman. As a mental disorder, psychopathy is characterized by selfish, antisocial tendencies and indifference towards others’ well-being. Psychopaths aren’t necessarily violent — non-violent psychopaths may be merely ambivalent towards other people, rather than actively interested in causing anyone harm. The PPI breaks down psychopathy into three components: fearlessness, impulsivity and coldheartedness.
Researchers assessed participants’ susceptibility to contagious yawning using a method known to reliably induce the response. Basically, participants sat in a comfy chair, put on noise-cancelling headphones and watched a series of facial expressions, including yawning, flash across a screen. Then, they measured how often participants yawned. To verify the occurrence of real, robust yawns (distinguished from sighs and other mouth-breathing motions), researchers also hooked participants up to sensors to measure electrodermal activity.
Female participants, in general, yawned more often than men did, which researchers expected. Women tend to exhibit more empathy than men, but, gender differences notwithstanding, results showed a link between higher scores on one component of the psychopath test — coldheartedness — and less frequent yawning.
They also conducted a second, male-only experiment to determine a third, related factor: startle potentiation, referring to the ease with which sudden, unexpected noises startle people. Psychopaths don’t get rattled too easily. When someone jumps out at them from behind a shadowy staircase, they keep calm. Previous research has connected startle responses to psychopathic traits, but no one has incorporated yawning too. As predicted, less volatile startle responses corresponded to less yawning and a higher incidence of psychopathic traits.
The vast majority of diagnosed psychopaths are men. Women can certainly be psychopaths. But, in general, they’re more empathetic and better at mimicry — copying other people’s emotions — so they make for tougher subjects in diagnosing antisocial personality disorders. So, researchers didn’t subject women to the startle test. But, as we develop a better grasp of both the behavioral patterns of psychopaths, across genders, as well as the signature neurobiological features of the non-empathic brain, psychopathy studies will include more yawn-resistant, un-spookable women. How’s that for gender equality.