Up until now, it has been believed that a yawn is contagious and when one person yawns, it causes a chain reaction. Well, it's time to add to that hypothesis because there's a new theory in town.

According to a new study conducted at SUNY POLY in Marcy, NY, seeing another person yawn selectively enhances vigilance. Essentially, when a person sees another person yawn it causes them to recognize the "yawner" has let his or her guard down, causing them to become more attentive to possible dangers.

SUNY Polytechnic Institute Assistant Professor of Psychology Dr. Andrew Gallup, with former SUNY Poly undergraduate student Kaitlyn Meyers, published the first experimental evidence to date showing a social function to yawning.

"Seeing others yawn selectively enhances vigilance: an eye-tracking study of snake detection," set to be published in an upcoming issue of Animal Cognition, has the potential to vastly improve our understanding of the evolution and elaboration of yawning in social vertebrates, according to Dr. Gallup.

The research article indicates that, "the arousal reduction hypothesis states that yawning signals to others that the actor is experiencing a down regulation of arousal and vigilance. If true, seeing another individual yawn might enhance the vigilance of observers to compensate for the reduced mental processing of the yawner."

Dr. Gallup's team tested this by showing videos of people yawning to study participants, who then detected snakes more rapidly and were less distracted by other less harmful animals.

Andrew Gallup courtesy of SUNY POLY
Andrew Gallup courtesy of SUNY POLY

“Professor Gallup embodies the spirit of a SUNY Poly faculty member, using experimental work in the lab as a foundation for building relevant and original insights,” said SUNY Poly College of Arts & Sciences Dean Dr. Andrew Russell. “We’re especially proud that Kaitlyn Meyers, one of the many excellent students in our psychology program, made such important contributions to this research.”

"This study certainly does not support the widespread idea that yawns should be stifled or concealed in social settings, and in fact these findings make the position of people stigmatizing others for yawning in their presence all the more nonsensical,” said Dr. Gallup. “Not only does yawning function to enhance alertness and arousal in the person who yawns, but this study shows that simply viewing other people yawning can have cognitive benefits as well."

You can read the full study here.


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