Behavior

Do You Yawn When Other People Yawn? Congratulations, You're Probably Not A Psychopath

When you see someone yawn, you probably yawn, too. But that's not the case for everyone. As it turns out, psychopaths are unaffected by contagious yawning.

Psychopaths and Yawns

We all know the signs of the stereotypical, "American Psycho" psychopath. Superficial charm. A maniacal laugh. A short fuse and a taste for grotesque jokes. Don't forget the most horrifying psychopathic giveaway of all, though: someone who doesn't catch a yawn while you're yawning. Oh, the... horror?

It's true: People with psychopathic tendencies have a significantly reduced chance of catching yawns from other people, according to a 2015 study by Baylor University department of Psychology and Neuroscience.  The researchers looked at 135 subjects, both male and female, in the study; those with high levels of "coldheartedness" caught yawns less than their warmer-hearted peers. Weird, right? Well, not really. It's thought that contagious yawning occurs between humans (and other species! You can catch a yawn from your dog, and vice versa!) because of empathy. So if you lack it, it makes sense you wouldn't be compelled to mirror another person's yawns.

So Is Yawning At Someone a Psychopath Test?

Sort of. But not a good one. There are plenty of other, more innocuous reasons someone might not catch your yawn. Yawns also aren't very contagious to children under four, and children with autism. This could be due to a lack of empathy, which starts to develop in kids right around four — but it's still contested that yawning has much to do with empathy in the first place. According to one study, contagious yawning really only correlates with age; the older you are, the less likely you are to catch a yawn.  In other words, the subject of contagious yawning isn't fully understood, and it's worth noting that only 60-70% of people even do it. That's most people, but it's unlikely that the remaining 30% of the population is wall-to-wall psychopaths.

Figuring out if someone is a psychopath is more complex than checking someone's yawn reflexes. The two best-known psychopath tests both involve at least 20 questions, and that's no coincidence. Psychopathy is a complex thing, more like a dimension of the personality than a discrete trait.  

 

The best-known of the two psychopath tests is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. (This is the one Jon Ronson used in his best-selling book, "The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry.") The checklist features a variety of questions, like "Do you have a constant need for stimulation?", "Are you sexually promiscuous?" and "Are you a pathological liar?" Subjects are scored from 0 (not true) to 3 (extremely true) for each question; score more than a 30, and you're a psychopath. Another, similar test, the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale, is a list of yes-no statements that also works reasonably well.

There's no one, visible cue that will let you know someone's a psychopath, though. We wish! But you just have to go with your gut. And, when in doubt, don't hang out with people wearing Freddie Krueger masks.

Explaining the Empathy Switch in Psychopaths

How are psychopaths able to either ignore empathy or switch it off like a light?

Written by Curiosity Staff December 9, 2016

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