Psychological, clinical and neurobiological
findings endorse that empathic abilities are
more developed in women than in men. Because
there is growing evidence that yawn contagion is
an empathy-based phenomenon, we expect that the
female bias in the empathic abilities reflects
on a gender skew in the responsiveness to
others' yawns. We verified this assumption by
applying a linear model on a dataset gathered
during a 5 year period of naturalistic
observations on humans. Gender, age and social
bond were included in the analysis as fixed
factors. The social bond and the receiver's
gender remained in the best model.
The rates of contagion were significantly
lower between acquaintances than between friends
and family members, and significantly higher in
women than in men. These results not only
confirm that yawn contagion is sensitive to
social closeness, but also that the phenomenon
is affected by the same gender bias affecting
empathy. The sex skew, also found in other
non-human species, fits with the female social
roles which are likely to require higher
empathic abilities (e.g. parental care, group
cohesion maintenance, social mediation). The
fact that female influence in social dynamics
also relies on face-to-face emotional exchange
raises concerns on the negative repercussions of
having women's facial expressions forcibly
Empathy is defined as the ability to
understand and share the internal states of
others . This ability is vital to
engage in successful relationships within
complex social networks and, consequently, to
increase individual fitness .
Possibly, because women are hard-wired for
maternity and parental care, they have been
classically considered as more empathic than men
(for an extensive review, see ).
Psychological studies indeed report that women
score higher than men on different self-reported
measures of empathy in childhood ,
adolescence [5,6] and adulthood
[7&endash;9] with differences growing
with age during the puberty period
The higher empathic capacity of women is
also strongly suggested by neurobiological
studies focusing on the mirror neuron system.
Through the recruitment of this system, an
observer can preconsciously activate shared
emotional representations during the perception
of an action or of a facial expression of others
[14&endash;16]. This activation
response, known as perception&endash;action
mechanism , is a basic requirement
of empathy because it allows individuals to
automatically experience others' affective
Empathy is considered to be the result of
the interactions between mirror neuron areas and
emotional-processing brain centres
[3,18]. Through a study of functional
magnetic resonance imaging, Schulte-Rüther
et al.  found that women activated
more than men the inferior frontal cortex when
asked to focus on either their own feelings or
the feelings of another person while seeing
facial emotional expressions. Such brain area
was found to include mirror neurons, as it had
been previously hypothesized
Moreover, within the same brain area
(inferior frontal gyrus, pars opercularis) women
seem to possess larger grey matter volume
compared with men, with the larger grey matter
volume being also coupled with higher
self-reported scores in the emotional empathic
propensity . One of the outputs of
the perception&endash;action coupling involving
the mirror neuron system is facial mimicry
which, in turn, is positively associated with
Measures of facial electromyography revealed
greater facial muscle reactivity in women,
compared with men, when exposed to facial
expressions of anger and happiness
[25,26]. Additionally, women rely more
than men on facial feedback for recognizing
facial expressions . Hence, it is
not surprising that one behavioural
manifestation of empathy is facial mimicry,
including contagious yawning
Yawning is an involuntary sequence of mouth
opening, deep inspiration, brief apnoea and slow
expiration. In humans, yawns last on average 6s,
and the individual yawn duration and frequency
remains remarkably stable over weeks
. Yawning is an interesting topic
for neurobehavioural research owing to its
implications in several neuroendocrine and
physiological activities including
sleep&endash;awake rhythms, thermoregulation,
vigilance and consequently, in the diagnostic of
related disorders (for an extensive review, see
Possibly because of its strict association
with hormones and physiology, yawning
performance can vary as a function of the degree
of sexual dimorphism (sexual dimorphism
hypothesis, ). For example, in
rhesus macaques, yawning rates are strictly
linked to testosterone levels, thus being more
frequent in males than in females ,
the same occurs in geladas . In
humans, Schino & Aureli  noted
that such androgen-driven dimorphism is not
present, with men and women yawning equally
often. Yawning is contagious in that it can be
triggered by others' yawns .
A wide range of sensory modes are vectors of
contagious yawning in humans, ranging from
hearing , seeing [30,37],
reading about  or even thinking
about yawning . Moreover, yawn
contagion in humans can be affected by different
variables, such as the time of the day
, age  or familiarity
between subjects .
As a physiological response, yawn contagion
is expected to be sensitive to the interaction
between individual, environmental and social
factors. Despite few controversial results
, there is growing evidence that
yawn contagion is an empathy-based phenomenon.
Contagious yawning recruits different neuronal
networks involved in empathic processing,
including the inferior frontal gyrus and other
mirror neuron areas
Although some aspects of empathy may appear
earlier than others , contagious
yawning follows a similar ontogenetic trajectory
as empathy. It increases with age starting at
4-5 years [47,48] when the ability to
identify others' emotions is being acquired
[2,49,50] and declines with old age
 when empathic abilities also
decline . Contagion is significantly
less likely in subjects suffering from empathy
disorders, such as autism and psychopathy
[52-55]. Contagious yawning follows an
empathy gradient (sensu ) being more
frequent in response to kin, then friends, then
acquaintances, and lastly strangers
Previous reports indicate that not all
individuals are susceptible to others' yawns.
Approximately 40-60% of healthy humans were
never observed yawning in response to a yawn
stimulus under laboratory conditions
[28,30,37]. Moreover, susceptibility to
others' yawns appears to be stable under
different experimental contexts, and yawn
susceptibility is not significantly different
between men and women . In their
naturalistic study on yawn contagion, Norscia
& Palagi  considered all the
potential responders, which also included
subjects showing no contagion.
The authors found that the probability to
contagiously yawn was affected by social bond
more than by any other tested variable,
including gender. Therefore, social modulation
more than individual features appeared to affect
the probability to respond to others' yawns
under natural settings. Yet, within the
susceptible population, the level of yawn
contagion may also vary according to different
individual features. If yawn contagion is an
empathy-based phenomenon, then we expect social
bond to be confirmed as a variable that
significantly affects yawn contagion frequencies
(prediction 1a). Moreover, if women are more
empathic than men, then we also expect that in
the susceptible population women are infected at
higher rates by others' yawns compared with men
(prediction 1b). We verified these assumptions
through an ethological, naturalistic approach
based on a 5 year period (2010&endash;2015) of
direct observation on humans.
Our results show that in the individuals
that are susceptible to yawn contagion, the
rates of yawn responses are affected by both the
social bond linking trigger and responder and by
responder's gender. In particular, yawn
contagion rates were significantly lower between
acquaintances than between friends and family
members (prediction 1a confirmed; figure 1) and
women responded at higher rates than men
(prediction 1b confirmed; figure 2) even though
men and women have not been found to differ in
their rates of spontaneous yawning
(; this study).
The former result is consistent with
previous findings by Norscia & Palagi
, who reported that in natural
conditions the occurrence and frequency of yawn
contagion correlated with the level of social
closeness. The relationship quality
(acquaintances, friends and kin) significantly
explains the variation of yawn contagion in
humans, either considering all the potential
responders  or susceptible subjects
only (present study). The increase of yawn
contagion rates along with social attachment
supports the hypothesis that this phenomenon has
an empathic basis. In fact, one outcome of the
perception&endash; action model  is
that the more compatible and socially tied two
subjects are, the easier interpartner
identification is . Yawn contagion
is socially modulated also in non-human
primates. Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes)
contagiously yawn more in response to in-group
compared with out-group members . In
bonobos (Pan paniscus), yawn contagion peaks
among closely bonded individuals, which are
those who exchange more affinitive contacts
. A comparative study analysed the
variation in yawn contagion in humans and
bonobos and showed that its rates were affected
by the social bond more than by the species,
thus highlighting the salience of
interindividual attachment to yawn contagion
. The relationship between yawn
contagion and social bond is not limited to
humans, bonobos and chimpanzees that share a
close common ancestor (about 5&endash;7 Myr ago)
. In geladas (Theropithecus gelada),
yawning is especially contagious between
socially close individuals , thus
suggesting that yawn infectiousness may be an
empathy-based phenomenon also in monkeys. This
is in line with the bottom-up perspective
proposed by de Waal & Ferrari ,
who posit that a cognitive continuity bridges
non-human to human primates.
Although at variable frequencies, yawn
contagion has been also described between dogs,
wolves and between dogs and humans
[65&endash;70], O'Hara & Reeve
 found no association between yawn
response and the familiarity of the human
models. Later Silva et al.  and
Romero et al.  found that adult dogs
yawned more in response to familiar than
unfamiliar yawners, regardless of the sensory
modality through which the animals perceived the
stimulus (hearing or seeing). Therefore, there
is evidence that yawn contagion between humans
and dogs underlies some empathic abilities. In
wolves, yawn contagion between conspecifics was
also associated with the social closeness of
group members . Hence, in canids,
familiarity or social bond can positively affect
the frequency of yawning responses, suggesting
that the susceptibility of yawn contagion might
correlate with the level of emotional proximity
[68,70]. The available data on social
primates and canids are silent on whether the
association between yawn contagion and emotional
closeness found in these two mammalian taxa may
have a common origin (homology) or be the
outcome of convergent evolution related to
social living (analogy). Whatever the case,
empathy may be adaptive in highly cooperative
and cognitively demanding social systems. In
fact, empathy favours prosocial behaviour and
dyadic closeness [3,72]. Through
transitive emotional transmission ,
interindividual attachment can spread within the
social network and increase group cohesion and
The completely new finding of this study is
that under natural conditions the women from our
population sample contagiously yawned at
significantly higher rates than men (figure 2).
This result further supports the empathic ground
of yawn contagion, in the light of the existing
psychological, clinical and neurobiological
evidence in favour of higher empathic abilities
of women compared with men
[4&endash;9,19,22,25,26,74]. A recent
study on humans found no relationship between
empathic abilities or gender and yawn contagion.
Yet, this study was conducted in laboratory
conditions on a population including an enriched
cohort of university students (mean age = 32.0
± 15.7 s.d., range = 18&endash;83 years)
and was based on yawn video stimuli,
self-reported contagion and self-reported scores
for empathy . It is not possible to
make direct comparisons with our study, which is
based on a different target population (with no
prevalence of a specific cohort; mean age = 41.7
± 11.3 s.d., range = 16&endash;72 years),
direct observations of people in their natural
settings, not aware of being under study and
responding to real stimuli. Moreover, we used
the social linkage as a proxy for empathy at
dyadic level, because although the empathic
sensitivity can vary from one subject to
another, the individual expression of empathy is
strongly affected by the emotional bond shared
by the subjects .
The literature examining sex differences in
empathy-based behaviours is scarce but still
suggests that&emdash;compared with
males&emdash;females are more sensitive to
others' emotions and more inclined to behave
prosocially . For example, compared
with males, female rats showed greater
sensitivity to other's pain (measured via an
increase of writhing; ) and were
more likely to release a trapped cagemate
. In chimpanzees, female bystanders
were more likely to console-distressed
individuals  and in lowland
gorillas, immature females offered more
frequently consolatory contact than males
. The presence of a female skew in
the phenomenon of yawn contagion was detected in
different non- human mammals and can be
interpreted in the light of the role of females
according to species-specific social dynamics.
Romero et al.  found that female
wolves showed a shorter reaction time than males
when observing yawns of close associates,
suggesting that females are more responsive to
emotional, social stimuli. This may be possibly
related to the fact that wolf family packs
possess a division-of- labour system in which
the female predominates primarily in such
activities as defence and pup care 
requiring the ability to quickly detect the
emotional state of the offspring (e.g. distress,
danger) and react accordingly.
In bonobos, Demuru & Palagi 
found that group members would respond more
likely to a female than to a male model. Also in
this case, the role of females is crucial to
interpret the result. In bonobos, adult females
represent the relational and decisional nucleus
of the society [80&endash;84], thus
playing a key role in affecting the emotional
states of others [61,85].
In geladas, Palagi et al.  found
a stronger and more specific matching of yawn
types in female-female compared with
female&endash;male dyads. In this species,
females form coalitions and long-term
relationships, support each other in infant
rearing and remain together, regardless of
whether a dominant male is present or not
[86&endash;88]. According to these
authors, the role of gelada females in cementing
the group may rely on their capacity of being
emotionally tuned to one another. The empathy
gender bias suggested by yawn contagion provides
biological and ethological support to some
sociology studies that are revisiting the role
of women in the mediation of social conflicts.
For example, women as peace negotiators seem to
be more generous and egalitarian than men in
that they expect and ask for less. The
propensity to fairness makes women potentially
more successful to resolve disputes when equity
is crucial to reach stable agreements, as it
occurs in international conflicts involving
disadvantaged parties [89,90]. Empathy
enhances parental care, interindividual
communication and group living, by motivating
prosocial behaviours and favouring the
development of moral reasoning . The
higher empathic abilities of women compared with
men, also revealed by the gender bias in yawn
contagion, may have social repercussions. The
ability to preconsciously decode and replicate
the emotions of others, e.g. via yawn contagion
and facial mimicry, may allow women to respond
with more appropriate behaviours toward others
and to be more successful in forming enduring
alliances [3,91]. What happens when
women's social influence is reduced by forcibly
preventing them from decoding facial expressions
or auditory signals to connect with others
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In their commentary, Gallup & Massen
 criticize the fact that we did not
consider 'more than a dozen' previous
publications which did not report gender
differences in human contagious yawning. We
thank the authors for pointing out this issue
and for giving us the possibility to provide a
brief explanation on some aspects that are not
as obvious as we thought.
Our investigation was ethological and our
framework was centred on behavioural studies
also on non-human primates and other mammals. We
therefore selected the articles that were
relevant to our comparative and evolutionary
approach. Gallup & Massen  state
that the gender difference in yawn contagion
detected in our study is a false positive and
that the null effect is real. Unfortunately, the
sample that they used to make this assumption
(17 negative cases and one positive case) is
incorrect and, consequently, so is their
conclusion. The possibility to find a phenomenon
relies on whether the sample and the methodology
used are suitable to detect it. To retain the
metaphor used by Gallup & Massen
, you can flip a coin as many times
as you want and never find what you expect if
what you expect is to get a six. You should
change the approach and roll a dice,
The results presented in the article by
Palagi et al.  were based on
naturalistic observations (and not on videos as
it is said in table 1 of the commentary
) and the database also included
bonobos, in which the sex of the trigger and not
the sex of the responder tended to influence
yawn contagion rates . Therefore, it
could not be used to evaluate which variables
affect yawn contagion rates in humans only. Four
of the articles mentioned in their commentary
must be excluded from the sample, because they
were focused on sexually immature subjects and
on the difference between autistic versus
non-autistic children [4&endash;7],
whereas our study was focused on
non-pathological adults. Children are not
suitable to test for gender differences because
the power of empathy and yawn contagion is
strongly influenced by age . One
further article cannot be included because the
gender of the potential responder was not
considered at all , and another one
has to be excluded because it investigated yawn
contagion and psychopathy . In seven
articles, the experimental subjects were either
aware of the purpose of the study and/or a
control condition was missing (the rate of
spontaneous yawning) [11&endash;17].
Adopting a blind procedure&emdash;with the
experimental subjects not knowing the purpose of
the study&emdash;is crucial when dealing with
yawn contagion because simply thinking about
yawning can elicit yawns . Knowing
the baseline level of spontaneous yawns is also
pivotal to properly measure the real differences
between the rate of spontaneous and infected
Four of the articles mentioned in Gallup
& Massen's commentary  used
static images as stimulus to elicit a motor
pattern [12,14&endash;16], and six were
based on self-reports and not on objective
observations (as the authors specify in table 1
of their commentary) [12&endash;17]. The
commentary's authors state that there is no a
priori reason to believe that different methods
and measurements would alter the expression of
yawns in men versus women consistently in one
direction. The literature, however, does not
support this statement. Static images of facial
expressions lack the dynamic complexity of
interactions and, therefore, have limited
external validity [19,20]. There is
evidence that static and dynamic images have a
different effect on men and women, with the
latter showing an increase of the perception of
the emotional intensity when exposed to both
happy and angry dynamic facial stimuli
. As for the validity of
self-reporting methods, a significant gender
bias has been demonstrated in a wide variety of
studies focusing on many different contexts
[22&endash;24]. Petrides & Furnham
, for example, demonstrated gender
differences in measured and self-estimated
emotional intelligence with men showing higher
correlations between measured and self-estimated
scores, whereas women underestimated their
emotional reactions and skills. Hence, there are
solid reasons to believe that different methods
and measurements can alter the expression of
yawns in men versus women because the existence
of methodology-related gender biases has already
been highlighted in previous studies focusing on
the expression of emotional states. If we
exclude the articles that cannot be used for
comparisons for the above-mentioned reasons
(self-reported scores, static images, no proper
control and non-blind procedures), only two
articles of the initial pseudo-sample remain.
These two studies considered humans in their
natural conditions: one  was carried
out on all individuals to find out what factors
influenced the presence and frequency of yawn
contagion and the other  considered
only the susceptible population to detect if
other factors could affect the rate of yawn
contagion when yawn contagion occurs. Based on
the real available sample, and the related
probability, it cannot be stated that our result
is a false positive.
2. Comparative versus comparable
As regards non-human animals, the
commentary's authors criticize the fact that we
did not cite all the literature taking into
account possible sex effects in yawn contagion.
This is not correct. We cited the literature
that was relevant to support and understand our
results. Very briefly, we excluded articles
dealing with (i) birds  because the
framework of our study connects yawn contagion
with the mirror neuron system and the mammalian
brain, (ii) stressed dogs showing no yawn
contagion , (iii) animals exposed to
videos of humans or avatars [30,31] and
(iv) sexually immature subjects
The work by Massen et al. 
deserves a specific comment as it supports our
general idea that yawn contagion is also
influenced by the role that individuals play in
their society. Chimpanzees form male-bonded
societies. Hence, it is not surprising that yawn
contagion may be higher in response to males,
because the relationship with males can be the
most meaningful to the group members. As we
summarize in Norscia & Palagi ,
there is growing evidence that the social status
affects the degree of emotional involvement of
individuals and their interest in what others
may feel [35,36]. However, we believe
that this study should be replicated without
using slow motion videos because, as said above,
mimicry responses are influenced by the quality
of motor patterns. Moreover, the authors failed
to demonstrate that the yawning response of
chimpanzees was elicited by the video stimulus
and not by other group mates yawning nearby.
This bias raises serious concerns on how to
interpret the final results.
The other works mentioned by Gallup &
Massen  were considered when and if
appropriate. As we specify in our article,
Campbell & de Waal  found that
only the social bond influenced yawn contagion
rates in chimpanzees, which is similar to what
we found in humans in our previous article
. The same applies to the study on
dogs by Romero et al. , which is
cited in our article. The importance of social
bond in influencing yawn contagion can be so
strong as to dampen the effect of any other
factor if we consider the whole population (both
susceptible and non-susceptible subjects).
The commentary's authors also state that
'the findings supporting a female bias in
non-humans do not actually describe a female
bias that is comparable to what Norscia and
co-authors  report for humans'.
However, we did not state that the other works
of non-human animals described the exact same
bias that we found. We stated that several other
works had found a female skew (not the same
skew) in yawn contagion and then we interpreted
the different skews in the light of the role
that females have in their groups 'according to
species-specific social dynamics' (,
p. 6). Finding exactly the same bias would go
against our own framework, which links possible
biases in yawn contagion to social dynamics. If
the social dynamics are different, so should be
3.When the sample is not simple
The commentary's authors confirm that at
least within our restricted sample women are
more likely to yawn contagiously. And we still
claim this. Within the susceptible subjects
included in our study, women contagiously yawned
more than men. In some of the studies cited in
the commentary, some concerns could be raised
about the possibility to generalize the results
when the analyses are restricted to a certain
cohort of individuals (e.g. undergraduate
students), uprooted from their context (e.g.
laboratory condition) and exposed to unreal
stimuli (static images or slow motion videos;
In our case, Gallup & Massen 
question how we selected the sample for the
analysis, only leaving 34.5% of the original
dataset. We indicated the size of the original
dataset to precisely show that contrary to
laboratory-controlled conditions, in natural
settings it is necessary to gather an enormous
quantity of behavioural bouts to obtain a
sufficient amount of data suitable for analyses.
This is a common situation in observational
studies, not only in humans, but also in
It is true that in our 2016 study, we 'did
not assess whether there was a difference in
contagious yawning frequency in the total sample
of men and women'. Indeed, as Gallup &
Massen  also note, we had already
demonstrated in 2011 that in the susceptible and
non-susceptible population there is no
difference between men and women in the yawn
contagion frequency . As a further
step, we wanted to verify whether within the
population in which the phenomenon of yawn
contagion is present, different factors other
than social bonding would affect the rates of
the yawning response. We confirmed that the
social bond is a key factor but also that gender
can make the difference in how much a subject
responds to another one within the 'yawning
dyad'. Gallup & Massen  also
criticize our choice of considering only the
subjects exposed to at least three stimuli
(yawns) but we strenuously defend this approach.
In a natural setting, with confounding auditory
and visual stimuli, we must be reasonably sure
that the study stimulus is detected. This
approach mirrors laboratory experimental
procedures in which the yawning pattern is
repeated several times in a single video to make
sure that the stimulus is perceived by the
In sum, the sample of articles on human
contagious yawning that Gallup & Massen used
to conclude that our result is a false positive
is incorrect, because the cited articles cannot
be reliably compared with our study. The
comparative studies considering non-human
animals were used to discuss why it is
reasonable to interpret the different types of
biases in contagious yawning in the light of the
role that the individuals play in their social
groups. Finally, not to replicate previously
published results, we focused on the subjects
that showed yawn contagion and we made sure that
the eliciting stimulus was perceived. In our
study, we found that women produce slightly more
yawns than men (moderate effect size) and that
gender plays a statistically significant role in
susceptible people, with women showing a higher
level of yawn contagion than men. We are
confident that future studies will confirm our