Contagious Chimp Yawns Seem to Point to Human-Like Empathy

By Valerie Ross | April 7, 2011 3:37 pm

What’s the News: Chimpanzees, like people, can “catch” yawns from others. But not all yawns are created equal, it seems; chimps are more likely to catch yawns from a chimp they know than from a stranger, a new study found. (You can see a video of it here.) This supports the idea that it’s empathy—rather than just everybody needing a nap—that makes yawns contagious.

How the Heck:

  • Two groups of chimps at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center near Atlanta, each with about a dozen adult members, were part of the study. The two groups lived in different large enclosures, and hadn’t seen—much less gotten to know—each other. Chimpanzees are extremely territorial, and a whole lot friendlier to individuals in their own group than to strangers.
  • The researchers took videos of spontaneous yawns from chimps in each group, as well as videos of the chimps just hanging out in the enclosure. They then played each chimp two videos on an iPod Touch: a yawn video, which included clips of chimps from both groups yawning,  and a control video, of chimps doing other things.
  • The chimpanzees yawned more when they saw their group members yawning than when they saw them going about their usual business, the study found, and they yawned more in response to their groupmates’ yawning than to the yawns of chimps in the other group.

What’s the Context:

Reference: Matthew W. Campbell, & Frans B. M. de Waal. “Ingroup-Outgroup Bias in Contagious Yawning by Chimpanzees Supports Link to Empathy.” PLoS ONE, 6 (4), 2011. DOI :10.1371/journal.pone.0018283

Image: Flickr / nilsrinaldi

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins, Living World
  • yue

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  • http://qwest roger schmeltz

    My major was psychology, but this study made me yawn. Hope no federal funds were used for this, but if so…I _really_ hope no Republicans learn about it.

  • shayne

    Roger, if you really did a psych major and you think this is uninteresting, may I suggest you spend a bit of time in remorse for flunking it so badly.

    Because if you really did a psych major you would know that the biological underpinnings of empathy remain a central puzzle in modern psychology, and finding evidence of it outside our species opens up pretty exciting evo-psych type avenues to further the investigation.

    This is *very* exciting research.

    But you knew that right, because you apparently did a psych major.

    So knowing that, what posessed you to make that silly comment?

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