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Why Are Yawns Contagious?

Instructor: Wendy McDougal

Wendy has taught high school Biology and has a master's degree in education.

In this science experiment, we will take a look at yawning and how seeing someone yawn can make you want to do the same. The purpose of this experiment is to answer the question, ''Why are yawns contagious?''

Introduction

Research Question: Why are Yawns Contagious?
Age: Upper Elementary/Middle School
Time to complete: Several days
Safety concerns: None
Independent variable: Your own yawns
Dependent variable: Number of times your test subjects yawn

Picture this: You are sitting in your classroom listening to your teacher. You glance around the room to see what the other kids are doing. A boy is doodling on his paper, and a girl nearby is playing with her hair. Then, you spot it; someone is yawning. As you watch, you feel a deep urge to do exactly the same. You fight it, but to no avail. Your mouth opens wide into a long, satisfying yawn. Now, you may have heard that yawns are contagious. Why is that? In this science experiment, you will attempt to create a contagious yawning situation and explore why this happens.

Does looking at this image make you want to yawn too?
baby yawning

Materials

  • Paper to record data
  • Writing utensil

Steps

1. Designate at least five different people to use as your subjects. These should be people you see regularly like family members or classmates.

2. Make a hypothesis, or prediction about what you think will happen.

3. When you are with these individuals or the group, yawn so that they can see and hear you. This should be realistic and not over-dramatized so that your yawns are believable. You may need to yawn more than once.

4. On your table, record which individuals yawned.

5. Repeat this twice per day for 2-3 days. Do this at the same time each day.

Sample Data Table

Test Subject: Kelly Jake Robby
Monday morning
Monday afternoon
Tuesday morning
Tuesday afternoon
Wednesday morning
Wednesday afternoon

Troubleshooting

If you feel that you are not getting good or accurate results, be sure that your subjects aren't aware that they are being tested, so the yawns are realistic. Also, you could try a different group of people.

Discussion Questions

  • Was your hypothesis correct or incorrect?
  • Why do you think people did or didn't yawn when you yawned?
  • What makes people want to yawn when they see others doing the same?

How it works

In this experiment, you tested the idea of whether you could make your own yawns contagious. In other words, you tried to spread the yawn. Most likely, you found that people did feel the need to yawn when they saw you do it. Interestingly, scientists have done many studies on this curious subject and have found that yawns are, indeed, contagious. However, the reasons why are a bit unclear.

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