It has sometimes been suggested that psychopaths either don’t yawn or are immune to contagious yawning. Is there any truth to this and if so what are the reasons for this odd behavior pattern?
A 2015 study did find that psychopaths appear to be immune to contagious yawning; in other words, they don’t seem to yawn when others are also doing it in groups. A simple explanation for this is simply that the psychopath lacks empathy and is therefore tuned out to other people.
This “tuned out-ness” explains a lot of behavior of the psychopath, of which a lack of ability to pick up on contagious yawning in groups is only a small example. They remain detached from their fellow humans on an emotional level, which in more general terms explains why they do not display the same emotional qualities or reactions that normal people do.
Click here to view the 2015 study on psychopaths and contagious yawning. Let’s look at this general principle of psychopathy in more detail as it relates to contagious yawning.
The Role of Empathy in Contagious Group Dynamics
Put simply, to engage in these kind of acts like contagious yawning, there has to be some kind of empathic ability in the person, to “tune in” to what is going on around you and mirror what others are doing.
If we have empathy, we have this “sixth sense” which picks up what others are doing, that we aren’t even entirely conscious of. When we yawn, are we really aware we are doing it because others are? Usually not, it just happens without us even noticing it. Sometimes, we just do it on our own because we are tired, but once one person does it in a group it does tend to catch on.
Thus, these strange collective patterns like contagious yawning emerge because there is some kind of connection between fellow human beings, who have this trait of empathy. We also have a tendency to mirror those around us in closer relationships, consciously and unconsciously, matching whatever they do.
Psychopaths Lack Empathy & Cannot Engage in Contagious Yawning
Once we realize this, it becomes obvious why psychopaths are immune to contagious yawning, since one of the defining characteristics of psychopathy is a complete lack of empathy.
Psychopaths remain completely tuned out to their fellow humans, unable to put themselves in the emotional shoes of another and therefore unable to comprehend the hurtful consequences of their actions on others.
If psychopaths can’t tune in to others in any sense, verbal or otherwise, then they can’t be drawn into any contagious acts like yawning in a group, which explains why this trait is absent in them, as it is with other people with deleted empathy.
This lack of basic attunement and “sixth sense” awareness of other people also means psychopaths are unable to engage in any intuitive “nod nod, wink, wink” subtle non verbal interactions that normal human beings take for granted.
They will not understand what a certain glance, gesture or kick under the table subtextually means. They take everything literally at face value and need things saying directly out loud or spelling out in large letters for them to “get it”. Subtle, covert and tactful nonverbal interactions are competely alien to them.
Awkward situations will often arise as a result, as the psychopath does not pick up on something everyone else in a scenario has, because they lack this human ability of empathic attunement.
See the Unslaved Podcast on psychopathy for some more excellent discussion of this. As Michael from the Podcast brilliantly puts it “unless it is written in capital letters, bold, underlined and in large, (the psychopath) is not gonna get it”.
Can We Identify Psychopaths By This Inability to Yawn?
Whilst this piece of research is an interesting discovery, we should not suddenly think we have a sure-fire way to spot and expose all psychopaths. The more intelligent psychopaths are always reading into the literature on the topic to find out things that people are looking for and conceal themselves more effectively.
It is typical of the psychopathic personality, once they find this information out, to start forcing themselves to yawn when others do to more effectively blend in unnoticed. Psychopaths do learn to mimic human emotions and traits, even if they don’t authentically feel themselves.
The most intelligent psychopaths are very well hidden, often coming across as very sweet and charming, because they have observed and learnt to mimic and copy the patterns of human interaction, so they appear to be normal to others. They could do this with contangious yawning just as they do it with other things like simulated emotion and mirroring.
If I Don’t Yawn Does That Mean I’m a Psychopath?
We should also add that not joining in with contagious yawning is not necessarily a definitive answer as to whether someone is a psychopath or not. It appears to be a byproduct of deleted empathy, as the linked study shows, but this alone does not constitute psychopathy.
Psychopathy is defined as a clustering of toxic personality traits together, as defined by the psychopathy checklist, of which a lack of empathy is just one. Other traits like callousness, lack of remorse, manipulativeness, arrogance and entitlement, glibness and deceptiveness also need to be there to diagnose psychopathy.
Just having low empathy alone doesn’t mean you are a psychopath. Some people are naturally low on empathy, or have psychopathic traits without passing the threshold for full blown psychopathy as defined by the psychopathy checklist. Admittedly this is a shade of grey kind of distinction.
However, this immunity to contagious yawning has also been shown to be prevalent in autistic children – see this study for more on this. It seems more to be a function of any condition in which people are “tuned out” emotionally to others, for whatever reason. Autistic people are also low on empathy, but do not tend to act with the same malice and manipulativeness that psychopaths do.