Ingroup-Outgroup Bias in Contagious Yawning by Chimpanzees Supports Link to Empathy

Humans favor others seen as similar to themselves (ingroup) over people seen as different (outgroup), even without explicitly stated bias. Ingroup-outgroup bias extends to involuntary responses, such as empathy for pain. However, empathy biases have not been tested in our close primate relatives. Contagious yawning has been theoretically and empirically linked to empathy.

If empathy underlies contagious yawning, we predict that subjects should show an ingroup-outgroup bias by yawning more in response to watching ingroup members yawn than outgroup. Twenty-three chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) from two separate groups watched videos of familiar and unfamiliar individuals yawning or at rest (control). The chimpanzees yawned more when watching the familiar yawns than the familiar control or the unfamiliar yawns, demonstrating an ingroup-outgroup bias in contagious yawning.

These results provide further empirical support that contagious yawning is a measure of empathy, which may be useful for evolutionary biology and mental health.

Matthew W. Campbell 
Frans B. M. de Waal