The role of empathy, clinical traits, and eye gaze in contagious yawning and itching

Rachel Scheub, Taylor Sorenson, Molly Helt PhD

5 thoughts on “The role of empathy, clinical traits, and eye gaze in contagious yawning and itching

  1. Hi Rachel, nice work. My comments are below:

    (1) Looks like you forgot to insert some citations in the introduction. And many of the soreness you do cute don’t have references.

    (1) Can you provide more detail on how the mediation analysis was conducted? What were the statistical findings?
    (2) Did any of your participants in the “high” groups have assessment scores that would be extreme enough to be in line with a diagnosis of ASD or psychopathy? If not, can you draw conclusions about the mechanisms underlying the relationship between these disorders and contagious yawning if the clinical populations aren’t included in the study? I’m thinking mostly about your bolded conclusions section with this question.

    • Hi Prof. Martinez. I will fix my citations for future presentations!
      Here are my answers to your questions:
      1. Total scores on the IRI, AQ, and the PPI-R were entered into a binary (participants were coded as contagious scratchers or not, contagious yawners or not) logistic regression model with contagious yawning as the dependent variable. The model was significant, explaining between the variance in contagious yawning response. High scores on the PPI-R were found to negatively predict contagious yawning indicating that people who rated themselves high on psychopathic traits were less likely to yawn contagiously than those who rated themselves low on psychopathic traits. High scores on the AQ also negatively predicted contagious yawning indicating that those who rated themselves as having more autistic traits were less likely to yawn contagiously than those who rated themselves lower in ASD traits. Total IRI scores were also positive predictors of contagious yawning indicating that those who were more empathetic tended to yawn more contagiously than those who rated themselves as less empathetic.To test the hypothesis that reduced contagious yawning amongst individuals with ASD was secondary to reduced attention to the eyes of the target, percent fixation on the eyes of the stimulus targets, was entered into the model and was a significantly positive predictors of contagious yawning. The model was significant explaining the variance in contagious yawning response over and above ASD scores. Once eye gaze was added to the model, the relationship between ASD traits and contagious yawning disappeared, indicating that higher ASD scores predicting lower contagious yawning was mediated by the association between high ASD scores and lower percentage of time looking at the eyes. 

      2. Only a small subset of the data fell into clinical diagnosis criteria. You are correct that it might be different if clinical populations were included (perhaps a future study in Prof. Helt’s lab can test this). But, the range of scores included in this dataset of both the PPI and ASQ provides sufficient variation in clinical ASD traits and psychopathy traits that allow for a valid conclusions to be made about the mechanisms of contagious yawning and eye contact. There is evidence in the current literature that both ASD traits and psychopathy traits exist on a continuum of traits (rather than either having ASD or not) therefore a measure such as the PPI or ASQ on a typically developing population should be a valid model for behaviors within the clinical population.

      I hope this covers everything! Thank you for your questions.

      • Hi Rachel,

        This is definitely helpful, thank you for taking the time to answer. A follow up to question (1): In order to be more certain that eye gaze is indeed mediating that relationship, you would want to also see that there is a negative relationship between ASD trait score and eye gaze score. So you would want to run an model where ASD trait score is the predictor and eye gaze is the outcome, in addition to the models that you ran. We could just assume that of course those with higher ASD traits are less likely to pay attention to eyes, but statistically speaking we should confirm that this is indeed the case when testing mediation. Did you do this particular step when conducting your mediation analysis?

        Regarding question (2), the conclusions are certainly well grounded with respect to ASD and psychopathy traits, eye contact, and contagious yawning, given as you say that you have good variability in the scores for each trait measure. The key is just making sure that you use qualifiers like “may” or “could” when then moving on to discussing how your findings might relate to the clinical populations that weren’t directly studied. So using the word “may” in the first bolded sentence (it now becomes “…may occur…” vs. the original “occurs”) would address this issue.


        Prof. Martinez

        • Hi Prof. Martinez,

          In response to your follow-up (1): Yes, we did that step and we found that there is an inverse relationship between eye gaze and ASD traits; therefore, eye gaze did mediate the relationship between ASD traits and contagious yawning.

          For (2): Thank you for this piece of feedback. I agree — in the future, I will work on softening my language to address this issue.

          Thank you again for taking the time to comment on my work and it is a shame we cannot discuss in person.

          • Hi Rachel,

            Thanks for your responses to my follow ups. And certainly it is too bad that we couldn’t have the in-person presentations, but I’m glad that Prof. Raskin had the idea to do this using the Brain Blog so that we can at least chat asynchronously about your interesting work.

            Prof. Martinez

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