Both individuals with diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and individuals high in psychopathic traits show reduced susceptibility to contagious yawning; that is, yawning after seeing or hearing another person yawn. Yet it is unclear whether the same underlying processes (e.g., reduced eye gaze) are responsible for the relationship between reduced contagion and these very different types of clinical traits. College Students (n = 97) watched videos of individuals yawning or scratching (a form of contagion not reliant on eye gaze for transmission) while their eye movements were tracked. They completed the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI), the Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ), the Psychopathy Personality Inventory-Revised (PPI-R), and the Adolescent and Adult Sensory Processing Disorder Checklist. Both psychopathic traits and autistic traits showed an inverse relationship to contagious yawning, consistent with previous research. However, the relationship between autistic (but not psychopathic) traits and contagious yawning was moderated by eye gaze. Furthermore, participants high in autistic traits showed typical levels of contagious itching whereas adults high in psychopathic traits showed diminished itch contagion. Finally, only psychopathic traits were associated with lower overall levels of empathy. The findings imply that the underlying processes contributing to the disruptions in contagious yawning amongst individuals high in autistic vs. psychopathic traits are distinct. In contrast to adults high in psychopathic traits, diminished contagion may appear amongst people with high levels of autistic traits secondary to diminished attention to the faces of others, and in the absence of a background deficit in emotional empathy.
Frontiers in Psychology