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Date of Award

Spring 2017

Degree Name

Bachelor of Science



First Advisor

Molly Helt


Contagious yawning is observed more frequently in individuals with high levels of empathy (Helt, in prep), and less frequently in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) (Helt et al., 2010) or high levels of psychopathic traits (Rundle et al., 2015). Contagious itching has been found to be unrelated to empathy and unaffected, indeed magnified, in individuals with ASD (Helt, in prep). The present study explores the extent to which susceptibility to contagious yawning and itching may be differentially mediated by eye contact in individuals with high and low levels of ASD and psychopathic traits in a non-clinical population of students at Trinity College. Participants were administered the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) (Davis, 1980), a multidimensional assessment of empathy, the Autism Spectrum Quotient (ASQ) (Baron-Cohen, et al. 2001), The Psychopathy Personality Inventory Revised (PPI-R) (Lillienfield et al., 2005), and the Adult/Adolescent Sensory Processing Disorder Checklist (SPDC) (Mitchell, 2008). During testing sessions, individuals were presented stimuli of individuals yawning or itching on an Applied Science Laboratories (ASL) desktop eye tracking system. Participants eye movements were tracked and analyzed for time, and percent of time fixated on the eyes of the people in the stimuli videos. Eye contact to target (eyes in stimuli videos), empathy, and low levels of psychopathic traits were found to be positive predictors of contagious yawning but not contagious itching. Contagious itching was, however, predicted by low levels of psychopathic traits as well as sensory based issues (a sub scale of the SPDC). Furthermore, the tendency to yawn contagiously was mediated by eye contact to the target in the group with high ASD traits, but not in the group with high PPI-R traits. These results raise the possibility that when individuals with high levels of autistic traits fail to yawn contagiously it is due to avoidance of eye contact. In contrast, when individuals with high levels of psychopathic traits do not yawn it is due to a lack of emotional empathy.


Senior thesis completed at Trinity College for the degree of Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience. Full text access is limited to the campus community.