Many diverse species yawn, suggesting ancient evolutionary roots. While yawning is widespread, the observation of contagious yawning is most often limited to apes and other mammals with sophisticated social cognition. This has led to speculation on the adaptive value of contagious yawning. Among this speculation are empirical and methodological assumptions demanding re-examination. In this paper we demonstrate that if yawns are not contagious, they may still appear to be so by way of a perceptual pattern-recognition error. Under a variety of conditions (including the assumption that yawns are contagious) we quantify (via models) the extent to which the empirical literature commits Type-1 error (i.e., incorrectly calling a spontaneous yawn ‘contagious’). We report the results of a pre-registered behavioural experiment to validate our model and support our criticisms. Finally, we quantify – based on a synthesis of behavioural and simulated data – how ‘contagious’ a yawn is by describing the size of the influence a ‘trigger’ yawn has on the likelihood of a consequent yawn. We conclude by raising a number of empirical and methodological concerns that aid in resolving higher-order questions regarding the nature of contagious yawning, and make public our model to help aid further study and understanding.