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Science

German scientist Tania Singer is a world expert on empathy. Her colleagues say she’s an intimidating bully

‘Whenever anyone had a meeting with her there was at least an even chance they would come out in tears’

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 August, 2018, 12:45pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 August, 2018, 1:18pm

If there is anyone who knows the potentially devastating effects of hurt feelings, it is Tania Singer.

The 48-year-old German neuroscientist has spent her career looking at the physical, social, even economic benefits of making people more empathetic. She has mapped the brains of people watching their loved ones experiencing pain, for example, and sought scientific answers to questions about the roots of good and evil that have puzzled humans since the dawn of sentience.

One of Singer’s goals, she wrote in a 2013 book about compassion training, was to “support the development of a more caring and sustainable society … With this book, we aspire to bring more attention to compassion in our society. ”

But recently, the attention has focused on Singer’s lab in Leipzig, Germany – and what former colleagues say is a pattern of bullying and intimidation from one of the world’s foremost researchers on empathy.

The complaints – from eight current and former colleagues who told Science Magazine this month that the bad behaviour dates back several years – painted a picture of a work environment so dire that the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences and Singer agreed to a year-long sabbatical to “cool down” the situation.

People were terrified. They were really, really afraid of telling her about their pregnancies
A colleague of Tania Singer

In a statement, Singer confirmed “stress and strain” between her and colleagues but denied the worst accusations. Through it all, she said, her research has been above reproach.

Several people in her lab, meanwhile, said that behind groundbreaking empathy research that has been featured in National Geographic and at the World Economic Forum was a work environment that Singer made toxic.

“Whenever anyone had a meeting with her there was at least an even chance they would come out in tears,” one colleague told Science Magazine. That person, like all but one, spoke to the magazine under the condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation.

Some said Singer’s harshest words were directed at women who became pregnant – and notified her that they would have to take time off to care for their newborns.

“People were terrified. They were really, really afraid of telling her about their pregnancies,” one former colleague told Science Magazine. “For her, having a baby was basically you being irresponsible and letting down the team.”

For colleagues, it could be a tale of two Singers.

She was a creative researcher, gifted at finding funding and making the contacts necessary to greenlight projects, they told the magazine. “Her superpower is vision,” one colleague said. In 2015, after terrorist attacks in Paris, she gave an inspiring speech to colleagues saying that the violent acts were exactly the reason the world needed their research.

But working with her day in and day out took a toll, they said, alleging threats and emotional abuse. She would insult their work and their abilities, they said.

Bethany Kok, a former lab member, said Singer had an angry outburst a day after Kok informed her that she was pregnant with twins.

“She started screaming at me how she wasn’t running a charity, how I was a slacker and that I was going to work twice as hard for the time I would be gone,” Kok told Science Magazine.

A few weeks later, Kok said, she miscarried one of the twins and missed a lab meeting for an urgent medical appointment. “I got an email from Tania telling me that she wasn’t paying me to go to the doctor, that clearly I wasn’t using good judgement, and I was no longer allowed to go to the doctor during work hours.”

Kok told the magazine that she no longer has the email.

Singer declined a phone interview, saying she was travelling, but in a lengthy statement said the accusations were the result of “a subgroup of former scientists … with strong group dynamics aiming at damaging my reputation.”

I never denied any parental leave or declared that career and motherhood are incompatible, as I believe the opposite is true
Tania Singer

She insisted that the group she was responsible for had never violated scientific rules or discriminated against anyone, especially pregnant women. Her group was working on a “unique large-scale longitudinal training study,” she said, and the “workload and pressure increasing lead to stress and strain that in turn sometimes caused inadequate communication with my staff in problem situations.”

Still, she said she has apologised “wholeheartedly” to staff and engaged in a mediation process, agreed to the sabbatical and handed over management functions.

But she said she took strong issue with specific claims about how she treated people.

“I never denied any parental leave or declared that career and motherhood are incompatible, as I believe the opposite is true,” her statement said. “ … I did not as accused feel that pregnant women let the team down (these are all personal interpretations that can’t be proven.) I also actively supported women in science (among them a mother with multiple children). I never forbid anybody to go to the doctor in working hours and I certainly can’t be made responsible for the premature loss of a twin baby during pregnancy.”

In a statement, the Max Planck Institute said it learned of complaints against Singer in early 2017 and subsequently had “a great number of discussions with employees.” The institute also probed Singer’s research but evaluated it as excellent.

By the end of 2017, Singer asked for the sabbatical to work on a book and explore other research.

“Following on the sabbatical, from 2019 onwards, it is envisioned that Professor Singer will head, at her own request, a considerably smaller working group for social neuroscience,” the society said.

“The relevant details are currently being discussed.”