The world’s foremost empathy researcher has been accused of bullying by scores of colleagues.
Dr Tania Singer heads up the Max Planck Institute’s ReSource Project, a massive research project intended to show that meditation can help people become kinder and more caring for others.
But a new Science article reveals that she was anything but empathetic toward her junior colleagues.
The neuroscientist allegedly reduced students in her lab to tears and even told one she would have to ‘make up’ for her maternity leave.
Dr Tania Singer is world-renowned for her research on the neuroscience of empathy, but those who have worked with her say she bullies and intimidates her colleagues
Dr Singer directs Max Planck Institute’s department of social neuroscience, where she studies compassion in the brain and has argued that the integration of her work could even transform the world economy.
But if empathy is being able to see and identify with the perspective of another and use that to inform actions, Dr Singer struggles to apply her own research, according to her colleagues’ accounts.
Eight people that she has worked with or still works with attested to that fact in mostly anonymous interviews with Kai Kupferschmidt, a journalist at Science who wrote a very different, positive account of Dr Singer five years ago.
In what Kupferschmidt called a ‘companion piece’ to his earlier one, lab workers recounted leaving conversations tearful and working in terror of the scientist who was supposed to be their boss and mentor.
‘When anyone had a meeting with her, there was at least an even chance the would come out in tears,’ person who worked with Dr Singer in the past told Science.
Dr Singer allegedly brow-beat others for getting pregnant.
‘For her, having a baby was basically you being irresponsible and letting down the team,’ one anonymous lab member said.
One former lab member, Bethany Kok, stepped forward and spoke on the record with Science, telling Kai Kupferschmidt that Dr Singer first congratulated her, then completely changed her tune the following day.
‘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 said.
When she miscarried one of the twins she was pregnant with and had to go to an urgent doctor appointment, Kok claims Dr Singer told her ‘she wasn’t paying me to go to the doctor,’ in an email, and forbade her from making any more appointments during work hours.
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
Bethany Kok, former colleague of Dr Tania Singer
The pattern has been going on for years, and this is not the first time Dr Singer’s conduct has been criticized.
Last year, Max Planck Institute undertook an investigation into Dr Singer’s behavior, but says the information from it is confidential.
Dr Singer largely blamed her volatile behavior on the stresses of the work she did alongside her colleagues.
During 2017 mediation proceedings, she said her behavior stemmed from ‘problems associated to my exhaustion due to having to carry and be responsible for [a] huge and complex study’
In an email to members of her lab, Dr Singer said: ‘One problem surely is that I have clearly underestimated the challenges associated with our ReSource study … [and] the conflict between the project’s need for long-term continuity and loyalty on the one hand and the researchers’ own divergent needs to move on with their own careers and lives.’
At the conclusion of the proceedings, Dr Singer announced she would be taking a year-long sabbatical for all of 2018.
She is still away from the lab, but according to the university’s ‘separation plan,’ Dr Singer will be allowed to return in January 2019 with a ‘new start.’
Some of the researchers who have worked with Dr Singer told Science that they were disappointed that Max Planck Institute seemed to side with the renowned scientist.
‘I had hoped that they take problems at their institutes seriously and act not only on the behalf of their directors but equally their employees,’ one told Science.
‘However, every decision was always dragged out, communication was nontransparent and top-down, and then finally a solution was presented to the employees that is really mostly a solution for Tania.’
She may be coming back to a relatively empty lab. The research group once has 20 members. Now, they count just five.