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'People Were Terrified': Empathy Expert Is Accused of Bullying

Tania Singer takes a sabbatical amid flurry of workplace stories
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 11, 2018 4:35 PM CDT
Tania Singer.   (YouTube)

(Newser) – A celebrated neuroscientist known for her work on human empathy is now being called a workplace bully who can reduce colleagues to tears, the Cut reports. Tania Singer, director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, has taken a sabbatical to "calm the situation down," her employer says. Meanwhile, eight current and former colleagues are telling Science things like: "People were terrified," or "Whenever anyone had a meeting with her there was at least an even chance they would come out in tears." One complaint is that Singer was particularly hard on the Institute's postdoc or PhD students who got pregnant, accusing them of being "irresponsible."

Bethany Kok, the one source who went on record, says Singer was initially kind about her twin pregnancy—but screamed at her the next day, and when Kok miscarried a child, Singer emailed her saying that "she wasn't paying me to go to the doctor." Colleagues also called Singer a charming visionary who can make projects happen, but say she micro-managed them and became difficult when shown data that clashed with her theories. An advocate for meditation, Singer helped found the field of social neuroscience and may be best-known for a 2004 study that showed how watching loved ones in pain activates the same brain areas as feeling actual pain. She will return to the Institute in 2019 when the current crop of students has left, her boss says. (Read more bullying stories.)

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