The True Irony of the Tania Singer Bullying Scandal

The anti-bully movement expects children to accomplish what adults can't

Posted Aug 15, 2018

New York Magazine/Fair Use
Source: New York Magazine/Fair Use

A few days ago, a story in the online New York Magazine appeared titled, “Isn’t it Ironic: World’s Top Empathy Researcher Revealed As a Bully.” It was penned by Katie Heaney, and was an abbreviated version of a longer story appearing a day earlier in Science magazine, “She’s the world’s top empathy researcher. But colleagues say she bullied and intimidated them,” by Kai Kupferschmidt.

In fact, the current story about Tania Singer is going viral as I write. Journalists and bloggers in growing numbers are gleefully reporting about this leading empathy researcher who is revealed to be a bully and a hypocrite. 

Kupferschmidt informs us:

Tania Singer, a celebrated neuroscientist and director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, is known as one of the world’s foremost experts on empathy…

But inside her lab, it was a very different story, eight former and current colleagues say in interviews with Science. The researchers, all but one of whom insisted on remaining anonymous because they feared for their careers, describe a group gripped by fear of their boss. “Whenever anyone had a meeting with her there was at least an even chance they would come out in tears,” one colleague says.

Healey astutely used the story about Dr. Singer to feed our appreciation of irony and our schadenfraude. 

But there is a greater irony in this story.

For almost two full decades, the world has been demanding an end to bullying. In fact, antibullyism is the most massive and popular social movement of all time, embraced by the entire literate world. The foremost concern of antibullyism is to replace the bullying culture in schools with a culture of empathy, and secondarily to do the same for adults in the workplace

Creating bully-free environments has turned out to be more challenging than anticipated. A few decades ago, the “father of the anti-bullying movement,” Prof. Dan Olweus, in his classic book, Bullying at School, insisted that children have a "fundamental democratic right" to attend school without being harassed by their peers, and that if everyone in the school community refuses to tolerate bullying, there is no reason that bullying cannot be eliminated completely.

NASA sent men to the moon within a decade of President Kennedy declaring the mission. It was the most marvelous scientifical achievement in human history. Yet after almost two decades of intensive anti-bully activism, during which thousands of research studies on bullying have been published and every state has passed an anti-bully law based on Olweus's recommendations, we just can’t seem to get rid of the culture of bullying. Bullying remains a growing problem that perplexes society, including the bullying researchers themselves.

And here is the greatest irony of all: we continue to expect children not to engage in bullying when the “world’s top empathy researcher” is a major transgressor!

It has boggled my mind that so few psychological professionals in the world could see that there was anything wrong with antibullyism. It was obvious to me from the movement's beginning that we could never create a bully-free environment by instructing everyone to refuse to tolerate bullying

We are all hypocrites

People enjoy reading about Singer’s hypocrisy and humiliation. But modern science as well as ancient wisdom have recognized that we are all hypocrites. Even staunch anti-bullying activists engage in bullying.

I have read countless statements of the nature“We would never tolerate abuse and harassment among adults in the workplace. We should not tolerate it in school among children, either.”

Really? Is the typical adult workplace an idyllic environment where everyone is always nice to each other? Are abusive adults a rarity? Should schools be envious of the social environment in the workplace? 

Just look at the 2017 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute. Among the “key findings”:

• 19% of Americans are bullied, another 19% witness it
• 61% of Americans are aware of abusive conduct in the workplace
• 60.4 million Americans are affected by it
• 70% of perpetrators are men; 60% of targets are women
• Hispanics are the most frequently bullied race
• 61% of bullies are bosses, the majority (63%) operate alone
• 40% of bullied targets are believed to suffer adverse health effects
• 29% of targets remain silent about their experiences
• 71% of employer reactions are harmful to targets
• 60% of coworker reactions are harmful to targets
• To stop it, 65% of targets lose their original jobs
• 77% of Americans support enacting a new law
• 46% report worsening of work relationships, post-Trump election

And as the last bullet point indicates, it’s gotten much worse in the past year-and-a-half, despite all of society's anti-bullying efforts. (While the implication is that Trump is responsible for the deterioration by providing legitimacy for people to be bullies like him, we need to remember that correlation does not imply causation. If the worsening of relationships in the workplace has anything to do with Trump, it could just be that his passionate supporters and opponents bring their hostility towards each other into the workplace.)

No, it is not only Tania Singer who engaged in bullying, and the problem is not limited to the Max Planck Institute. How ironic it is that bullying is so common among adults, with our completed brain development and decades of socialization, yet we expect it to be absent from the lives of children in school!

And how, we wonder, can we be duped by the likes of Dr. Singer? How can she do vaunted research and be a publicly revered spokesman for empathy, yet in reality be a bully?

There are three reasons I will cite here. 

Reason Number One: Bullying is not culture. It is nature

Antibullyism, and the anti-bullying psychology it is based upon, insists that bullying is culture – that it is a learned behavior – and that we therefore need to teach people that bullying is not acceptable. 

If bullying were culture, bullying would be a phenomenon of the past. Working frantically from the turn of the millennium, we have succeeded in creating the most anti-bully culture in the history of the world. We are deluged with anti-bullying messages from all directions. Every school has a zero-tolerance-for-bullying policy, and most have anti-bullying posters on their walls. Every state has a school anti-bullying law. All human resources departments have been made aware of bullying and of their responsibility to combat it. There are news stories, books, movies and TV series against bullying. The number of anti-bullying organizations grows by the day. World leaders, most notably our own President Trump, are publicly denounced as bullies. No, there is no glorification of bullying in our culture. Whatever bullying culture existed in our country, it has been totally annihilated.

But bullying happens because it is nature. Culture is easy to change. Nature isn’t.

No amount of campaigning can get rid of the drives for sex, food, and sleep. And it can't get rid of bullying, either.

Reason Number Two: People don’t think they are bullies.

People think the other person is the bully, which is why they are so eager to support tough measures against bullying. A number of readers have put me on their radar. They never to seem miss an opportunity to publicly insult and demean me, and most do it under the protection of anonymity. But they have no idea they are engaging in bullying. They think they are the good guys and I am the bully for presenting them with ideas they can’t tolerate.

We can be sure that even Donald Trump doesn’t think he’s a bully. He sees himself as the good guy protecting our society by being tough with the real bullies, one-upping them so they will be too intimidated to continue their bad behavior.

We can be even more certain that Tania Singer doesn’t think she’s a bully.  She has probably been caught totally by surprise by the characterization of her as a bully.

What we fail to notice is that the news media, by spreading news of Tania Singer being a bully, are themselves engaging in bullying. They are knowingly destroying her character by labeling her a bully. Bully is about the worst thing to call someone today.  It is a demonizing term that refers to a sadist who intentionally and repeatedly hurts weaker people. We can be absolutely sure that Singer and her family are suffering emotionally and even physically because of the proliferation of this story.

The fact that there may be truth to many of the allegations against Singer is irrelevant. The media are  nevertheless engaging in bullying. If a child with self-regulation problems throws tantrums in school whenever he gets a failing test mark, would we permit the student newspaper to print a story of him being a crybaby? 

None of us are perfect. We all make mistakes, and we all hurt people on occasion. Imagine how you would feel if you were demonized in the world’s major media because of your shortcomings? Journalists are criticizing Singer for failing to display the trait of empathy that she herself researches and promotes. Where is the empathy of the journalists for Singer? Are they not aware that they are amplifying her suffering? Would they like to be treated the way they are treating her? I haven’t seen one story that expresses pain over her plight. 

We proudly proclaim that we are in favor of empathy. But we are hypocrites. We are only empathic to those we think of as victims. The moment we think of someone as a bully, our empathy evaporates. 

…So if people don’t think they are bullies, why do they treat others badly?

This leads to…

 Reason Number Three: They experience themselves as victims! 

The science of psychology is supposed to continually improve our understanding of the human mind and behavior. The bullying psychology has put us in reverse. 

It has taught us to think of people that cause others pain as bullies. But that’s rarely true. They are usually victims. Victims are angry and want revenge. They feel justified being aggressive toward those they blame for their pain. Pay attention to the news, and you will discover that the worst acts of violence are committed by people who see themselves as victims.

If you’re not sure about this, examine your own life. There is a good chance you have hurt people. You have screamed at, blamed, punished, insulted, criticized, undermined, purposely ignored, or maybe even hit them. And they didn’t like it. Furthermore, the people you are most likely to have treated badly are the people closest to you – your parents, siblings, children, spouses and colleagues.

When you hurt these people, did you do so for the sheer pleasure of causing them pain? If so, please do society a favor and get yourself locked up. Chances are you were hurtful to them because they disrespected you, disobeyed you, lied to you, cheated you or on you. You felt victimized, then you felt justified reacting aggressively.

To correctly understand behavior, we need to understand how people feel, not the way they appear to us. When people are angry, they may look like bullies to others but they feel like victims. Readers who insult me do so because they feel victimized by my writings. Believe it or not, even Hitler, who is often portrayed as the ultimate bully, committed his heinous acts because he saw himself and his fellow Germans as victims.

Read the Science article about Tania Singer carefully. There is no indication that she tormented colleagues for the pleasure of it. No one claims she laughed or gloated when they cried. No, her behavior was not that of a bully, but of a victim. She was a victim of “exhaustion due to having to carry and be responsible for [a] huge and complex study.” Colleagues were “letting down the team” by getting pregnant. “She was very hurt…and started crying and screaming” when a coworker told her that others were unhappy with her. She could not tolerate colleagues challenging her hypotheses.

Was Singer’s behavior nice or mature? Of course not! Much of it was atrocious and immature. Perhaps she should be relieved of her position, as her dissatisfied colleagues wish. That is for the Max Planck Institute to determine. But she acted atrociously because she felt like a victim. If we think of her as a bully, we are failing to understand her.

If you are a therapist and someone – child or adult – is sent to you for treatment because they are alleged a bully, and you confront them for being a bully, you immediately handicap your ability to help. They will feel you are against them and will resist you. However, if you ask them about how they are being treated badly at work, they will gladly open up and be receptive to your help because they sense you understand them.

To solve the bullying problem, we need to stop with the hypocrisy.

Children continue to suffer from bullying while the world points a finger at Tania Singer. As long as we take pleasure in writing and reading about the downfall of people in positions of power rather than feel empathy for their plight – and that may be forever – we can't expect children to be any better.

Two decades of failing antibullyism is enough. If we want to help children, we need to recognize that Tania Singer is not “them.” She is “us.” And the mentality we should be targeting for elimination is not that of the bully but of the victim, because that belongs to all of us, and is the source of most of our problems.


Caveat: I do not promote a do-nothing approach to bullying. I am against activism that is worthless or even counterproductive. The best way to reduce bullying is to teach people how not to be victims. There are entire cultures that are bully-free – not because they are anti-bully but because they teach people not to be victims: Ladakh: A Society with No Bullies–Or Victims!


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