Katrin Schmelz, incoming Omidyar Fellow, studies how individual behaviors and values coevolve with societal institutions and policies. (image: Katherine Mast/SFI)

In the East German village where incoming Omidyar Fellow Katrin Schmelz grew up, a pair of barbed-wire fences, a minefield, and guarded watch towers separated her community from the West Germans she could see across the border. “I always wondered who I would be had I been born just a few kilometers to the west,” she says. 

That question led Schmelz to complete a Master’s program in psychology, followed by a prize-winning Ph.D. in economics at the Max Planck Institute of Economics in Jena. Her early research explored how people from West and East Germany who had lived through different levels of state control responded to other restrictions throughout their lives. In three recent papers published in PNAS, Katrin showed that those same populations responded differently to COVID regulations, in particular vaccine mandates. 

More recently, she has been studying how individual behaviors and values coevolve with societal institutions and policies. She asks how mandates like those designed to address climate change or public health emergencies can backfire if they compromise peoples’ sense of autonomy. “We know that in the climate crisis, voluntary actions aren’t sufficient, but we have also learned that mandates can destroy people’s prosocial motivations.”