In memory of Nora Szech

An obituary by Steffen Huck

When Nora visited the WZB in 2013, she told me she had never lost a single game of Risk. As outlandish as this claim seemed, I couldn’t help but believe it was true. To win in Risk, one needs, after all, just two things: hard-nosed analytical prowess and deep empathy. She had both in ample measure.

It's a rare combination of traits. They didn't just explain her strategic acumen in the board game but also illuminate her unusually creative research output, combining high theory with stunningly simple yet profound investigations into human behavior.

Nora cared about the world and was unwavering in her commitment to making a difference. She championed animal welfare, sustainability, fighting child labor, and health. While she delved into how moral reasoning plays out in these domains, she never succumbed to the allure of champagne socialism, despite the immense professional success and attention bestowed upon her. She never detached her intellectual curiosity from her inner core, and this genuine nature radiated; people could sense it. She was credible.

I had the pleasure of collaborating with Nora on projects both conventional and not so conventional. With Lukas Wenner, we embarked on an experimental project inspired by her theoretical work on information avoidance, sparked by Emily Oster’s work on medical testing and Huntington's disease. Together with Anna Becker and Julia Schmidt, we crafted a book on the role of color in eating, and with Agne Kajackaite, we edited a special issue of Frontiers on moral behavior. While my collaboration with Nora was superbly rewarding, it wasn't always easy. There were times of disagreement, moments when our thinking appeared completely misaligned. But invariably, Nora's instincts were unerring. Her insights illuminated facets I hadn't perceived, and my understanding grew more precise and richer from her perspectives.

Tragically, the final years of Nora's life were shadowed by illness and the emotional turmoil in the wake of her involvement in the #metoo movement. It is heartbreaking to acknowledge that she found herself with limited support during this challenging period.

I wish I had the chance to play that game of Risk with her. Undoubtedly, I would've been bested, but in the process, I'm certain she would've taught me yet another invaluable lesson about life's many battles.

Steffen Huck is director of the WZB research unit Economics of Change.

Berlin, September 2023