Interview with Guglielmo Briscese

Guglielmo Briscese is a Senior Advisor at the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) in Sydney, Australia. He did his Bachelor’s in Economics from Università Politecnica delle Marche in Italy, MSc. in International Development from University of Glasgow and PhD in Economics from the University of Sydney. The main focus of his research and work are pro-social behaviours (e.g. charitable giving) and employment.

B.BIAS had the honour of interviewing him about his career and research!


B.BIAS: How did you get into Behavioural Economics and how did the work you did for international organisations lead you to it?

Guglielmo Briscese: When I was studying Economics I thought that Microeconomics was quite boring and didn’t see how it could have any practical implications since people are just not what these economic models say. That was when one of my professors at university recommended Freakonomics to me. It was around the same time when the Nudge came out as well. I kept Behavioural Economics (BE) as a side interest, because there was no Master’s degree anywhere in Europe in BE and after studying a Bachelor’s degree in Economics, I wasn’t ready to do Master’s in Psychology or so. One of my other interests was Development Economics, especially the work of Esther Duflo and others on Randomised Controlled Trials (RCTs). So I decided to enrol in a Master’s degree in International Development in the UK. After that I landed a job in the UN in Italy at the office of evaluation of the IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development). I thought that I’d try as much as I could to promote RCTs internally at IFAD, but there was still the BE element missing. Around 2010-2011, the UK government announced that they would launch a unit called the BIT, but it was still at very early stages. I started looking up PhD programs in this area and decided to do a PhD at Sydney University, in Australia. That was more of a personal choice, because I really liked Sydney.

Then I also realised that one of the most known Behavioural Economists, Robert Slonim, was based at Sydney University. He’s done a lot of research on blood donations and charitable giving. By pure coincidence, a member of the BIT also moved to Australia at the same time and thought of opening the Sydney office. I applied as soon as they opened it, and got in with the first wave of people. That was almost 3 years ago. So that’s my story!

BB: We know that for a couple of years, you were working for the BIT while pursuing your PhD in Economics at University of Sydney. How did you manage to do both?

GB: It was pretty horrible to be honest, not fun at all. I barely slept. You don’t have a lifestyle that’s very sustainable, you can do it only for a few years at most. BIT is an amazing place to work, I can’t think of another place I’d rather work at right now. But it’s also obviously very demanding. You work the long working hours like in consulting, but you also have to apply the academic rigour and come up with good trials. Doing a PhD at the same time with someone who is considered to be the top professor for BE in Australia wasn’t exactly the easiest thing. But the good part is I was doing the same thing, as in the skills I was developing were the same. The fact that I could combine the skills that I learnt from the BIT and bring them into the PhD turned out to be very valuable. I was able to run field experiments that ended up being a chapter of my thesis. And obviously the other way around as well. I brought some expertise and skills that I developed during my PhD that helped me to do my job faster here.

BB: What was the topic of your final thesis?

GB: My PhD was about pro-social behaviour. One chapter was about microcredit. I was working with an NGO that encouraged people to do micro loans. What they found was that a lot of lenders would get the micro loans paid back, but wouldn’t do anything with that money anymore. They wouldn’t re-lend it or cash it out, maybe because the micro-loans felt like a donation or due to the hassle of having to choose a borrower again. So we did an experiment where we sent an email to people saying “Hey, you have some money left in your account that you’re not using. You should do something with it”. We tested 3 different variations:

(1) To the first group, we just provided information: “You have some money available, it’s yours. You can lend it again or cash it out.”

(2) To another group, we said the same except we added that if they did nothing , we’d lend it again on their behalf.

(3) To the third group, we told them that we’d consider their money to be a donation to the NGO if they did nothing with it.

What we found is that in the donation-default group, more people would opt out, and re-lend the money, whereas people in the loan-default group were more likely to go with the default. What we realised with this experiment is that people perhaps chose to join the micro-lending platform because they really like to give loans. If you all of a sudden tell them that you’re going to treat their loan money as a donation that conflicts with the very first reason why they joined the platform. So when you design defaults, you need to take into account people’s past preferences and choices. That was one chapter.

The other two chapters were lab experiments on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). There are studies saying that companies that invest in CSR are better at attracting millennials, but I argued is that even here there is a selection process. We conducted experiments and found that people always choose financial incentives over social incentives. But when companies provide the same level of financial incentives, those that provide the extra bit of CSR are more likely to be chosen. But we didn’t find that social incentives per se get people to work harder and can’t be a substitute to financial incentives.

BB: Which of your projects with the BIT did you like the most?

GB: At BIT I have been working on a large number of trials aimed at decreasing unemployment and improving job opportunities in Australia.

One of these trials aimed at increasing the uptake of government incentives to business to hire a long-term unemployed job seekers. Essentially, the government says: “If you hire this person that has been unemployed for some time, I’ll give you a bit of money”. Surprisingly, the uptake was really low. What we realised is that these sorts of incentives were sending the wrong signal about the qualities of the job seeker. Employers would think: “What is wrong with this job seeker that they have to pay me to hire him?”. So we changed some aspects of how these incentives were promoted and administered, and we framed it as a bonus to the businesses, more along the lines of “You have now an opportunity to hire this person and you will also be rewarded with a bonus if you hire this job seeker”. We increased the uptakeof these incentives, which in turn will lead to more people finding ajob. And it’s quite an interesting case, because it’s a typical scenario where the government has a program that could work on paper, it makes sense, but if you don’t take into account people’s reactions and behaviour, than it’s probably not going to work.

BB: What do you do in your free time and how do you cope with stress?

GB: When I was doing the PhD, there was no such thing as hobbies but I’ve been playing the drums since I was very little. When I finished high school and started university, I initially enrolled in a course to study Biotechnology. I did it for about a year, and then dropped out, because at that time I was playing with a band, and we signed a contract with a label, and we went on a tour in Central America, Italy, Spain, Germany… I thought I was going to be a musician for the rest of my life. But then I decided to enrol in Economics and get back into research. As I promised myself that at some point I’d start again, now that I finished my PhD, I have a band here in Sydney!

Nudge of the Month

Increasing charitable giving

How can we nudge people to donate to charities? There are many ways to do so, but we would like to share one in particular which is very simple and surprisingly powerful.

It seems that peer effects are an effective tool to change people’s behaviour. We want to do what people like us are doing. If teenagers have friends that smoke, they are very likely to start smoking themselves (and much more likely than if their parents smoke). The same holds for donations – if our colleagues donate, we would like to donate as well.

This is what has been tested by the UK´s Behavioural Insights Team in cooperation with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC). The HMRC employees in Essex were sent postcards describing the donation efforts of their colleagues and encouraging them to do the same, to see if more people would start donating. However the experiment went even further (and this is where it gets interesting). One group of employees got postcards featuring a picture of the donor in addition to the above information (see Picture 1). An insignificant change, you may think, but 6.4 % of people signed up for the donation scheme in the latter condition, compared to 2.9 % in the no-picture condition.


Picture 1: Postcard featuring a photo of the donor

Source: The Behavioural Insights Team (2013)

If you want to know more about behavioural insights applied to charitable giving, see The Behavioural Insights Team (2010) and for a further discussion of peer effects (social norms), read Institute for Government & Cabinet Office (2010).