This symposium received the label and the official support of the Fédération Romane de Sémiotique[i], which decided to organize its next General Assembly in Limoges, during the symposium, and to encourage the research teams that it federates to bring their scientific contribution to this event.

It is organized, under the responsibility of Jacques Fontanille, by the Semiotic Research Center (CeReS) of the University of Limoges, member of the Fédération Romane de Sémiotique.

It will be held under the Honorary Presidency of Paolo Fabbri, Professor of Semiotics, Director of the Centro Internazionale Umberto Eco di Scienze Semiotiche (CiSS) of Carlo Bo University in Urbino.


Honorary Committee:

Denis Bertrand, Paolo Fabbri, Jorge Lozano, Oscar Quezada Machiavello.

Organisation Committee :

Isabelle Klock-Fontanille, Anne Krupicka, Cécile McLaughlin, Jacques Fontanille, Céline Chrétien, Julie Lairesse, Alexandre Sbabo, Bruno Guiatin, Alix Ngoma, Manale Lahmar, Valentin Moulin.

Project Partners

The scientific responsibility of this seminary is ensured by:

–        The Semiotic Research Center (CeReS, University of Limoges)

–        The Center for Management Research (CEREGE, University of Poitiers)

With the support of the following research teams, members of the Fédération Romane de Sémiotique: LHE (Paris 8, Vincennes-Saint-Denis), CISS (Center Umberto Eco, Urbino), ICAR (Lyon 2, Louis Lumière), MICA (Bordeaux Montaigne) ; SES (Puebla, UAP), Comunicación y Cultura (Lima).

In partnership with the Region of New Aquitaine (AAP “Nudges and Sustainable Development Goals”)

The CEREGE and CeReS are engaged in a research program on nudges, funded by the « Nouvelle Aquitaine » Region, and common to both Universities of Poitiers and Limoges. In this program, is provided the organization of two symposium, the first one in 2019, devoted to public policies and the conceptual structuring of “manipulation and incentive” issues, in Limoges and at the initiative of CeReS and the Fédération Romane de Sémiotique, and the second, in 2021, devoted to the results of field studies and the “sustainable development” dimension of the AAP program, in Poitiers, on the initiative of CEREGE.

The symposium of 2019 (in October) in Limoges, entitled “From manipulation to incentive. Inflexions of Behaviors and Public Policies “, will bring together specialists in semiotics, political science, cognitive science and management sciences. It will be addressed in particular to all those who, within political structures, administrations and territorial collectivities, have to conceive and conduct policies of incentive and modification of the behaviors.

The issue

When it comes to public policy, good ideas and strong projects abound. Yet, the ability to sustainably influence behaviors, to understand how and why they appear or disappear, why they persist or change lacks. Information is available and often even widely distributed, but seemingly non-rational behavior (in the areas of food, health, addictions, transport, etc.) persists. Thus, it is commonly held that the transition between available information and decision-making is influenced by cognitive, social and cultural biases.

The solution of Nudges

Research in economics and management offer a viable solution: the “nudges”, i.e. strategic devices that encourage people to take best decisions.

The economist Richard Thaler, recently awarded with the Nobel Prize, has been promoting the nudge solution for several decades now, suggesting to gently influence consumers through nudges in order to help them achieve their goals or expectations. According Thaler and Sunstein, this is “a relatively moderate, flexible and non-invasive version of paternalism, which does not prohibit or restrict anyone’s options. A philosophical approach to governance, public or private, which aims at helping individuals to make decisions that improve their lives without harming the freedom of others “[i]. The cognitive sciences then took over, making an inventory of the “biases” that produce these “irrational” decisions – consider, for example, mental shortenings and social pressure. In terms of social pressures, for example, David Cameron set up a team called “Nudge Unit” in Britain in 2010, which devised a scheme to improve tax collection: late taxpayers were systematically notified when their neighbors had paid their taxes.

Elements of discussion

The theory of nudges, since its inception fifty years ago, ostensibly displays its ideological foundations: the nudge does not affect the freedom of choice of the individual and does not compromise his free will. It merely aims at strengthening what he already wants. This assumption shows that the use of the “nudge” in public policies is part of a maximalist liberalism, which admits no constraint or limit to the free will of the individual. This ideological orientation also avoids raising the issue of the justification of inflexions and public incentives, presupposing that all citizens freely want what the public authorities also want.

However, the semiotic (and non-ideological) approach shows that freedom also consist in refusing, resisting and opposing the wishes and injunctions of the public authorities. It is obvious that the modal questions (to will, to can, to know, to have to, to beleive) will be at the heart of the questioning of this category, which we call “From manipulation to incentive”.

Thus, in order to account for the functioning of nudges, cognitive science generally refers to the architecture of choices that guides the individual decision. Nevertheless, other currents in cognitive sciences advance more cautiously. Daniel Kahneman, economist and Nobel graduate, distinguishes two levels in decision making: the short circuit (the “mental shortcuts”) is fast because it exploits emotions and “instinct” (in order to avoid the problematic implications of the notion of instinct, it would be better to talk here about impulses); the long circuit is slower, because it relies on of analysis and reflection. We can recall here the role that Claude Zilberberg attributed to the tempo in the formation of the semiotic configurations. Yet, the tempo also causes, within these configurations, affects and emotions: there is no certainty as to where to place the action of the nudges, between impulse, emotion and decision. Daniel Kahneman has shown, with his theory of perspectives, that the appreciation of gains and losses is dissymmetrical, because of the respective weight of affects which relate to each one of them. “Decision” is the name of the practice as it is observed from the outside, but this name says little about the semiotic composition of the process that leads to it from the point of view of the social actor.

Overview of the situation in semiotics

At the end of the seventies, the semiotics of action was endowed with a “theory of manipulation”, which was supposed to exploit the first phase of the canonical narrative sequence and to attain a semiotics of passions.[i] This sketch, succinctly repeated in the Dictionary Semiotics 1[ii], had little echo, because the semiotics of passions – elaborated during the eighties – took other directions and does not investigates the role of emotions and passions in interactions belonging to the category of “manipulation”. The concept of “manipulation” was nevertheless vast enough to make way for precise and operative typologies.

As far as sociosemiotics is concerned, possible articulations between manipulation and all its varieties (emotions, passions and systems of signification) are found once again in the works of Eric Landowski and the analysis of social interactions. In this respect, most of Paolo Fabbri’ research for the last forty years can be considered as a contribution to the semiotics of manipulation, despite Fabbri’s books not having titles that explicitly allude to this research field.

The issue of nudges is therefore a theoretical and methodological opportunity to revive a collective and international research and advance the theory of manipulation, as well as recollect the most recent achievements and contributions and identify and circumscribe alternative solutions. In particular, the possibility of incentivizing and inflecting behaviors directly on the interactions between actors and environment, whether to guide the attention or in terms of “comfort” or “discomfort” for alternative behaviors, will be discussed; the different semiotics regimes of the influence will be examined; the actors/environments interactions, which would be similar to an ecological “factitivity”, will be integrated; the chosen solutions, available and possible for some concrete public policies, will be examined; he semiotic aspects of the propositions formulated by the economic, political and cognitive sciences will be studies. Here are some of the issues of this symposium.


Jacques Fontanille

Professeur émérite de Sémiotique

[i] La Fédération Romane de Sémiotique regroupe une trentaine d’équipes dans une quinzaine de pays différents, en Europe, en Asie, en Amérique et en Afrique

[ii] Richard Thaler et Cass Sunstein, Nudge : la méthode douce pour inspirer la bonne décision, Paris, Vuibert, 2010, 288 p.

[iii] Bulletin du GRSL – Groupe de Recherches Sémio-Linguistiques issu du Séminaire de Sémantique générale d’Algirdas Julien Greimas à l’EHESS, n°1, décembre 1977.

[iv] Algirdas Julien Greimas et Joseph Courtés, Sémiotique. Dictionnaire raisonné de la théorie du langage, Paris, Hachette, 1986.


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