The Situationist

Archive for December, 2008

The Benefit of Knowing Your Eating Sins

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 7, 2008

Tierney Lab ImageEarlier this week, John Tierney had a nice article, “Health Halo Can Hide the Calories,” in the New York Times about the situation of eating.  Here are some excerpts.

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If you’re a well-informed, health-conscious New Yorker who has put on some unwanted pounds in the past year, it might not be entirely your fault. Here’s a possible alibi: The health halo made you do it.

I offer this alibi after an experiment on New Yorkers that I conducted with Pierre Chandon, a Frenchman who has been studying what researchers call the American obesity paradox. Why, as Americans have paid more and more attention to eating healthily, have we kept getting fatter and fatter?

Dr. Chandon’s answer, derived from laboratory experiments as well as field work at Subway and McDonald’s restaurants, is that Americans have been seduced into overeating by the so-called health halo associated with certain foods and restaurants. His research made me wonder if New Yorkers were particularly vulnerable to this problem, and I asked him to help me investigate.

Our collaboration began in a nutritionally correct neighborhood, Brooklyn’s Park Slope, whose celebrated food co-op has a mission statement to sell “organic, minimally processed and healthful foods.” I hit the streets with two questionnaires designed by Dr. Chandon, a professor of marketing at the Insead business school in Fontainebleau, France, and Alexander Chernev, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University. Half of the 40 people surveyed were shown pictures of a meal consisting of an Applebee’s Oriental Chicken Salad and a 20-ounce cup of regular Pepsi. . . . On average, they estimated that the meal contained 1,011 calories, which was a little high. The meal actually contained 934 calories — 714 from the salad and 220 from the drink.

The other half of the Park Slopers were shown the same salad and drink plus two Fortt’s crackers prominently labeled “Trans Fat Free.” The crackers added 100 calories to the meal, bringing it to 1,034 calories, but their presence skewed people’s estimates in the opposite direction. The average estimate for the whole meal was only 835 calories — 199 calories less than the actual calorie count, and 176 calories less than the average estimate by the other group for the same meal without crackers.

Just as Dr. Chandon had predicted, the trans-fat-free label on the crackers seemed to imbue them with a health halo that magically subtracted calories from the rest of the meal.

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To read the entire article, which includes further discussion of this experiment and also summarizes some additional, related research, click here.  For additional related work by John Tierney, visit the TierneyLab.

For other Situationist posts on the situation of eating and obesity, click here. The American obesity paradox is explored at some length by Situationist Contributors, Adam Benforado, Jon Hanson, and David Yosifon, who devoted a sizeable article to the mistaken but dominant dispositionist attributions made regarding obesity and the actual situational sources of the epidemic. To access their article, entitled “Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in America,” click here.


Posted in Choice Myth, Food and Drug Law, Illusions, Marketing | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

The Situational Consequences of Consumption

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 5, 2008

Douglas Kysar and Michael Vandenbergh have just posted a fascinating paper, “Climate Change and Consumption,” on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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To achieve the level of greenhouse gas emissions reductions called for by climate change experts, officials and policy analysts may need to develop an unfamiliar category of regulated entity: the consumer. Although industrial, manufacturing, retail, and service sector firms undoubtedly will remain the focus of climate change policy in the near term, individuals and households exert a greenhouse footprint that seems simply too large for policymakers to ignore in the long term. This paper, written as a foreword for the Environmental Law Reporter’s symposium issue, “Climate Change and Consumption,” emerges from an interdisciplinary conference of the same title held at Vanderbilt University in April 2008. The paper begins by providing an overview of the limited role that consumer behavior and decision making has played in environmental law to date. It then describes theoretical and empirical frameworks for understanding the consumer and consumption that could be deployed to inform law and policy if, as we predict, the consumer becomes a much more significant target of environmental regulation. The paper concludes by summarizing the symposium articles, which range widely across disciplines and areas of focus, but which reflect a common belief that the carbon-constrained consumer is worthy of significant academic and policy attention.

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For some related Situationist posts, see ” The Situation of Ethical Consumption” and “The Need for a Situationist Morality.”

Posted in Abstracts, Life | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of Genocide

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 5, 2008

nazi-imageCourtney Yager of CNN has an interesting piece on the work of Harvard University psychiatrist Robert Lifton, who has studied the psychology of genocides and found that situational factors can lead any human to partake in genocides.  Yager discusses the work of other social scientists who have come to similar conclusions.  We excerpt the story below.

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Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, Slobodan Milosevic. They are household names, infamous for masterminding genocide. But who were the foot soldiers who did the dirty work?

In many cases they were equally notorious in their communities because they were the friends, neighbors and co-workers of those they raped, slaughtered and buried alive.

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Researchers say most perpetrators of genocide were not destined for murder and had never killed before.

“You don’t have to be mentally ill or even innately evil or criminal. You can be ordinary, no better or worse than you or me, and commit killing or genocide,” said Harvard psychiatrist Robert Lifton, who has studied Nazi doctors.

“The truth is that we all have the possibility for genocidal behavior.”

Experts have reached a troubling conclusion: It was actually very easy for the architects of genocide to find more than enough ordinary people to do the killing.

Genocide is often the result of a “perfect storm.” A country reeling from political and economic turmoil, a fanatical leader promising to make things better and a vulnerable population targeted for blame — all combine in a blueprint for mass murder.

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For the rest of the story, click here.  For other Situationist posts related to genocide, click here.

Posted in History, Life, Public Policy | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Behavioral Criminal Law and Economics – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 4, 2008

Richard McAdams and Thomas Ulen recently posted their paper, “Behavioral Criminal Law and Economics,” on SSRN.  Here’s the paper’s abstract.

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A behavioral economics literature identifies how behaviorally-derived assumptions affect the economic analysis of criminal law and public law enforcement. We review and extend that literature. Specifically, we consider the effect of cognitive biases, prospect theory, hedonic adaptation, hyperbolic discounting, fairness preferences, and other deviations from standard economic assumptions on the optimal rules for deterring potential offenders and for regulating (or motivating) potential crime victims, legislators, police, prosecutors, judges, and juries.

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For those interested in a more detailed summary, we have excerpted portions of the paper’s introduction below.

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The standard theoretical law‐and‐economics account of criminal behavior begins from the observation that potential criminals are rational decisionmakers. Becker (1969). The theory assumes that potential criminals compare the expected costs and benefits of criminal activity, where the expected benefits include the anticipated monetary and nonmonetary returns to the crime, discounted by their probabilities of realization, and the expected costs of the crime, which include formal and informal sanctions (the latter including loss of lawful employment opportunities, social stigma, and guilt), discounted by the probabilities of detection. If the expected benefits exceed the expected costs, then the rational potential criminal commits the crime; otherwise, he or she does not. Moreover, the rational potential criminal compares the expected costs and benefits of criminal activity with those of legitimate activity and rationally allocates her time and other resources between those alternatives so that the marginal net benefit is equated.

Similarly, the standard law‐and‐economics account of other participants in the criminal justice system—police, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, juries, and legislators—also presumes rational decisionmaking. So, the police—both individually and collectively—may choose to allocate their limited resources according to rational calculations about costs and benefits, choosing, for example, between the investigation of detected crimes and prevention of crimes so that the marginal productivity of additional resources devoted to either activity is equal. Not only has this account received theoretical elaboration and extension, it has also been tested empirically. For a review, see Levitt & Miles (2007). The early empirical literature—that of the 1970s—was often done in alternating turns by those favorably disposed toward the rational‐choice‐theory account and those critical of that theory. In the late 1970s a panel of the National Academy of Sciences surveyed the empirical literature and reached the conclusion that “deterrence works”—that is, that the predictions of the rational‐choice‐theory explain observed patterns of criminal behavior.

These theoretical accounts of decisionmaking by criminals and other participants in the criminal justice system have had a profound influence on legal scholarship over the past 40 years and an equally important impact on criminal justice policy. For example, the United States Sentencing Commission, created by Congress in the early 1980s, was charged to rationalize federal criminal sentencing by, among other things, reducing the variability of sentences on the ground that indeterminate sentencing was not as deterring as determinate sentencing. And in the debates to explain the remarkable decline in crime that began in the early 1990s, some have argued that that decline is partly attributable to the deterrence‐based policies of the 1980s and 1990s, such as the remarkable increase in the frequency with which criminals have been incarcerated. Levitt (2004).

But at the same time as these rational‐choice‐theory‐based arguments have become so important, a significant and broad criticism of rational choice theory and of its application to issues of criminal law has been made. That criticism is called “behavioralism.” Importantly, behavioralism is not a theoretical criticism of rational choice theory. Rather, it is a criticism based almost entirely on experimental and other empirical studies that find the predictions of rational choice theory to be inaccurate. To illustrate with one example, rational choice theory predicts that in making decisions under uncertainty, decisionmakers accurately ascertain the probabilities of the various alternatives open to them, apply those probabilities to payoffs of the alternatives, and choose that alternative that maximizes their expected subjective utility. But psychologists and economists have discovered that most decisionmakers facing an uncertain set of options use far simpler heuristics to make a decision, such as choosing that alternative that is most “salient.”

The findings of behavioralism have become so thorough and well‐established as to make it difficult to begin any analysis of decisionmaking from the position of rational choice theory. This, of course, has profound implications for many areas of law and public policy, including criminal law. Many of the policy changes championed or implemented after the impact of Becker’s revolutionary insight stand or should stand on less firm foundations than had been previously thought to be the case. The central purpose of this chapter is to indicate how some of the central findings of the behavioral literature erode the rational‐choice‐theoretic foundations of criminal law and policy and to show how a recognition of the behavioral literature might lead to a rethinking of the legal and policy conclusions of the past 30 or so years.

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You can download the entire paper for free here.

Posted in Abstracts, Behavioral Economics, Law, Legal Theory | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Save the Date

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 3, 2008

thatcher-reaganThe Third Conference on Law and Mind Sciences, tentatively titled “The Free Market Mindset:  History, Psychology, and Consequences,” is now being planned for March 7, 2009 at Harvard Law School.  More details will be announced soon.

To read about the 2008 conference, click here.

Posted in Events, Ideology | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Rich Brains, Poor Brains?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 3, 2008

From a University of California, Bekeley press release, “EEGs show brain differences between poor and rich kids,” by Robert Sanders.

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University of California, Berkeley, researchers have shown for the first time that the brains of low-income children function differently from the brains of high-income kids.

In a study recently accepted for publication by the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, scientists at UC Berkeley’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and the School of Public Health report that normal 9- and 10-year-olds differing only in socioeconomic status have detectable differences in the response of their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is critical for problem solving and creativity.

Brain function was measured by means of an electroencephalograph (EEG) – basically, a cap fitted with electrodes to measure electrical activity in the brain – like that used to assess epilepsy, sleep disorders and brain tumors.

“Kids from lower socioeconomic levels show brain physiology patterns similar to someone who actually had damage in the frontal lobe as an adult,” said Robert Knight, director of the institute and a UC Berkeley professor of psychology. “We found that kids are more likely to have a low response if they have low socioeconomic status, though not everyone who is poor has low frontal lobe response.”

Previous studies have shown a possible link between frontal lobe function and behavioral differences in children from low and high socioeconomic levels, but according to cognitive psychologist Mark Kishiyama, first author of the new paper, “those studies were only indirect measures of brain function and could not disentangle the effects of intelligence, language proficiency and other factors that tend to be associated with low socioeconomic status. Our study is the first with direct measure of brain activity where there is no issue of task complexity.”

Co-author W. Thomas Boyce, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of public health who currently is the British Columbia Leadership Chair of Child Development at the University of British Columbia (UBC), is not surprised by the results. “We know kids growing up in resource-poor environments have more trouble with the kinds of behavioral control that the prefrontal cortex is involved in regulating. But the fact that we see functional differences in prefrontal cortex response in lower socioeconomic status kids is definitive.”

Boyce, a pediatrician and developmental psychobiologist, heads a joint UC Berkeley/UBC research program called WINKS – Wellness in Kids – that looks at how the disadvantages of growing up in low socioeconomic circumstances change children’s basic neural development over the first several years of life.

“This is a wake-up call,” Knight said. “It’s not just that these kids are poor and more likely to have health problems, but they might actually not be getting full brain development from the stressful and relatively impoverished environment associated with low socioeconomic status: fewer books, less reading, fewer games, fewer visits to museums.”

Kishiyama, Knight and Boyce suspect that the brain differences can be eliminated by proper training. They are collaborating with UC Berkeley neuroscientists who use games to improve the prefrontal cortex function, and thus the reasoning ability, of school-age children.

“It’s not a life sentence,” Knight emphasized. “We think that with proper intervention and training, you could get improvement in both behavioral and physiological indices.”

Kishiyama, Knight, Boyce and their colleagues selected 26 children ages 9 and 10 from a group of children in the WINKS study. Half were from families with low incomes and half from families with high incomes. For each child, the researchers measured brain activity while he or she was engaged in a simple task: watching a sequence of triangles projected on a screen. The subjects were instructed to click a button when a slightly skewed triangle flashed on the screen.

The researchers were interested in the brain’s very early response – within as little as 200 milliseconds, or a fifth of a second – after a novel picture was flashed on the screen, such as a photo of a puppy or of Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

“An EEG allows us to measure very fast brain responses with millisecond accuracy,” Kishiyama said.

The researchers discovered a dramatic difference in the response of the prefrontal cortex not only when an unexpected image flashed on the screen, but also when children were merely watching the upright triangles waiting for a skewed triangle to appear. Those from low socioeconomic environments showed a lower response to the unexpected novel stimuli in the prefrontal cortex that was similar, Kishiyama said, to the response of people who have had a portion of their frontal lobe destroyed by a stroke.

“When paying attention to the triangles, the prefrontal cortex helps you process the visual stimuli better. And the prefrontal cortex is even more involved in detecting novelty, like the unexpected photographs,” he said. But in both cases, “the low socioeconomic kids were not detecting or processing the visual stimuli as well. They were not getting that extra boost from the prefrontal cortex.”

“These kids have no neural damage, no prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol, no neurological damage,” Kishiyama said. “Yet, the prefrontal cortex is not functioning as efficiently as it should be. This difference may manifest itself in problem solving and school performance.”

The researchers suspect that stressful environments and cognitive impoverishment are to blame, since in animals, stress and environmental deprivation have been shown to affect the prefrontal cortex. UC Berkeley’s Marian Diamond, professor emeritus of integrative biology, showed nearly 20 years ago in rats that enrichment thickens the cerebral cortex as it improves test performance. And as Boyce noted, previous studies have shown that children from poor families hear 30 million fewer words by the time they are four than do kids from middle-class families.

“In work that we and others have done, it really looks like something as simple and easily done as talking to your kids” can boost prefrontal cortex performance, Boyce said.

“We are certainly not blaming lower socioeconomic families for not talking to their kids – there are probably a zillion reasons why that happens,” he said. “But changing developmental outcomes might involve something as accessible as helping parents to understand that it is important that kids sit down to dinner with their parents, and that over the course of that dinner it would be good for there to be a conversation and people saying things to each other.”

“The study is suggestive and a little bit frightening that environmental conditions have such a strong impact on brain development,” said Silvia Bunge, UC Berkeley assistant professor of psychology who is leading the intervention studies on prefrontal cortex development in teenagers by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Boyce’s UBC colleague, Adele Diamond, showed last year that 5- and 6-year-olds with impaired executive functioning, that is, poor problem solving and reasoning abilities, can improve their academic performance with the help of special activities, including dramatic play.

Bunge hopes that, with fMRI, she can show improvements in academic performance as a result of these games, actually boosting the activity of the prefrontal cortex.

“People have tried for a long time to train reasoning, largely unsuccessfully,” Bunge said. “Our question is, ‘Can we replicate these initial findings and at the same time give kids the tools to succeed?'”

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For a related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of I.Q.,” “A (Situationist) Body of Thought,” “The Perils of “Being Smart” (or Not So Much),” and “Wise Parents Don’t Have “Smart” Kids.”

Posted in Education, Neuroscience | Tagged: , , , , | 7 Comments »

The Situational Power of Anonymity

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 2, 2008

Sam Sommers has another first-rate situationist post, titled “Aggressive Drivers Anonymous” over on the Psychology Today Blog.  Here are some excerpts.

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Last week I was driving my daughters to a birthday party when I pulled over at an intersection to let a fire engine through. Naturally, one driver, in a green Nissan, decided to use the speeding truck as his personal blocking back, tailing close behind and passing those of us who had pulled to the side. He made just enough progress before getting to the stoplight that I found myself totally cut off once the truck passed, forced to sit there and wait through yet another cycle of the light. I could have just let the transgression go, of course, but I felt an uncontrollable urge to honk my horn at Green Nissan as we waited at the red light.

In fact, I didn’t just give a quick honk of irritation. No, I gave him two distinct honks—the first a brief one to announce my presence with authority, the second a longer, drawn-out one to remind Green Nissan, as he waited at the light, that 1) he did something wrong, 2) I know he did something wrong, and 3) I know that he knows he did something wrong.

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. . . [D]istracted, it took me a few minutes to realize that, two miles later, I was still right behind Green Nissan. And I had made a few turns since the fire truck went by. I started to get the sinking sensation that we might be headed to the same destination, a hypothesis further supported by the sight of a car seat in the back of his car as well.

Why this gave me an uneasy feeling, I cannot pinpoint precisely, as there were multiple factors at play. But of one thing I’m quite sure—the freedom I felt to honk my horn aggressively at Green Nissan from my safe, anonymous seat behind the windshield quickly dissipated at the mere thought of having a face-to-face encounter with him in an open parking lot.

Was I afraid of an actual physical confrontation? Not really. . . .

More likely, I was thinking about the fact that I really don’t enjoy confrontations of any type, my zealous horn-honking notwithstanding. Moreover, I don’t relish being thought of as a jerk, and it was beginning to dawn on me that this was probably precisely what Green Nissan thought of me. Maybe I hadn’t been a jerk per se, but had I overreacted at least a tad? Sure. And while all these thoughts were running through in my head, I found myself following Green Nissan through yet another pair of turns, one left, one right. I slumped a bit further down in my seat as I drove on.

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The experience just served to crystallize for me how powerful it is to feel anonymous in a situation, particularly when it comes to the manifestation of aggression. As [Situationist contributor] Phil Zimbardo has written, feeling anonymous and deindividuated leads college students to administer greater levels of shocks to fellow student in laboratory studies. Along similar, albeit graver lines, perpetrators of violence, whether vigilante or state-sponsored in origin, often disguise themselves in hoods, masks, or make-up. And it’s no coincidence that the harshest, most aggressive verbal swipes taken in cyberspace usually come from anonymous sources as well.

Research even speaks directly to my very experiences on the road last week, illustrating that feelings of anonymity lead to increases in aggressive driving. In retrospect, that’s exactly how I felt behind the wheel when Green Nissan cut me off: anonymous. I knew he could catch a glimpse of me if he turned to look, but I assumed we were heading in different directions and I was never going to see him again. That liberated me to act in ways I’d never dream of in face-to-face interaction.

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. . . . Just yet another demonstration of the power of subtle situational factors: It’s amazing how something as simple as sitting behind the wheel of a car can be enough to lead to such transformations in identity and behavior.

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To read his entire post (with links), click here.  For some related Situationist posts, see “Deindividuation and Seung Hui Cho,” “The Devil You Know . . . ,” “The Social Awkwardness of Online Snubbing,” “Alone Together – The Commuter’s Situation,” and “Internet Disinhibition.”

Posted in Conflict, Social Psychology, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Situationism in the Blogosphere – October, Part III

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 1, 2008

Below, we’ve posted titles and a brief quotation from some of our favorite non-Situationist situationist blogging during October 2008. (They are listed in alphabetical order by source.)

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From Nueronarrative: “Certainty Takes the Stand: A Discussion with Robert Burton

“In On Being Certain, neurologist Robert Burton challenges his readers to ask one of the most basic—and crucial—of questions: how do we know what we know? With an engaging, conversational style, he tackles the neuropsychological underpinnings of belief and certainty, carefully examining these ubiquitous dynamics in light of what is known about how the mind works.” Read more . . .

From Nueronarrative: “The Lucifer Effect: An Interview with Dr. Philip Zimbardo

“Social psychologist [and Situationist contributor] Philip Zimbardo has been studying the anatomy of human psychology for nearly four decades. In the summer of 1971, Dr. Zimbardo created the classic Stanford Prison Experiment, a simulation of prison life that investigated a provocative question: what happens when you put good people in an evil place? The results were dramatic, and launched a decades-long journey to discover how situational forces and group dynamics can work in concert to make monsters out of decent men and women. . . . In The Lucifer Effect, Dr. Zimbardo takes the reader through this often dark journey, and in the process sheds light on topics ranging from corporate malfeasance to torture at Abu Ghraib to organized genocide.” Read more . . .

From Psychology Today: “A dollar is a dollar is a dollar…Right?

“Despite the great flexibility that money permits us, people have trouble treating every dollar the same as every other dollar. Here are two examples.” Read more . . .

From Psychology Today: “The Kid-Ceiling: Women Feel It Long Before Seeing Glass-Ceiling

“The kid-ceiling seems to have little or no effect on Sarah Palin, but for most women who work having a family alters their income, their ability to advance, and their well-being. All is not right in the world of women’s work and the glaring deficiencies force women to move in the direction of the smaller, new traditional family. In this post I look at some of the more telling issues and facts. The more children you have, the more likely you’ll feel the impact of the kid-ceiling long before you see the glass-ceiling.” Read more . . .

From The Splintered Mind: “Six Ways to Know Your Mind

“Philosophers often provide accounts of self-knowledge as though we knew our own minds either entirely or predominantly in just one way (Jesse Prinz is a good exception to the rule, though). But let me count the ways (saving the fun ones for the end).”  Read more . . .

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For previous installments of “Situationism on the Blogosphere,” click on the “Blogroll” category in the right margin.

Posted in Abstracts, Blogroll, Book, Classic Experiments, Life, Naive Cynicism, Neuroscience, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

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