Do Cultures Have Personality?

When people talk about culture and personality, the normal top-of-the-mind concern is whether cultures affect personality and if so to what extent?

English: An Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map of t...

English: An Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map of the World: World Secular-Rational and Self Expression Values as a map of world cultures based on World Values Survey data. Svenska: En Världskulturkarta av Inglehart-Welzel typ. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Personality, or enduring individual differences in thinking, feeling, motivations and behavior among have been shown to be partly heritable and under genetic effect; they are partly shaped by the culture and early life experiences also.

However, this post is not about the culture’s effect on personality; rather just like individuals differ from each other on certain universal traits (say the Big Five) and this individual difference is what typically comes to mind when one talks of personality of an individual (i.e. so-and-so is extarverted as compared to population mean etc) , so too cultures show differences from each other and one may conceive of these differences as enduring and differentiating aspect of that culture vis-a-vis other cultures, in essence its personality.

A name that is quite well-known in this context is that of Geert Hofstede. He, initially, in the 1970s, analyzed values data from IBM employees, from over 50 countries to arrive at four dimensions on which the cultures differed. He later extended this work and analyzed data from World Values Survey and work by him and others later led to addition of two more dimensions. The six dimensions, on which cultures differ, in his own words [pdf] are:

1. Power Distance, related to the different solutions to the basic problem of human inequality;
2. Uncertainty Avoidance, related to the level of stress in a society in the face of an unknown future;
3. Individualism versus Collectivism, related to the integration of individuals into primary groups;
4. Masculinity versus Femininity, related to the division of emotional roles between women and men;
5. Long Term versus Short Term Orientation, related to the choice of focus for people’s efforts: the future or the present and past.
6. Indulgence versus Restraint, related to the gratification versus control of basic human desires related to enjoying life.

Lets analyze this a bit further.

Power Distance has been defined as the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.

To me it seems all about relationships among people- whether the hierarchical relationships are accepted or resisted. If one could extend an analogy to individual differences in personality, this may be analogous to the trait of Agreeableness in individuals- whether you are kind and nice or aggressive towards others.

Uncertainty Avoidance is not the same as risk avoidance; it deals with a society’s tolerance for ambiguity. It indicates to what extent a culture programs its members to feel either uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations. Unstructured situations are novel, unknown, surprising, and different from usual.

To my mind it is absolutely clear that is a cognitive dimension and analogous to Openness to Experience in individual variation. Both share the underlying theme of being open and exploratory and tolerant of ambiguity.

Individualism on the one side versus its opposite, Collectivism, as a societal, not an individual characteristic, is the degree to which people in a society are integrated into groups. On the individualist side we find cultures in which the ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after him/herself and his/her immediate family. On the
collectivist side we find cultures in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, often extended families (with uncles, aunts and grandparents) that continue protecting them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty, and oppose other ingroups.

To me this looks like an analog of Extraversion-introversion in individuals. One end is quite while the other is quite engaged with outside activities. In cultural terms, one end is characterized by close knit families while the other with more individualistic pursuits.

Masculinity versus its opposite, Femininity, again as a societal, not as an individual characteristic, refers to the distribution of values between the genders which is another fundamental issue for any society, to which a range of solutions can be found.

I cannot find a ready analogue of this in individual differences in personality in terms of the Big Five. In cultural terms this is related to whether gender roles are heavily differentiated (masculine cultures) or less so (feminine cultures).

Values found at this pole (long term orientation) were perseverance, thrift, ordering relationships by status, and having a sense of shame; values at the opposite, short term pole were reciprocating social obligations, respect for tradition, protecting one’s ‘face’, and personal steadiness and stability.

This can be equated easily with the Conscientiousness individual difference, one pole of which is associated with self-control etc.

Indulgence stands for a society that allows relatively free gratification of basic and natural human desires related to enjoying life and having fun. Restraint stands for a society that controls gratification of needs and regulates it by means of strict social norms.

This focus on happiness/ well-being versus constraint and repression of desires may be the analogous of neuroticism and emotional stability, where one end may have repressed desires at individual level while other exhibits more stability.

I know this is a far conjecture, and by no means am I suggesting that if a culture is high in Uncertainty avoidance, the individuals within it will have low openness to experience; the relationship between cultures and personality is more complex than that; but it is a good way to think about cultures that they too have a unique personality and its structure may be on the same lines as individual differences personality.

The Four Shades of Dark

People since time immemorial have been fascinated by the problem of evil; some consider it a philosophical (why does evil exist?) and religious problem (Why does god allow evil if he is omnipotent and benevolent?) while some others have taken a more scientific approach.

Prominent psychologists from Roy Baumeister to Simon Baron-Cohen have written about evil and I first got drawn into psychology when I read ‘The anatomy of human destructiveness‘ by Erich Fromm in 1992, while still in college. As a matter of fact Fromm first came up with the term ‘malignant narcissism’ which was a sort of predecessor to the modern theory of an evil personality.

The modern theory of evil personality has recognized the existence of a dark triad- Narcissism,  Machiavellianissm and Psychopathy, and recent studies and conceptualization have extended this to include a fourth trait called Sadism to make it a dark tetrad.

Research has shown that these four traits are moderately correlated to each other but are separate constructs.

But first lets understand what we mean by these terms.

Sadism: Everyday sadism, includes but is not limited to sadism in a sexual context. Put simply, it is a tendency to take pleasure in inflicting pain on others, either directly or vicariously. Normally, if we hurt someone else we feel guilt and shame and distress etc; sadists instead become addicted to such hurting others events as they feel diminished negative affect in hurting someone and instead feel pleasure.

Narcissism: Narcissists have a grandiose sense of self; they also feel very entitled; they are exploitative and demonstrate attention-seeking behavior.

Machiavellianism: Machiavellianism is basically having no qualms in manipulating people; they are also very good at such manipulations and are calculating and cold in their calculations..

Psychopathy: Psychopaths, apart from demonstrating anti-social behavior, are characteristic by their callous and unemotional attitude towards others people suffering. some people believe they lack empathy, while others believe they can cognitively know what it feels like, but do not affectively feel in the same way as their victims.

There is a rich body of literature linking the dark tetrad to many negative outcomes ranging from over-representation in internet trolling to more juvenile delinquency.

There is also some evidence linking these traits diffferentially to the big HEXACO/big five traits. for eg. Narcissism is associated with Extraversion, while Machiavellianism is associated with less Agreeablness; Sadism with less Emotionality, while Psychopathy with less Conscientiousness. The lowered scores on Humility-Honesty dimension of HEXACO are associated with all the four dark triad traits.

Similarly, the traits react differently when provoked: Narcissists aggression is insecurity driven; sadistic persons pleasure driven while that of a psychopath revenge driven.

Referring to my previous post, one can even conjecture that sadism is the Life schema/ Pain-pleasure axis gone wrong; Narcissism is due to inflated self schema; Machiavellianism a result of dysfunctional Others schema, while Psychopathy tied to deficiencies in the World schema.

It would be a mistake to presume that this dark triad is a categorical difference- its a dimensional difference and of degree rather than kind. All of us demonstrate some Machiavellian behavior or say everyday Sadism and its only a matter of time if these tendencies go unchecked you end up on the other side. As the popular saying goes, there are two wolves inside of us, the one which grows  depends on which wolf you feed.

Basic Needs, Basic Beliefs, Basic Pathologies

Kahneman in his book ‘Thinking fast and slow‘ elucidates the two type of thinking processes involved- a system I consisting of fast, intuitive processing, and a system II consisting of slower, more deliberate processing. Lesser known is the fact that a similar dual process theory of personality that precedes his work is by Seymour Epstien.

The Pleasure Principle (song)

The Pleasure Principle (song) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Epstien is know for his Cognitive-Experiential Self theory of Personalty (CEST), according to which he reintroduced the concept of unconscious in psychology, in the form of the Experiential system, but his unconscious was not maladaptive and instinct driven, but more adaptive in nature.

Essentially, Epstien acknowledges the massive role Experiential system has on the rational system, postulating that most of the behavior is Experiential driven and only pots hoc rationalized by the Rational system.

The Experiential system, though unconscious is not made up of repressed desires or works on the Pleasure principle, but instead is geared towards satisfying four basic needs. He later added two super-ordinate needs – one related to Valence or positive affcet- negative affect polarity and the other related to Arousal. Its pertinent to note that the Experiential system of CEST is very much affect driven and ‘hot’ rather than ‘cold’ in nature.

Essentially, Epstien himself tacitly split the four needs into eight by claiming that each need can be split around the super-ordinate need of positive affect- negative affect polarity. Here are the four basic needs made explicit.

In classical Freudian theory, the one most basic need before his introduction of a death instinct was the pleasure principle, which refers to the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of and pain (Freud, 1924/1960). Some learning theorists such as Thorndike (1927) make a similar assumption in their view of the importance of affective reinforcement. For object-relations theorists, most notably Bowlby (1988), the most fundamental need is the need for relatedness. For Rogers (1951) and other phenomenological psychologists, it is the need to maintain the stability and coherence of a person’s conceptual system. For Allport (1961) and Kohut (1971), it is the need to enhance self-esteem. (For a more thorough discussion of these proposals see Epstein, 1993, 1998b.) From the perspective of CEST, the four proposed basic needs all meet the following criteria for a basic need: the need is universal, the need can dominate the other basic needs, a failure to fulfill the need can destabilize the overall conceptual system.

These four basic needs may be satisfied to various degrees during critical developmental periods and lead to four basic types of beliefs. Even a scale has been created to measure these basic beliefs:

The Basic Beliefs Inventory (BBI). The BBI  (Catlin & Epstein, 1992) is a 102-item measure of beliefs associated with the satisfaction of four basic needs that motivate behavior according to CEST (see Epstein, 1991). The four basic beliefs are (1) the belief that the world is benign versus malevolent; (2) the belief that the world is meaningful (i.e., predictable, controllable, and just) versus chaotic (i.e., unpredictable, uncontrollable, and unjust); (3) the belief that relations with others are supportive versus threatening; and (4) the belief that the self is worthy (i.e., competent, good, and lovable) versus unworthy (i.e., incompetent, bad, and unlovable).

To me this aligns very well with the fundamental four model. To recap , as per the fundamental four model there are four polarities of basic motivations or drives: pleasure/ pain; active/passive; self/other and broad/narrow.

I would like to take this opportunity to expand the CEST and merge it with the fundamental four framework.

As per CEST, we all have beliefs or schema or models about self, others, the inanimate world and these are significantly involved in psychopathology.

I would propose that we have four basic models with 2 sub-models each. The four basic models are related to Life (where self and others or environment is not typically distinguished from each other), a Self model, an Other model and a World model.

Life model:

Life-past-and-present:  How do we view life that has already happened? If the experiences were mostly good, we see life as beautiful or benign; if the experiences were mostly bad, we view life as sucking or malevolent.

Life-yet-to-come: How do expect the future to be like? if we expect life to be full of adventure and hope we feel life is promising;  if we expect life to be mostly downhill, we feel that life is bleak.

Self model:

Self’s-impact-on-Env: How much control do we feel we have over our environment? Are we in control, can we chose our niches and are our efforts rewarded and effective? If yes we have feelings of positive self – esteem, otherwise we feel incompetent.

Env-Impact-on-self: Does our environment allow us any autonomy in regulating our behavior? Does it act for our benefit or to our advantage? If the environment provides unconditional positive regard, we develop positive self-worth and feel competent dealing with life’s curve-balls ; else we end up feeling worthless.

Other model:

Others-same-as-me: Am I part of the In-group? If we are accepted as part of the ingroup, our needs of belonging are satisfied; else we feel lonely.

Others-different-than-me: Can I trust them? Will they trust me? After all they are an outgroup. If we are able to rise above our fears and distrust, our needs for connection are satisfied, else we remain isolated.

World model:

Physical-World:Is the physical universe lawful? is it determined and non-miraculous? If our precepts lead us to believe that we live in a lawful universe, we have a stable overarching schema; whenever we witness something not inline with the laws of nature, that schema goes for a toss.

Social-World: Is the social world predictable? do actions of people make sense or is there too much randomness? If the social world seems predictable and lawful in its own sense, then we can maintain a coherent worldview; else if we encounter too many behaviors or events of which we cannot make sense we risk becoming incoherent.

It is my contention that dysfunctional beliefs at each of these eight sub-models lead to different types of psychopathology. For eg. the Life model that say that life is malevolent/ bleak may lead to anxiety ; a Self model claiming that the self is worthless/ incompetent may lead to depression; while a World model were events/percepts don’t make sense and is incoherent/unstable may lead to psychosis.

And of course this may be mediated by early life experiences/ genetic propensities that give rise to differences in brain neurotransmitter systems. But a detailed model about that should be the subject of a new post.

Emotions and Personality : take 7

Today I want to approach the question of emotions and personality from an existential lens. In my last post I alluded to the existential givens and you can read more about them here [pdf].

English: Emotions associated with sadness

English: Emotions associated with sadness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To recap, here are the contradictions or tensions that these existential givens give rise to:

This paper considers four existential challenges:
1) Life (and death). We are alive but we will die, and we live a world that both supports and negates life.
2) Meaning (and absurdity). We have a conscious capacity and desire for
meaning, but we live in a confusing and sometimes chaotic world that offers many meaning systems and also denies meaning.
3) Freedom (and determinism). We are free and determined, and we live in a world that allows and constricts our freedom.
4) Community (and aloneness). Human desire and capacity for authentic relatedness are countered by inauthenticity, alienation and loneliness.
For the personalty traits I will be referring to Cloninger’s temperament traits. For the emotions I will be referring to the eight Rasaas framework.
Consider Death (and life). The mere thought of death causes fear, while you need courage to live despite knowing that one day you will eventually die. Navigating this existential given, leads to the emergence of polar emotions of fear and courage. This also leads to existential as well as normal anxiety. This system has a neural basis as in the Avoid system, which may be associated with Serotonin system.  Also sensitivity to this given, results in the personality trait of Harm Avoidance. To recap:

Individuals high in HA tend to be cautious, careful,fearful, tense, apprehensive, nervous, timid, doubtful,discouraged, insecure, passive, negativistic, or pessimistic even in situations that do not normally worry other people. These individuals tend to be inhibited and shy in most social situations. Their energy level tends to be low and they feel chronically tired or easily fatigued. As a consequence they need more reassurance and encouragement than most people and are usually sensitive to criticism and punishment. The advantages of of high Harm Avoidance are the greater care and caution in anticipating possible danger, which leads to careful planning when danger is possible. The disadvantages occur when danger is unlikely but still anticipated, such pessimism or inhibition leads to unnecessary worry.


In contrast, individuals with low scores on this temperament dimension tend to be carefree, relaxed, daring, courageous, composed, and optimistic even in situations that worry most people. These individuals are described as outgoing, bold, and confident in most social situations. Their energy level tends to be high, and they impress others as dynamic, lively, and vigorous persons. The advantages of low Harm Avoidance are confidence in the face of danger and uncertainty,leading to optimistic and energetic efforts with little or no distress. The disadvantages are related to unresponsiveness to danger, which can lead to reckless optimism.

Consider on the other hand, Freedom (and determinism). The possibility of being free agents leads to wonder, surprise and novel behavior; while the possibility of being determined, at the other hand, fills us with disgust. This leads to polarity of Disgust-Surprise. Its my assertion that this state is associated with schizophrenic psychosis. This system has a neural basis in the Approach system, which may be associated with Dopamine system. Also sensitivity towards this given results in personality trait of Novelty Seeking. To recap:

Individuals high in Novelty Seeking tend to be quick-tempered, excitable, exploratory, curious, enthusiastic, ardent, easily bored, impulsive, and disorderly The advantages of high Novelty Seeking are enthusiastic and quick engagement with whatever is new and unfamiliar, which leads to exploration of potential rewards. The disadvantages are related to excessive anger and quick disengagement whenever their wishes are frustrated, which leads to inconsistencies in relationships and instability in efforts.


In contrast, individuals low in Novelty Seeking are described as slow tempered, indifferent, uninquisitive, unenthusiastic, umemotional, reflective, thrifty, reserved, tolerant of monotony, systematic, and orderly.

Now consider Loneliness (and community). While existential loneliness give rise to rage against the universe, the sense of community is made possible and engenders feelings of love. Thus the emotional polarities relevant here are Anger-Love. Its again my thesis that this is associated with bipolar sensitivity. This system has a neural basis in the Attach system, which may be associated with Norepinephrine system. The personality trait associated will be Reward Dependence. To recap:


Individuals who score high in Reward Dependence tend to be tender-hearted, loving and warm, sensitive, dedicated, dependent, and sociable. They seek social contact and are open to communication with other people. Typically, they find people they like everywhere they go. A major advantage of high Reward Dependence is the sensitivity to social cues, which facilitates warm social relations and understanding of others’ feelings. A major disadvantage of high Reward Dependence involves the ease with which other people can influence the dependent person’s views and feelings, possibly leading to loss of objectivity.


Individuals low on the Reward Dependence are often described as practical, tough minded, cold, and socially insensitive. They are content to be alone and rarely initiate open communication with others. They prefer to keep their distance and typically have difficulties in finding something in common with other people. An advantage of low Reward Dependence is that independence from sentimental considerations.

Lastly consider absurdity (and meaning). When confronted with the absurdity of life, the pointlessness of it all, our natural reaction is to become sad and depressed. On the other hand, if one is able to find or bestow meaning to one’s everyday acts, one lives with joy in his or her heart. This leads to polar emotions of Sadness and Joy and failure to navigate this existential given properly results in depression. The system associated with this may be called the Achieve system (all achievements being steps to endow life with essence). The personalty system associated here is Persistence. To recap:

Individuals high in Persistence tend to be industrious, hard-working, persistent, and stable despite frustration and fatigue. They typically intensify their effort in response to anticipated reward. They are ready to volunteer when there is something to be done, and are eager to start work on any assigned duty. Persistent persons tend to perceive frustration and fatigue as a personal challenge. They do not give up easily and, in fact, tend to work extra hard when criticized or confronted with mistakes in their work. Highly persistent persons tend to be ambitious overachievers who are willing to make major sacrifices to be a success. A highly persistent individual may tend to be a perfectionist and a workaholic who pushes him/herself far beyond what is necessary to get by.High Persistence is an adaptive behavioral strategy when rewards are intermittent but the contingencies remain stable. However, when the contingencies change rapidly, perseveration becomes maladaptive.


When reward contingencies are stable, individuals low in Persistence are viewed as indolent, inactive, unreliable, unstable and erratic on the basis of both self-reports and interviewer ratings. They rarely intensify their effort even in response to anticipated reward. These persons rarely volunteer for anything they do not have to do, and typically go slow in starting work, even if it is easy to do. They tend to give up easily when faced with frustration, criticism, obstacles, and fatigue. These persons are usually satisfied with their current accomplishments, rarely strive for bigger and better things, and are frequently described as underachievers who could probably accomplish for than they actually do, but do not push themselves harder than it is necessary to get by. Low scorers manifest a low level of perseverance and repetitive behaviors even in response to intermittent reward. Low Persistence is an adaptive strategy when reward contingencies change rapidly and may be maladaptive when rewards are infrequent but occur in the long run.

So my latest thinking based on different strands, ranging from existential strands to evolutionary considerations, seems to indicate that there are four basic emotional polarities and four basic temperaments.

These are summarized below:

  1. Harm Avoidance: Fear-Courage
  2. Novelty Seeking: Disgust-Surprise
  3. Reward Dependence: Anger-Love
  4. Persistence: Sadness-Joy

Of course, this leaves the question of what happens to the 3 (extended to 4 by me) character traits listed by Cloninger in his TCI. That and four new polar emotions family is the subject of a new post!!

Personality decomposed!

Today I read a paper by De Young about Cybernetic Big 5 theory of personality and that led me to think hard about my own conceptualization of personality.  The below is an effort to elucidate the CB5T as well as to enhance and point out the commonalities with my own conception.


To begin with, there are two broad personalty meta-traits: called stability and plasticity. Like all personality traits these are on a continuum and someone low in stability I like to call as labile; while someone low on plasticity I like to call as rigid.

Lets first look at plasticity. It is made up of the big 5 traits of Extraversion also conceptualized as behavioral plasticity and Openness/intellect conceptualized as cognitive plasticity. Its important to note here that plasticity has nothing to do with neuro-plasticity; this is more behavioral and cognitive flexibility or plasticity and is related to a tendency to explore either behaviorally one’s environment or cognitively one’s conceptual space to maximize learning.  Thus while plasticity pole is a learning and exploration pole, the rigidity pole is performance or exploitation pole.  In normal course of life one would need to both learn new stuff and leverage that to perform well using existing knowledge. Plasticity-rigidity, imho,  is the tradeoff and tension between too much learning and too much performance focus. This aspect of personality is purely in cognitive -behavioral domain and can be easily modeled/ replicated by machines. This is the philosophical zombie.

Why we need the second meta trait of stability- labile is somewhat of a mystery to many people. This is the part of person that feels, has motives and understands and acts as if others too are conscious entities like him/her. This is the ghost in the machine. Stability is comprised of Big 5 underlying traits of Neuroticism also conceptualized as low emotional stability , Conscientiousness conceptualized as motivational stability and Agreeableness conceptualized as social stability. Stability here refers to the fact that one can exercise control over ones reactions to the environment. While labile, the polar extreme of stability, is characterized by reactivity to environment/ stimuli, giving in to impulses and is more toward the facet ‘Experience’ of consciousness; stability on the other hand is all about effort-full regulation of impulses, willpower and control and related to ‘Agency’ part of consciousness.

That is about the two meta traits.

Now, lets come to the big 5 and 2 aspects of each of the big 5 as per De Young.

First up is Extraverison. Its there because rewards are present in the world and it codes for reward sensitivity. As long as rewards are there in the world and the organism acts to receive rewards, there would be individual differences in how much the behavior is performed for the same reward. Thus though operant conditioning will guarantee that behaviors get coupled with reward contingencies in the environment, the degree of coupling will be a matter of individual taste. There are two aspects of Extraversion: assertiveness and enthusiasm. Assertiveness is related to wanting a reward and enthusiasm to liking a reward and this echoes earlier work by Berridge et al. I also think of them as Work (wanting something  and willing to expand energy) and Play (liking something and enjoying it) aspects of extraversion. These neurobiologically are related to the BAS  (behavior approach system)  and pleasure system (PS ) about which I have blogged elsewhere,

Next up is Neuroticism. Its because there are punishments and threats in the world and it codes sensitivity to the same. As long as threats are there in the world, the organism will respond by defensive behavior that can be either active escape or passive avoidance. There are tow aspects of Neuroticism: Volatility or active FFFS (fight, freeze, flight response) response and  Withdrawal or BIS (behavioral inhibition system) like responses. On the flip side you have a calm person (flip of volatile) and a confident person (flip of withdrawn) . Volatility is active in nature while withdrawal is passive in nature. This can also be thought of as the Avoid system, but is made of FFFS and BIS as I have blogged elsewhere.

Consider Agreeableness next. It is a response to a problem posed by con-specifics and significant others. Here the self-other dynamic plays. On one hand you curb selfish impulses to co-operate ad share with con-specifics, on the other hand the attachment system makes you automatically care and be compassionate about your kins and near and dear ones. The two aspects of  Agreeableness are accordingly politeness (curbing impulses to be pro social) and compassion (genuinely caring about others) . This is colloquially the attach system , also made popular by Rick Hanson, but I am sure will be decomposed in two systems on closer analysis.

Next come openness/ intellect: It is a response to the problem of uncertainty. We are never sure what is out there and thus need to continuously update our representation of the world. One can do that using a broad lens and by abstracting or one can use a concrete lens and be narrowly focused .  One can take things in parallel or consider inputs serially and in a logical fashion.  Correspondingly, there are two aspects of this : Openness to experience that is broadly construed and intellect which is more narrowly construed.  But at the end of the day this system is about attending to the world and about cognitive exploration and can be called an Attend system.


Lastly comes Conscientiousness. Here the challenge is unpredictability- of self – and thus the need to regulate oneself. This could be done by either inculcating habits and routines or by exercising willpower and top down control. Accordingly the two aspects are industriousness (characterized by delaying gratification and forgetful control) and orderliness ( following rules, routines etc). This is the domain of self regulation and motivation.

I am so excited by this new model- it does seem to sum up many things beautifully and gels beautifully with my ABCDS (now a S or  social factor to be added to affective, behavioral, cognitive and motivational domain ) model and also with the polarities of Millon .  Do let me know what you think about this model of personality?

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