Behavior as a Category of Psychology

James Rowland Angell

University of Chicago

Two years ago at the meeting of this Association we attended the obsequies of the term 'soul' as a member of the vocabulary of psychology. At that time some of our philosophical colleagues put in a plea for leniency, but the psychologists for the most part were agreed that for their purposes the term had outlived its usefulness. It should be noted that this verdict was not so much legislative as historical. It did not attempt to forestall the actual march of events. It simply recorded the demise of the term as already fait accompli. Nor was the verdict concerned merely with a question of terminology. It marked the passing of the problem with which the term was concerned. Religious and metaphysical thought will no doubt continue their interest in the soul, but for psychology in its technical aspects, the chapter is apparently closed.

The term 'consciousness' appears to be the next victim marked for slaughter and as one of the claimants for its fading honors we meet the term 'behavior.'[2]

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Consciousness has been attacked from two directions. Our philosophical friends have been for a long time pointing out the spurious character of its claim to an unique place in the universe and, inverting the Berkelian position, not a few of them have reduced consciousness to one among the many relations sustained to one another by physical objects. Others less drastic have contented themselves by exhibiting the ambiguities and anomalies contained in the conception. The difference between feeling and awareness, the distinction between consciousness and self-consciousness, the contrast of immediate with reflective consciousness, these and a dozen other differentiations have been exploited as the generators of confusion and. error. As might be anticipated, the cures proposed for these ills are various, agreeing only in the one point that we are urged to adopt the usage proposed by the author whom we chance at the moment to be reading. Attacks of this character are essentially frontal in nature. There is in progress, however, a wide flanking movement of another sort.

The comparative psychologists have from the first been vexed by the difficulty of ascribing to animals conscious processes of any specific kind in connection with intelligent behavior. Animals give unequivocal evidence that they carry over the lessons of experience from one occasion to another. Upon this all are agreed. Whether they have conscious memory such as human beings possess and whether we are justified in assuming this to be true in the light of the evidence presented, is quite another matter and raises a question upon which experts differ. Obviously, for scientists engaged in this field of investigation, it would from many points of view be a material gain, in convenience at least, if the possible existence of consciousness might be forgotten and all animal behavior be described purely objectively. Nor has there been, so far as I am aware, any general objection to this proposal. To be sure, one still requires in describing this behavior, to distinguish between that which is hereditary, instinctive and reflex on the one hand, and that which represents individualistic 'acquired' adaptation to environment

(257) on the other. Needless to remark, it is primarily with behavior of the latter kind that consciousness has been commonly assumed to play its chief part.

In studying animals it has naturally been easy to fall into modes of describing their activities which presuppose the presence of consciousness in forms resembling that of man — under similar conditions. The more penetrating criticism of recent investigators has disclosed the subtle dangers involved in such an assumption and has shown how difficult it is to secure evidence unequivocal in its indications of processes identical with human mental activities. This circumstance has inevitably bred in many comparative psychologists that strong disposition already mentioned to shun the term consciousness on the ground that it is superfluous for an intelligent apprehension of animal behavior and that such terms as 'acquired' and 'instinctive' behavior may serve every purpose in reporting all of which we can really be confident, while avoiding any encroachment upon the dangerous regions of speculation.

It is furthermore not unnatural that finding it practicable and convenient, as undoubtedly it is, to waive reference to consciousness in matters relating to animal behavior, the tendency should manifest itself to pursue a similar line of procedure in dealing with human conduct. This tendency does not so much represent any formally recognized program like that of our world-reforming realists, as it does a general drift occasioned by several different causes and proceeding from several different sources. Its informal and unselfconscious character is probably indicative of a more substantial and enduring basis than belongs to movements more carefully and more purposely nurtured.

The revolt against the domineering claims of introspection as the alpha and omega of psychological method—a revolt which in America found one of its earliest and most pungent expressions in Professor Cattell's address at the St. Louis Congress—constitutes one division of the tendency I have in mind. We have been told by many of our recognized leaders, and with particular clearness by the honored president of

(258) our association for 1912, that we can and do secure many of our most important forms of knowledge about the mind, not by introspection but through means as objective as those by which we measure time and space. Obviously, such knowledge must be gained by observation of the physical conduct of the individual or group of individuals whom we study. As such it involves the study of behavior as truly as does the study of animal actions, and it makes no more necessary use of the concept of consciousness..

Here belong such achievements as social and racial psychology can offer. Here, too, may be found much of sociology, economics, and history. The behavior of the mob, the execution of the ceremonies of religion, the various psychic and social circumstances surrounding the development of the family and clan, the peculiarities of sex and race, these are all matters of human behavior which lend themselves in large measure to objective description as well as to objective investigation, and the results so gained may not only claim a validity as great as any ordinary introspective observation, they are often in the very nature of the case results to which introspection in any usual sense of the term affords no adequate approach.

Again our so-called functional psychology, in one at least of its embodiments, has persistently emphasized the entire act from sense organ to muscle as the significant object of attack and has resolutely set its face against any study of consciousness which divorces it from action and especially such study of it as consists in the search for structuralistic elements as the final terminus ad quem of psychological investigation. The exponents of this trend have refused to face the mind-body problem in the conventional dualistic manner, with its inevitable discontinuity of mind and body actions and have treated the distinction involved as one falling functionally inside the life cycle of the individual organism. Such a view obviously renders it easy to welcome a category like behavior which accents in its very first implication the fact of objective action. Allowing for some conservative reservations, its general tendency would be in

( 259) the direction of sympathetic acceptance of the behavior concept as a general term under which to subsume minor distinctions in modes of action whether conscious or unconscious.

The current doctrines of conscious attitude clearly lend, themselves to incorporation in such a movement. The same thing may be said of the psychology of relation—a subject of so much interest in current writing. Even the imageless thought doctrine might conceivably find a home here. Certainly the very terms "attitude" and "relation" suggest modes of behavior, whether one conceives them in purely psychical form or in physiological ways.

It is no part of the purpose of the present paper to scrutinize the attack of the philosophers on consciousness. In due course whatever is empirically usable in the results of this assault will be taken up into the body of our scientific methodology. But the time is certainly ripe to invoice some of the more flagrant defects of 'consciousness' as a working concept of psychology and to this end we may profitably devote a few moments.

It is an interesting fact (if it is really a fact, as I believe it to be) that those psychologists who have kept closest to a detailed study of the actual operations of the mind and  especially those who have worked most exclusively in the laboratory have been least disturbed by the frailties in the conception of consciousness. When you are experimentally determining the special form of imagery which your memory employs in a given situation, it is a matter of rather remote interest whether or not ambiguities lurk in the notion of consciousness. And the same thing is true when one is trying to ascertain the fidelity and the permanency of a memory process. One may even examine the mental complexion of an act of choice and find oneself quite unperturbed by ulterior considerations concerning the nature of consciousness. And so it is with the rank and file of strictly analytical problems. But the moment one begins to inquire how the mental act of choosing is converted into the neuro-muscular act of speaking one's mind, questions concerning the nature of consciousness come tumbling down like heaven's rain upon the just and the unjust.


Now occasional fortunate psychologists have found their somewhat simple interests entirely satisfied to play with the analysis of mental acts taken merely at their face value as mental, being content either to waive all question df their relation to bodily processes, or to accept parallelism, or perhaps to assume a naif interactionist attitude much after the manner of common sense. But the rank and file have been more sophisticated, and having eaten of the tree of knowledge, they have as usual suffered the pangs of spiritual indigestion. They have not contented themselves with a mere analysis of conscious states as such. They have inquired into both their antecedents and their consequences and in both directions they have harvested trouble and perplexity. Indeed, a few—and these for the most part are ravening philosophical wolves arrayed in the sheeps' clothing of psychologists—are inveterate investigators of the immediate implications of consciousness, self-consciousness, and the like. We may be exonerated of any intentional discourtesy if we observe that it requires no very high order of ingenuity to raise questions on this line whose successful answer implicates entire philosophical systems. In any case, the point to be made here is simply this, that one may carry out the program of a purely analytical psychology until the descent of the eternal twilight in which all cats are gray, without once feeling distressed by the improprieties of consciousness. But to overstep the limits of these confines in any direction and especially to attempt an understanding of the method by which one has come to his facts, and much more the way in which the mental and the physical come in touch with one another,—as obviously they do, both in sensation and volition,—this is to let loose a very Pandora's box of intellectual plagues whose ravages one is powerless to stay.

It is because the conception of consciousness has been at once too specific and too vague that it has led to such endless difficulties. It has been too vague in its failure to distinguish such differences as awareness and feeling, in countenancing and encouraging the antithesis between consciousness and self-consciousness, in permitting the same term to be

( 261) used to describe on the one hand the cessation of all mental activity, as in the phrase 'he lost consciousness,' meaning he passed into coma, and on the other, the mere obliviousness to a particular impression, as in the expression, 'I was not conscious of his gesture.' It has been too specific in that it has' carried with it the notion of some kind of non-material entity, by some authorities alleged to be space-occupying, by others defended vigorously as non-spatial, by yet others regarded as receiving and giving off energy in exchange with physical sources of energy, by not a few regarded as wholly insulated from direct contact with the physical world and yet in some miraculous way reflecting the events in that world. Whether we shall gain or lose in fleeing from these ills to others that we wot not of, remains to be seen.

In considering the claims of behavior as a substitute for, consciousness it will be well to safeguard ourselves against certain prepossessions gained from temporary conditions in our intellectual world. To most of us I am sure the term comes with a biological connotation, but we must not forget that chemistry discusses the behavior of the molecules, that astronomy relates the behavior of comets and that consciousness the despised may not only be regarded in its entirety as a mode of organic behavior, but that within its own jurisdiction it reveals innumerable variants each of which may be regarded as a special form of conscious behavior, e. g., simple apprehension, judgment, desire, and aversion. In other words, if we are to accept the somewhat naif and uncritical biological use of the term, we must be prepared to expand or contract it as exigency may require.

Let us imagine our psychologist—or our behaviorist, as we may shortly be calling him—starting to define his field.[3]

(262) He might adopt some of the familiar old phrases and dub it the description and explanation of behavior. But at once we need qualifiers. What kind of behavior; stellar, geological, chemical? Obviously not. Physiological, zoological, mental? Yes and no. It might prove unprofitable to invade very far the realm of physiology, which has to do primarily with those metabolisms and their supporting mechanisms by which the organism maintains itself. Clearly, however, the line of demarcation between this territory and that preempted by general zoology in its divisions devoted to the study of animal behavior, is anything but sharp. The mechanisms of the optical reflexes are matters primarily of physiology. But their actual employment, their utility, their origin, etc., are matters belonging to zoology. In zoology we find recognition at once of innate and acquired forms of behavior. Here then, as we have before noted, would open up our new field. Mental life, conscious process, as our psychologists have dealt with it, has had to do with reactions which were mainly concerned with new individualistic adaptations. The behavior which we should study in man would be in part therefore, the old instinctive behavior, but in part this new personalisticly adaptive behavior. As a program this is entirely intelligible. Indeed, it sounds very much like our current psychological texts—in its purposes anyhow, if not in its terminology.

But now the crucial question arises: Can we carry out this program? Can we give an account of human behavior leaving out all purely subjective or conscious reference and above all—as the most crucial test of some of the newer ambitions—can we dispense wholly with introspection in gaining such objective descriptions? [4] Let us examine some typical situations and see what occurs.

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Analytical and experimental psychology has made much of the resolution of color experiences into simple qualities. Can such distinctions be stated in terms of overt motor behavior and can they be attained without the aid of introspection? Obviously one may give a qualified affirmation to the first half of the question. The differences in color qualities may be indicated by differences in motor behavior, and when remarked, do commonly secure such recognition. Not only does one give a different name to varying hues, one also reacts in a dozen different ways to a dozen different colors. Certainly it would be possible by a mere study of a man's behavior to ascertain what his capacities are for color discriminations. To determine this with nicety would require patience and experimental skill, but it could certainly be done. Indeed, it is done in every psychological laboratory, and with animals as well as with men. But we must not forget that whenever we avail ourselves of language as a mode of approach to objective behavior, we are apt to find ourselves compromising with introspection, for such language may simply report mental states in the ordinary introspective fashion.

In the same way, one may determine by objective methods the limits and peculiarities of perceptual capacity, the tenacity and scope of memory, the range and subtlety of imagination, the degree of available concentration, the power and flexibility of reasoning, the firmness of purpose, the resources of character and so forth and so on. If one inquires how this may be done, the reply is 'through the refinement and elaboration of just those methods by which men have always tested one another, i. e., their practical achievements in the face of practical exigencies.' This man's memory is better than that man's and the fact of his superiority is common knowledge. This man's imagination is more active than his neighbor's, as is witnessed by his readier wit, inventiveness, artistic productivity or what not. This man's courage and resolution surpass his friend's, as is clear from the slightest survey of their respective careers. All these differentiations lend themselves to objective test. To be sure some of these tests are

(264) extremely crude. But they might be improved and in any case the point is that the important distinctions in mental capacity and function may be observed without direct resort to introspection; in other words, they may be judged in " accordance with objective behavior and accordingly the conscious processes implicated in them may be disregarded as objects of study in favor of this behavior.

A closer observation of certain situations shows that however valid this conclusion may be in a general way, it encounters serious practical difficulties at not a few points. For example, here are two persons memorizing a given material. They do equally well. Hence we may judge what? That they have the same kind of memory? Not at all. Simply that tested by this task they are equally effective. Introspection may reveal the fact that the two persons work by wholly different methods. Then it should follow either that the differences are not significant for behavior and may accordingly be disregarded on pragmatic principles, or else that we must find other tests which will disclose in unequivocal objective form the existence of the differences at issue. In theory this reply is adequate, but in practice, as 'every one knows who has made experiments upon memory, or upon imagery, it is at present rather futile. Thus far no such tests have been devised and there is at present no great prospect of such. The mind is provided with so many and so flexible shunt systems, it translates from one material into another so quickly, that it promises, for a long time to come, to baffle the skill of the experimental 'behaviorist' at many points. It remains for him then to urge the trivial and insignificant character of differences so elusive, and perhaps he is right. But right or wrong, there are at present innumerable instances of which this is one —processes of rational reflection afford others—where objective methods are at present only competent to give rough surface facts.

What then is to be said of the second half of the question, that which relates to the gaining of evidence? Are we within measurable distance of being able to discard introspection, even supposing it were thought desirable to do so? We are

( 265) all familiar with the hard things which have been said about introspection. We know the old charge that psychology could never be a science because it must forsooth depend , upon introspection—a process which is not only susceptible to all the ordinary errors of observation, but which, in the indictment, suffers from the further and fatal defect that in its very nature it results in a destruction or distortion of the mental fact which the observer intended to study. And we know the ingenious attempts to turn the edge of this criticism by exploiting the method as one of retrospection or one of construction. We have faced, too, the more fin de siecle and more empirical criticism of the psycho-analytic school with its insistence upon the general unreliability of introspection as evinced in psycho-analytic procedure. Meantime,. if one offers up as a burnt sacrifice, the word 'introspection,' everybody, plain folks, psychologists, and psycho-analysts, alike, believe themselves to be in immediate possession somehow or other of reliable information concerning their own feelings, sensations, and intentions. In all this conviction they may of course be deluded. But at least they cherish the conviction and not primarily on any grounds of objective behavior, but rather on the ground of their direct conscious apprehension—call it what you will. Direct access to these facts of feeling is gotten only in this way. Indirectly we may get at them in many ways, as we do in studying history or in watching the actions of others. Our question must then reduce itself to another, i. e., is it scientifically worth while to get at these purely subjective facts? Can we not get all that is of permanent significance and worth by other means? My own pain is a matter of compelling interest to me personally, but to science it is simply one among many pains and of interest only as it can be given context with its generic antecedents and consequences. The one type of interest is ephemeral, the other is relatively permanent.

If we set out resolutely to learn all we can of human behavior without recourse to introspective methods, we find a situation of substantially the following type: we know that stimulations of various physical kinds fall upon the sense

( 266) organs. We know that some of these issue at once in muscular or glandular activities. We know in some cases the intermediate neural pathways involved. We know something of the changes occasioned by muscular activities in the physical world. We know that some muscular activities of a coordinated and efficient sort arise when no apparently adequate sensorial stimulus is at hand. We know that present behavior displays modifications which can only be attributed to previous behavior. We therefore know that in some way the organism stores up its experiences and creates the possibility of a variability in reactions such as baffles all prediction. But what happens between the time a stimulus affects a peripheral organ and the later time at which some reaction is made, we can often only judge with approximate accuracy provided the individual concerned —tells us what has passed in his mind during the interim. The same thing is true of those reactions which are made in seeming independence of any immediate sensorial excitation. In other words, we have not at present any technique for ascertaining the train of neural units intermediate between a specific sensorial stimulation and a specific delayed response. This gap we must bridge with information gleaned from essentially introspective sources or else leave it open. As a matter of fact, however, one could not long remain in ignorance of the general character of these intermediate happenings unless one were prepared to forego all conversation with other human beings and to eschew all contact with poetry and fiction, for from all these sources a steady rain of introspective description—good, bad and indifferent, false and true—is constantly falling: to say nothing of the poisonous introspective miasma always rising in one's own mind, however resolutely objective one may be.

All things considered then, we may reasonably question whether we can at present throw over introspection altogether, unless we are prepared to content ourselves with the two end terms of a series of events of which the intercalary links are frequently most complex and significant. These links are now often accessible to us only in mental terms.

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The type of criticism indulged by our psycho-analytic friends ought not to be allowed to confuse the issue. To say as they do that a reagent's introspective explanation of a specific reaction is generally worthless might be accepted as true for the sake of argument and still leave entirely untouched the fact that his introspection is entirely valid for certain other purposes, such, for example, as declaring whether or not the stimulus word stirred up a visual image in his mind. Introspection under its most pretentious forms has its limitations like every other method. Those limitations cannot in fairness be generalized into a universal defect.' The explanation of a reaction is one thing. For this introspection may or may not afford an accurate basis. To state what occurred in one's inner experience at a given moment is quite another thing and for this purpose trained and controlled introspection is often entirely adequate.

What becomes, on such a program, of psychology as the science of self? What becomes of the entire system of moral and spiritual values and experiences? Two replies seem obviously possible. One is that these values will all be ultimately conserved and recognized, but that in place of descriptions couched in subjective terms, they will now appear described in terms of their objective equivalents. One suspects that the thrills of young love when so portrayed will present a somewhat clinical not to say mortuary appearance. But it always takes time to learn to speak a new language and if such acquirement spares us persistent annoyance, it may be worth while. The other reply is that these interests are to be turned over entirely to ethics, metaphysics and religion, which long ago preempted the larger part of them. We shall then be changing names rather than facts. Certainly we must not deceive ourselves into supposing that any such procedure as that we have been considering will lay the ghosts. Persons will still be interested in these problems of mind and morals and will seek their solution, under whatever flag they may march in so doing.

After all is said and done, something corresponding to consciousness in its vague common meaning does exist and

( 268) it is within its compass that the problems of science arise. We must be cautious therefore that in seeking for bettered means of knowing human nature in its entirety we do not in effect commit the crowning absurdity of seeming to deny any practical significance to that which is its chief distinction —the presence of something corresponding to the term mindthe one thing of which the fool may be as sure as the wise man.

We may agree then that in theory all and in practice much of our mental life might be stated in terms of objective behavior. To do this would involve trespassing rather freely on the preserves of biology, physiology, and neurology on the one side and upon those of the social sciences on the other. But such trespass is perfectly legitimate provided the trespasser is willing to face the chance that he may find himself annexed, appropriated, and in general swallowed up by the owner of the territory which he invades. When she abandons the stronghold of consciousness as her peculiar institution, psychology is moderately certain to find that as an autonomous government she has ceased to exist and has become a mere dependency of biology or some other overlord. But this change of allegiance is not likely to terrify many of her subjects. The point of view from which not a few of our recent psychologists have conducted their work would make such a shift of emphasis entirely easy. (I count myself among this number.) Whether it is worth while is another matter. Personally, I am disposed to think it is, for the reason that every step forward in that direction renders more obvious the actual vital significance of mental process and this happens to be the thing that interests me. I want to see just how ideas and feelings embody themselves in action and a psychology which makes objective description its main concern must inevitably further this interest.

When it comes to discarding introspection I demur.[5]

( 269) Introspection ought to be checked by every possible objective device, but even for one frankly and exclusively interested in objective behavior as such, it seems to me at present to afford information not to be gained elsewhere. Indeed, as was intimated above, we are saturated from childhood on with prepossessions, convictions, ideas, of which we cannot wholly divest ourselves if we would, which have introspection as their foundation and which enter in to color our entire conception of behavior.

At this point too we come upon one of those fundamental lines of cleavage inhuman interests which cannot be justified, but which nevertheless determine conduct and career. The person to whom mental process as mental process is the only fascinating and ultimately worthy subject of study is not likely to rest content with any such program as that depicted. He justly urges that to recognize and describe the external expressions of love, hate, and anger is as different from the actual experience of these thrilling emotions and from the description of them as immediately felt, as is the inspection of a good meal from the consumption of the same. To such an one any abandonment of introspection must seem a pitiful and mean desertion of the real object of worth. Whether this view permanently prevails or becomes an esotoric scientific cult, it is a safe prediction that we shall always have it with us.

It is a wise instinct which science has always followed to glean information wherever it can be found. Until it can be shown, as it has not yet been shown, that introspection is either fundamentally incompetent, or clumsily and viciously misleading, it is the part of good judgment to use it. Refine it, check it, train it, but do not throw away a good tool until

(270) you certainly have a better in hand. And do not forget that in much which offers itself as objective method, introspection is really involved either directly or indirectly.

Let us then bid the movement toward objective methods and objective description in psychology God-speed, but let us also counsel it to. forego the excesses of youth.


  1. A paper delivered before the American Psychological Association at its annual meeting held at Cleveland, Ohio, December 31, 1912.
  2. In a paper presented to the Minneapolis meeting of the American Psychological Association in 1910 I said: "But it is quite within the range of possibility, in my judgment, to see consciousness as a term fall into as marked disuse for everyday purposes in psychology as has the term soul. This will not mean the disappearance of the phenomena we call conscious, but simply the shift of psychological interest toward those phases of them for which some term like behavior affords a more useful clue.' Cf. the suggestive paper by Professor E. P. Frost ‘Can Biology and Physiology Dispense with Consciousness?' PSY. REV., Vol. XIX., p. 246.
  3. I regret that Professor Watson's brilliant article pleading for the discarding of all subjective method in psychology (PSY. REV., Vol. XX., p. 158) had not come to hand before this paper was written. I cannot now take up in detail any of its contentions, though I shall hope to do so at some later time. In general I should recognize cordially the service rendered by so courageous and lucid a statement of creed, although a part of the program seems to me rather Utopian and impracticable and other portions appear to disregard somewhat obvious distinctions and difficulties. Meantime, as I indicate in the present paper, I am heartily sympathetic to most of the author's constructive, positive program for emphasizing objective methods in psychology. This I made clear in my paper before the Association at Minneapolis in 1910.
  4. Cf. Professor Robert MacDougall's interesting paper in this journal (Vol. XIX., pp. 386-403, especially pp. 396-7 and 400) in which he defends the position that psychology deals with facts that ‘cannot be objectively discerned' although 'their existence may under certain conditions be inferred.' It must be apparent that when the investigation of mental life becomes purely objective, the term 'psychology' will have lost most of its propriety as a designation for such a science. Indeed, the exclusion of the psyche from 'psychological' consideration has proceeded so far that the fitness of the term for its current use may even now be challenged.
  5. I do not in this paper undertake to embark upon the troubled waters of definition. Suffice it to say that however introspection be defined and whatever merits and defects may be alleged to attach to it as a method for ascertaining facts, all, so far as I know, are agreed that we are directly cognizant of our own experience in a manner different from our indirect apprehension of the experience of others. Whatever this direct mode of approach may involve under final analysis, it may serve for the moment to represent the sort of thing I have in mind by introspection. Cf. Professor Titchener's interesting articles in the American Journal of Psychology (Vol. XXIII., pp. 427, 485) and Professor Dunlap's indictment of current implications of the term in this journal (Vol. XIX., p. 404). I find myself largely sympathetic to the position taken by Professor Dodge in his paper on the 'Theory and Limitations of Introspection' (Amer. Jour. Psy., Vol. XXIIL, p. 214). Since this paper was written, Professor Bode's paper on Introspection has come to hand (Jour. Phil., Pry. and Sci. Methods, Vol. X., p. 85) in which he presents an interesting revision of the usual implications of the term and the process to which it applies.

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