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Cognitive Differences Between Liberals and Conservatives?
September 11, 2007 9:00 AM   Subscribe

In an experiment reported in the journal Nature Neuroscience, scientists at NYU and UCLA demonstrate that political orientation is related to basic differences in cognition - how the brain processes information. Psychological studies in the past found conservatives tend to be more structured and persistent in their judgments while liberals are more "open to new experiences." The latest study finds these traits are not confined to political situations but also influence everyday decisions.

On one hand, there is something to be said about focus and holding to your convictions under pressure. On the other hand, there is also something to be said about the ability to reprocess a situation as it unfolds and try a different tactic if needed.
posted by uaudio (57 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
I've been saying to myself for awhile that liberals understand people, and conservatives understand money. An ideal society would have the liberals in charge of foreign policy and the conservatives in charge of the budget.

Sadly, we seem to have gotten that exactly backwards.
posted by Malor at 9:07 AM on September 11, 2007 [2 favorites]


conservatives tend to be more structured and persistent in their judgments

Wait... wait. You're telling me that conservatives tend to be more conservative in their lives? You gotta be shitting me?
posted by Justinian at 9:08 AM on September 11, 2007 [5 favorites]


I'm sure it's just that simple.
posted by chasing at 9:09 AM on September 11, 2007


that's a lot of conclusions from a study that has people hit a key whenever they see one of two letters
posted by pyramid termite at 9:09 AM on September 11, 2007 [4 favorites]


you can be liberal or conservative in your personal life and neutral (pragmatic?) politically. i really wish we could remove these ideologies from politics.
posted by bhnyc at 9:10 AM on September 11, 2007 [2 favorites]


Conservatives used to understand money, Malor. By any rational definition of "conservative", the Republican party (and particularly the ones who have been in charge of it) haven't been so for about twelve years now.
posted by yhbc at 9:12 AM on September 11, 2007


this is clearly the most well thought out, well executed and properly concluded study in the history of science.
posted by shmegegge at 9:15 AM on September 11, 2007 [3 favorites]


Malor-- conservatives don't understand money. If they did, they wouldn't fall for the laffer curve 'cutting taxes increases revenue' bullshit.
posted by empath at 9:16 AM on September 11, 2007


login-free link
posted by unmake at 9:17 AM on September 11, 2007


On one hand, there is something to be said about focus and holding to your convictions under pressure.

Being "open to new experiences" doesn't mean you are unfocused or have weak convictions. If anything, being willing to test your convictions under new circumstances indicates stronger convictions (or at least more faith in their strength).

...liberals understand people, and conservatives understand money. An ideal society would have...conservatives in charge of the budget.

The last thing we need is (more) people who only understand money in charge of funding education and health care.
posted by DU at 9:20 AM on September 11, 2007 [4 favorites]


Once we identify the neural pathways at issue, then we can develop a drug to influence them. Like Cialis, but for tax cuts! I await the future with terror.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 9:23 AM on September 11, 2007 [2 favorites]


Malor-- conservatives don't understand money. If they did, they wouldn't fall for the laffer curve 'cutting taxes increases revenue' bullshit.

Sure, they understand money. They're cutting taxes because it saves them money. The "increases revenue" part is just window-dressing so that they can get the tax cut through. The fact that it doesn't work is irrelevant, the goal -- the real one, as opposed to the stated one -- has been accomplished.

That said, the current crop of Republicans aren't even that conservative.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:28 AM on September 11, 2007 [3 favorites]


Stay the course.
posted by caddis at 9:31 AM on September 11, 2007


there are two cognitive styles -- a liberal style and a conservative style... conservatives tend to be more structured and persistent in their judgments whereas liberals are more open

Liberals: "See, that's what I've been saying for years! Those people are always like that!"
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:40 AM on September 11, 2007 [2 favorites]


This test would seem to imply to me that Liberals would make better drivers.
posted by Space Coyote at 9:43 AM on September 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


An ideal society would have the liberals in charge of foreign policy and the conservatives in charge of the budget.

You can't trust conservatives with foreign policy, and you can't trust them to tell the truth. You can't trust them as arbiters of morality or upholding the Constitution. You can't trust them around children, and you can't trust them with the education of children. You can't trust them to keep church and state separate.

You can't trust them with protecting the country or the interests of its citizens. They can't be trusted not to steal elections, and you can't trust them not to consolidate and control media. You can't trust them to use the military in the interests of the country, and you can't trust them with the national debt. You can't trust them to balance the budget. You certainly can't trust them with money.
posted by interrobang at 9:47 AM on September 11, 2007 [11 favorites]


I see that no one will take notice of your theories nowadays without you both doing a brain scan that shows differential activation and performing no more than one test per study.
posted by topynate at 9:48 AM on September 11, 2007


Which is why I want an old republican managing my taxes, but a young democrat making my laws.

Or I used to... before the republican party abandoned their "fiscal conservative" standing for their current stance.
posted by Hugh2d2 at 9:52 AM on September 11, 2007


Looking at the paper itself, the effect they observe is surprisingly strong. There are a lot more data points from the liberal side than the conservative, presumably because they used undergrads as subjects, but their data really does show a decent correlation with political identity. That said, if you look at the whole data, for any given political leaning, the variance in individuals is on the order of the slope as a whole. It's hard to say with the conservatives, though, as there really just aren't enough tested. Results that report only averaged data are so hard to interpret when they don't give you any idea of the distribution as a whole.
posted by Schismatic at 9:58 AM on September 11, 2007


stupidsexyFlanders writes "we can develop a drug to influence them. Like Cialis, but for tax cuts! I await the future with terror."

It could be even more terrifying if they ever develop a box with colored light and sound that both influences brain activity and satisfies any curiousity. I bet people would watch that box for 8 hours a day on average. Spooky.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 9:58 AM on September 11, 2007 [3 favorites]


Hypothesis: people who think differently, think differently.

Conclusion: people who think differently, think differently.

Eureka!
posted by googly at 9:59 AM on September 11, 2007


Also the study shows the basic tendancy to extrapolate from a single study on a narrow range of human behavior the belief in an inherent biological superior basis for whatever social conceptualization one happens to agree with.

I am curious what criteria were used to differentiate the “liberals” from the “conservatives.” Did a given conservative student need to be a pro-gun, anti-abortion business major? Were non-Birkenstock wearing ‘liberal’ students excluded? Was there any nuance in ideology at all or were they self identifying? What exactly is the ratio of agreement with conservative or liberal platform points to habituation or response in pressing the “W” key? Is it more of a fiscal or social ideological emphasis that leads to key pressing errors?
posted by Smedleyman at 10:10 AM on September 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


i acknowledge the sincerity of your views, but unfortunately they are the product of a defective brain.
posted by bruce at 10:22 AM on September 11, 2007


An ideal society would have the liberals in charge of foreign policy and the conservatives in charge of the budget.

...Wasn't that the Clinton Administration?
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 10:32 AM on September 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


I think that these studies are just that- studies, not hard facts. It would be fair to regard these as possible tendencies; in other words, not every conservative or liberal fits the mold, but as a whole they tend to fit the hypothesis.
posted by prototype_octavius at 10:36 AM on September 11, 2007


...Wasn't that the Clinton Administration?

Yeah, and who's in charge of the BJs?
posted by prototype_octavius at 10:37 AM on September 11, 2007


ok, everyone seems to have taken the 'liberal' vs 'conservative' labels very literally here. Lets assume that they had some pre-screening which did sort undergrads into two groups. It wouldn't be surprising if the one labelled 'liberal' included those with a more outgoing social orientation, and those labelled 'conservative' were less socially oriented in some weak sense. No biggie, as everyone recognizes.

Far, far more interesting is the brain area involved. The ACC is a fascinating bit of wet stuff. In layer 5b, there are spindle-shaped cells not found in other mammals, except the great apes and us. The distribution of these cells mirrors the social complexity of the respective apes' lives, with humans having by far the most spindle cells. Their role seems to me to be to act as a mediator between the essentially animal demands on our behavior and those that arise from social interaction. Interestingly, when someone follows suggestions during hypnosis, they have let down their filter somewhat, allowing the hypnotist to 'control' their behavior to a limited amount, and the brain region that is differentially affected: the ACC. I have theories upon theories about the ACC, and its a great place to look. I didn't know you could record it with EEG though. Will dig up the original report tomorrow at work.

more
posted by fcummins at 11:22 AM on September 11, 2007 [4 favorites]


i consider myself an ultra-leftist. and this is my field. sorry if the following is muddled, im freaking busy but i want to debunk the way this is being interpreted.

first, id like to point out that you mefi-ers are displaying a societal bias that is, in fact liberal, when you assume (make a value judgment) that the thought process demonstrated by liberals is better than the one used by conservatives. its funny, b/c BOTH the conservative (they dont want to accept it) and liberal (they tout it) kneejerk reactions to this study will reflect a modern liberal bias in society: they both assume that this "flexible" type of thinking is preferable.

consider there are certainly situations in which the conservative false-positive (equating conservative tendencies and false-positive judgments actually makes a lot of sense). anyway, increased false-positive judgments would actually be preferable in some cases, such as a flight mechanism. for example - "was that sound a hungry tiger"? while the liberal waits around to find out, the conservative runs for the cave. repeat 100 times and guess who survives?

also note that reaction time differences were not considered in this study, from what i can tell, which is an important thing to consider, and could account for mistakes, although the statistical significance would then tell a different liberal vs conservative story....

anyway, the point is that both TYPES of thinking are always reflected when we test human subjects on simple psychophysical tasks such as these. people know how to do both, and they DO do both, and thats probably a good thing. in fact there is a lot of good research (e.g. Landy and Maloney's work at NYU) that suggests that peoples performance in tasks like these will depend on empirical (and probably perceived) risk-reward for the task, so it may also be that liberals and conservatives see the task differently.

i should reiterate that i dont want to add any credence to the idea that the false-positive response, is actually a facet of a conservative mind - it is universal. ALL people are both "conservative" and "liberal" on the very rudimentary cognitive level described by this study, and we build more complex ideas out of those building blocks. so while i would personally love to have proof that conservatives are stupid bumpkins, as a scientist i would caution against reading too much into this communication.
posted by mano at 11:28 AM on September 11, 2007 [6 favorites]


Killjoy.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 11:33 AM on September 11, 2007


I've long thought the divide, and there is one, is not a matter of intelligence - it is a matter of morality.

Republicans ARE SATAN, BITCHES! am I rational or what.
posted by four panels at 11:52 AM on September 11, 2007


I can't believe they thought it was a good idea to base their study on recognition of the letter "W". It's possibly the most politically-charged letter of the alphabet they could have chosen.
posted by jeffj at 11:52 AM on September 11, 2007


Jesus. Nature Neuroscience.

First, let me explain the implication of the study. What they are saying is that political persuasion is a result of an innate biologic response to a general ability of cognitive control.

They're not saying that conservatives think differently than liberals; they are saying that the person is likely conservative or liberal because of the way they are wired. That conservatives have an innate lesser ability to inhibit a cognitive process (read: impulse) but are better than liberals at "sticking to the path."

First, the study is crap. "Conservative" and "liberal" are screens, red herrings. This study could actually be testing between first borns and last borns, for example. Or some other factor.

Second, the authors have a strong bias that affects their science. Not the outcome, but rather the way in which their scientific questions are asked. Amodio is known for studies in implicit prejudice/ racial bias. Interestingly, one of his notions is that our behavior is influenced not only by "who we are" but also by who we want others to think we are-- reputation.

I'm not saying he's wrong or right, but I am saying that this study is less about conservative or liberal, and more about whether people are anything other than their biology.

You'll say I'm exaggerating. I'm not.
posted by TheLastPsychiatrist at 12:42 PM on September 11, 2007 [3 favorites]


You're exaggerating!
posted by shmegegge at 12:47 PM on September 11, 2007 [1 favorite]




TellMeSomethingIDidn'tKnowFilter.
posted by Doohickie at 12:59 PM on September 11, 2007


Hey, while we're on the subject of absurd studies, let's not forget that old chesnut: People who favor income redistribution (i.e., liberals) tend to be more racist and intolerant than people opposed to income redistribution.
posted by chinston at 1:04 PM on September 11, 2007


hey, who redistributed the "t" out of my "chestnut"?
posted by chinston at 1:05 PM on September 11, 2007


liberals are more "open to new experiences."

It's because we're high all the time. From doing rails of dried up embryonic stem cells. Off the asses of our Taliban Yoga teachers.
posted by freebird at 1:09 PM on September 11, 2007


Maybe fewer people hit the W key because the liberals stole them.
posted by kirkaracha at 1:11 PM on September 11, 2007


“In layer 5b, there are spindle-shaped cells not found in other mammals, except the great apes and us”

That is interesting. I look forward to your stuff fcummins.

“also note that reaction time differences were not considered in this study,”

But reaction time is a factor in the Voigt-Kampff test so please pay attention. (1600 Pennsylvania Avenue)
Cheney (Jon Stewartesque): That’s the white house *wagh*
Holden: What?
Cheney: Where I work. *waugh*
Holden: Nice place?
Cheney: *waghn* Sure I guess. Is that part of the test?
Holden: Just warming you up.
Cheney: It’s not fancy or anything.
Holden: They're just questions, Dick. In answer to your query, they're written down for me. It's a test designed to provoke an emotional response. Shall we continue? Describe in single words. Only the good things that come to your mind. About... your mother?
Cheney: My mother? *waugh* Let me tell you about my mother.
Bang! *#9 birdshot into the face*
posted by Smedleyman at 1:52 PM on September 11, 2007 [2 favorites]


Regardless of the validity of this particular study, it reminds me of a general property of complex dynamical systems that is examined by Stuart Kauffman in his book Investigations. To backtrack a bit, complex dynamical systems are far-from-equilibrium systems which are by definition composed of a number of constituent subsystems, each of which has its own internal logic, trajectory, and process of evolution, which is influenced by, and in turn influences, the evolutionary process of the other subsystems. Think of an ecosystem, composed of a number of species, each of which is subject to the standard processes of mutation, re-combination, selection, and competition among members of the same species, but also collectively each species is under constant pressure to react to changes in other species to which it is connected via energy/nutrient pathways or by cooperative or competitive associations.

Kauffman is searching for the source of complexity in a universe apparently governed by a few simple laws of physics, (see eg. the work of the Santa Fe Institute,) what he calls a Candidate Fourth Law of Thermodynamics. This has led an attempt to approach the study of "general biology" to discover if there are "laws" or principles that hold for any potential biology, terrestrial or otherwise. And by extension, any complex dynamical system, whether of biological origin or not. Of course, this area of study has only been possible since the advent of the super-computer, and the possibility of massively parallel simulations involving enormously complicated "toy ecosystems". But in the last ten or fifteen years a lot of work has been done on understanding the process of emergence or self-organization, by which a number of previously unrelated components, which have been developing according to different strategies and organizational principles, become inter-related with one another and create together ("co-create") a larger entity that isn't reducible to its constituent parts.

So anyway the point is that one of the general rules or tendencies of complex systems is that, in order for the whole system to evolve, on average, at the fastest possible rate, the component systems must not in themselves be changing too quickly, otherwise there simply isn't enough time for the other components to adjust, and the parts tend to lose their associations with one another, hence the "emergent" or "higher-order" system simply breaks apart. In order to prevent this, the parts of the system have to maintain a "conservative" element, along with a "dynamic" (dare I say "liberal") element. The system requires both - without innovation, systems will stagnate, and become unable to adjust to changing circumstances - but too much innovation too quickly causes the other subsystems to be unable to adjust quickly enough, putting the system as a whole at increasing risk of collapse. In Kaufmann's simulations, the "sweet spot" seemed to be about 80% conservatism and 20% innovation in the component systems, allowed the whole system to evolve steadily while minimizing the risk of the system breaking down in an "extinction avalanche" caused by too-rapid change.

This basically fits in with my personal experience - I seem to find at every turn people who seem to only exist to say no, you can't do that. And now there's a logical explanation! I don't have to hate them anymore - they're just playing their part in the grand scheme of things, providing a necessary braking force on all the mavericks and madmen who must in their turn always be trying to shake things up.

'course, this begs the question of how a democratic society with 50%+ majority rule can function when the 80% can always out-vote the 20% on any issue...
posted by dinsdale at 2:05 PM on September 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


I just want to be clear that I will always favorite blade runner references when i recognize them. The best way to make sure I recognize them is to reference the let me tell you about my mother scene.
posted by shmegegge at 2:24 PM on September 11, 2007


Completely anecdotal: In the English department of my high school, we have three teachers of hard-core conservative stripe. Fundie Christians, Bush-diggers, the whole nine yards.

Guess which nine are the most inflexible, most authoritarian, and least likely to brook student dissent (and misbehavior) then the other ten of us leftwing cryptohippies.

(One guy sings "The Star Spangled Banner" to his class before tests. I've never actually seen the point of that. Seems to take up valuable instruction time . . . .)
posted by John of Michigan at 2:44 PM on September 11, 2007


So far this seems to be a singularity. Someone either is, or they aren't. To interpret the conclusion as a suggestion that one is good at one thing, the other good at another, is seeing something more. I would assume from what I've read so far that so-called liberals are structured when they wanted to be, and flexible when structure is foolish. It doesn't follow that they lack structure when it would benefit them. Obviously dronesmanship is an evolutionary trait that contributes to lower risk and survival, but it was also a trait that was cultivated in political structures in the past.

From the second link in the FPP:
Political scientists and psychologists have noted that, on average, conservatives show more structured and persistent cognitive styles, whereas liberals are more responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty. We tested the hypothesis that these profiles relate to differences in general neurocognitive functioning using event-related potentials, and found that greater liberalism was associated with stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity, suggesting greater neurocognitive sensitivity to cues for altering a habitual response pattern.
posted by Brian B. at 3:04 PM on September 11, 2007


It turns out there were only 7 subjects in the study considered "conservative". All 37 subjects of the study were UCLA undergraduates.

Since when is this a statistically significant sample? Let alone one that is representative of the human race as a whole?
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:59 PM on September 11, 2007


/The charmer's name was shmegegge. I'd seen him around. Mathowie must have upped him to the Blade Runner unit. That gibberish he talked was city-speak, guttertalk, a mishmash of Japanese, Spanish, German, what have you. I didn't really need a translator. I knew the favorites, every good poster did.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:55 PM on September 11, 2007


Remember that goofy study from not too long ago... some university pointy heads compared Hitler and Ronny Raygun and came up with some sort of conclusion about kkkonservatives.

Can anyone say soggy SAO? I knew you could.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 5:02 PM on September 11, 2007


I'm confused if this study is trying to say that people are liberal because they think a certain way, or if they think a certain way because they're liberal?

I, for one, am liberal because I was raised that way. Being a knee-jerk bleeding heart liberal was good enough for my grandfather, and it's good enough for me.
posted by jefflowrey at 5:23 PM on September 11, 2007


Jeff, this is the latest in a long line of strange studies which are trying to "scientifically" establish that conservatism is either a result of brain damage or a form of mental illness, thus requiring treatment to cure.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:25 PM on September 11, 2007


SCDB... Maybe it's trying to prove that conservatism *causes* mental illness.

That's what I'm confused about - in which direction is it trying to show causality? I'm making no statements about the value of the results, or the validity of the conclusions.

Also, I lied about being a knee-jerk bleeding heart liberal. I'm a radical middle-of-the-roader. Just like my grandpa. But this ain't about me.
posted by jefflowrey at 5:47 PM on September 11, 2007


John of Michigan:
"...three teachers..."
"...Guess which nine..."
"...the other ten of us..."

Sorry. It's like a logic puzzle that I can't solve. ;)
posted by jaronson at 6:09 PM on September 11, 2007


It's a study. Studies don't show causality unless they are designed to do so. Studies show correlation. Once you establish correlation, you can start to investigate the direction of causality.

This story is shocking and unsurprising at the same time. Give a conservative a decision to make, and the conflict resolution center of the brain doesn't register a blip. It backs up the observation that I've made repeatedly, which is that the behavior of conservatives, specifically poor and otherwise disempowered conservatives, is incompatible with the idea that they are thinking. The political stances they espouse are often self-contradictory and often self-detrimental. Yeah, I'm an elitist liberal, but as cynical as I am, it hurts to think that anyone can live life that way, and that the nasty things I think about conservatives really could be true.
posted by darksasami at 6:34 PM on September 11, 2007


I've been saying to myself for awhile that liberals understand people, and conservatives understand money.
You haven't been paying attention.

Under the completely Republican-dominated "leadership" of Bush's administration prior to the 2006 midterm elections, the fiscal responsibility of our government went to hell in a handbasket.
An ideal society would have the liberals in charge of foreign policy and the conservatives in charge of the budget.
An ideal society would realize that conservatives, as a general rule, are all talk.
posted by Flunkie at 7:27 PM on September 11, 2007


An ideal society would realize that conservatives, as a general rule, are all talk.
I want to be more clear:

Conservatives yell at the top of their lungs that they're fiscally responsible. Then they turn a surplus into a record deficit in the most irresponsible manner imaginable. Then they yell at the top of their lungs, once again, that they're fiscally responsible. And people believe them, because they yell it loud and often.

Conservatives yell at the top of their lungs that they're strong on national defense. Then they lead us into a war based on lies that has been an Al Qaeda recruiter's wet dream, fail to give our troops body armor, and do nothing about important things like the security of our ports and other infrastructure. Then they yell at the top of their lungs, once again, that they're strong on national defense. And people believe them, because they yell it loud and often.

Conservatives yell at the top of their lungs that they're defenders of liberty and freedom. Then they set up a completely unaccountable system of spying on anyone and everyone without judicial warrant. Then they yell at the top of their lungs, once again, that they're defenders of liberty and freedom. And people believe them, because they yell it loud and often.

I am obviously being overgeneral in the conclusion that I'm about to draw, but:

Conservatives are nothing but talk. They're not good at anything regarding governance. They've just got a good PR machine.

And, in their current incarnation, they are a pox upon this nation.
posted by Flunkie at 7:38 PM on September 11, 2007


thank you, jaronson! I read that about 8 times before giving up!
posted by jacalata at 9:49 PM on September 11, 2007


This story is shocking and unsurprising at the same time. Give a conservative a decision to make, and the conflict resolution center of the brain doesn't register a blip. It backs up the observation that I've made repeatedly, which is that the behavior of conservatives, specifically poor and otherwise disempowered conservatives, is incompatible with the idea that they are thinking. The political stances they espouse are often self-contradictory and often self-detrimental. Yeah, I'm an elitist liberal, but as cynical as I am, it hurts to think that anyone can live life that way, and that the nasty things I think about conservatives really could be true.

it doesnt suggest anything of the sort. as you point out, studies show correlation. and as part of the discussion of causality you have to control to make sure that the correlation you have found is really between conservatism and the suppression of the "conflict center".

i can think of one obvious, huge problem with this study. effort (which is why i mentioned reaction times before). it could have to do with the way that conservatives and liberals respond to financial reward. if the subjects were paid the same (and its usually very little), differences could reflect the value associated with good performance in the task. and socio-economic or political differences which correlate with conservatism might account for difference in the value assigned to avoiding false positives in the task. thats a significant experimental confound...

there are studies where people perform simple tasks, that have to be performed quickly. in these, when people are rewarded based on their performance, so that it is in their obvious financial interest to do as well as they possibly can, then they tend to behave in statistically optimal ways. the nature neuroscience study (which is a letter, not an article, mind you) would suggest that conservatives tend NOT to behave as optimally as liberals. but the experiment has not been rigorous in applying statistical decision theory, and it is my suggestion that if the study had been carefully designed then it would not have found significant performance differences.
posted by mano at 10:21 AM on September 12, 2007


“Give a conservative a decision to make, and the conflict resolution center of the brain doesn't register a blip. It backs up the observation that I've made repeatedly, which is that the behavior of conservatives, specifically poor and otherwise disempowered conservatives, is incompatible with the idea that they are thinking.”

Clearly, since chey’re ideologically obsessed wich pressing “W” but neucral to “M” chey’re ... ct’s uh ... whacever ic is you said.
I know my own ideological resiscance co che leccer ‘T’ *shudder* has incerfered wich my own cyping.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:12 PM on September 12, 2007 [1 favorite]


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