Freedom to Learn

The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning.

Why Is Narcissism Increasing Among Young Americans?

Clinical assessment questionnaires indicate that narcissism has been rising and empathy has been declining in young people over the past 30 years or more. Why? Here are several reasonable explanations. Read More

I think another explanation

I think another explanation (assuming these questionnaires are even accurate, for which I have reservations), may be that everyone's empathy has gone down.

I think it is natural to look at a group and not consider our own changes or our effect on that group. Why do we assume that our generation is one to talk?

Our economy has tanked, there is no such thing as long-term employment with a single company anymore, no more pensions, our financial institutions have gone overboard with greed (thanks to our Gordon Gecko generation).

Our government more and more supports lobbyists over the people that elected them and has increased its surveillance and bolstered the police state.

We are engaged in wars of questionable reason and value to us. Education costs more than ever. Students are soaked for student loans and over priced text books. Universities only care about money.

In short, we (our generation) has created a dog-eat-dog society with everything from Enron to Tiger Moms...

...So, why would we expect the new generation to feel more empathy when they have been thrown into a survival mode world?

If we want to look for narcissists, we should start by looking in the mirror.


You reap what you sow

This country has sowed modern extremist Liberalism for decades and we are now reaping the consequences of never-ending screeching for 'entitlements', endless hollering for 'rights' that are nothing more than theft, and the evil push for equality of outcomes rather than equality of law and opportunity. Narcissism is but one of the results.

Role Models?

I agree with the first comment, and I would like to add that in relation to the educational setting, how can we expect students to develop empathy when very little empathy is being offered to them? I don't doubt for a moment that most parents and teachers are sympathetic, and that they sincerely care for students’ well-being – it is obvious how stressful school can be for many students. Maybe the difference between demonstrating sympathy, and demonstrating empathy, is that empathy involves being willing to change one's own behavior and take actions that improve the situation. There is some of this happening now, for example parents refusing testing for their children, but I think that the majority of people still feel helpless to change the current school system, or maybe they prefer the system as it is to the uncertainty of change. People invested in maintaining the current educational system can't afford to have empathy for students, because that would mean stepping out of their comfort zone. And big companies that are profiting from the current educational system have no moral, or culturally-enforced, or legal obligation to demonstrate empathy towards students. At least not yet; there is always hope for the future.


Thank you, Dr. Gray, for raising this issue. I agree with your hypotheses, and I think the first commenter's points are valid as well. However, he or she focuses only on the more obvious narcissistic behaviors of the past generation. I think the younger generation has also been affected by the combined influence of many subtle but pervasive social changes over the last four or more decades.

For example, there has been a gradual but continuous lowering of the bar as to what forms of expression are considered socially acceptable in the media and public discourse. When vicious and misleading negative political ads are considered fair game; when the news is blatantly sensationalized and polarized to increase viewer retention; when the storylines of TV shows are obviously altered to accommodate "product placement" advertising; when you can no longer enjoy a quiet conversation with your friend while waiting for a film to begin, because the movie theaters now play loud commercials right up until the film begins; when people are unquestioningly referred to as consumers -- these kinds of subtle, normative expressions combine to form a strong message: "If you can get away with it, do whatever it takes to get ahead, even if it diminishes the quality of life for others." The amount and extent of such self-serving public expression has increased dramatically since I was a kid, back in the 60s and 70s.

Another example is the commercialization of the care of children and elders. In past generations, such care was a sacred gift; now it's a paid service, often delivered by for-profit corporations. When children grow up in a society where love-based relationships are routinely replaced by business relationships, it's not surprising that so many of them lack empathy.

But perhaps it's not all bad news. Another perspective on the trend toward narcissism may be that it's (at least partly) a negative side effect of an overall positive cultural shift: from conformity, through a "do your own thing" phase (akin to differentiation), to an integrated balance of individual and social consciousness (hopefully not too far in the future). Many young people who are not true narcissists nevertheless go through stages where they focus intensely on themselves. Society at large may be going through a similar process -- with a portion of the population lapsing into full-blown narcissism due to the unhealthy influences mentioned in the essay and in the comments above.

I have one nitpicking comment related to the part about the benefits of free play:

If a child fails [to consider the other children], the others will quit, leaving the offending child alone. This is powerful punishment that leads the offender to try harder next time to see from others’ points of view.

I agree with the statement; my issue is with the use of the word punishment. Although I'm sure it was meant as a metaphor, punishment implies an intentional infliction of pain and suffering. But when children simply choose to quit playing with a child who is being antisocial, their intention is to end their own suffering, not to make the offender suffer. The fact that it's painful but NOT a punishment is why it works. Punishment activates emotions like shame and counterwill which hinder the development of empathy. In the absence of such hindrances, the offender is more likely to experience healthy guilt feelings and make the needed course corrections voluntarily.


Hi Scott, it's great to read your perspective on this. Concerning "punishment," I was using the term in the technical sense of any consequence of an action that has the effect of decreasing the likelihood that the action will occur again. The burn from touching a hot stove is punishment. You are right, in everyday language we more often think of "punishment" as something administered intentionally.

Self Esteem and Raising Children

I parented my children during the 80s and 90s with my former wife. It was a confusing time when religious convictions were still valued and yet many morays were entered into the family through the common culture.

Dr. James Dobson, Jr. was telling us to take the fight to the kids if they asked for it and everybody else was imploring us not to trample on the fragile self-images of our children.


If I understand this correctly, the results show more narcissistic tendencies, but not necessarily more full-blown cases of professionally diagnosed narcissism. This doesn’t make your observations any less disturbing or relevant, of course. However, I’m wondering if some proportion of the increases is attributable to over-compensation for feelings of inadequacy or inferiority. I’m assuming that there is probably some degree of crossover between the two phenomena.
It might be my bias, but I believe that the greatest effects of schooling as most commonly experienced are self-doubt, feelings of inadequacy, problems with feelings of alienation or rejection, and the lack of a coherent identity and sense of self or purpose. In some cases, I believe that young people faced with these sensations and emotions adopt compensating mechanisms and attitudes. If the tools being used to measure are not precise or definitive, isn’t it quite possible that much of what is being detected and appearing to reflect narcissism is actually an indicator of its direct opposite?
My bias comes from my own observations and a great deal of reading that deals with the experiences of students and the reports of studies and those who have spent a great deal of time working within the “system”. In any case, I am convinced that the greater danger comes from events and attitudes that undermine confidence, self-efficacy, competence due to experience and practice, identity, and self-respect. I believe that your earlier article in which you very correctly called school a prison is affirmation of those beliefs.
I happen to be reading Dr. Carl Hart’s book, “High Price”, which I believe places slightly less emphasis on these issues than is deserved. He seems to be saying that children who lack support are more susceptible to deviant behavior and delinquency primarily because of that lack, with an emphasis on teen-age years, school, and family dynamics caused by poverty at that stage. I can’t argue with that and I may appear to be splitting hairs, but I believe that quite often, children are already predisposed to negative self-images and feelings of rejection due to earlier experiences (which are not usually categorically different or more pernicious, but may be more subtle and very often affect middle class and even affluent kids equally). Instead of helping these kids, schools generally exacerbate their unhealthful tendencies, thanks to the authoritarian bureaucracy and the anonymity that is characteristic in these over-sized institutions.

Interpretations of increasing narcissism

Robert, you are right in saying that the data I'm referring to do not tell us about changes in pathological levels of narcissism. They show only a trend toward somewhat more narcissistic thinking. The average scores even today are around the middle of the scale. It wold be interesting to know what the data would look like if the researchers could analyze them to see how many are above a certain cutoff level that might be regarded as clinically significant Narcissistic Personality Disorder, but I don't know of such work. You could well be right in your speculation about causes of the increase. -Peter

The Decline of Neighborhoods

It's primarily social, only secondarily psychological. Real communities -- neighborhoods -- have been on the decline for decades. "It takes a village" works on many levels, including providing the context for the natural development of empathy, neighborliness, etc. "Social networks" are poor (and largely narcissistic) substitutes for the face-to-face socialization that used to occur spontaneously and organically in neighborhoods. "Play deprivation" is just a symptom of this decline, when kids spend more time in front of their computer screens then engaging with each other face-to-face, abetted by their parents doing the same.

In one of Peter Gray's more

In one of Peter Gray's more recent articles he addresses this, and claims that it's the other way around. Kids have switched to social networks to make up for lacking that social time they desire. Teens interviewed said that they would rather see their friends in person, but they're rarely able to. I do agree that the networks they use have become very narcissistic, though.


I think in post-historical times, the youth are not being educated to be political-social subjects, in general. Now, there is no need, because capitalism is here to stay. I think subjects who lack political-social movement turn in-ward. No more has life become fighting for a cause. Instead, we focus on our inner-self- a narcissistic epistemology that turns subjects into "all-you-can-like" machines. As such, subjects become isolated automatons that forget that there is a larger social world of which we are all a part, and in which we should all be participating. Without this participation, life has little to no meaning. This breeds a kind of modern narcissism where one's thoughts can go to all kinds of grandiose compensatory fantasies in order to fill in the solipsism of that position. I think the rise of narcissism is compensation for the rise of total solipsism, a total "culture of the self."

It is surprising that nobody

It is surprising that nobody has mentioned social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc, etc, etc. were created to cater to our most egocentric characteristics.
"Let me show you what fascinating things I did 5 minutes ago!"
Please do not underestimate the fact that young people have grown up with these methods of communication and so do not comprehend anything else.

The decay of empathy and increase in narcissism

I'm fairly confident that the decay of empathy and increase in narcissism being observed of late will eventually be tied directly to the flavor of political economy that has prevailed in the U.S. for the last hundred years. Characteristics of our particular form of capitalism just have that effect. For example: the commoditization of every aspect of life, including the externalization of all forms of nourishment and well-being, so that all happiness must be purchased while interior development is consistently neglected; education that encourages our youth to focus on job skills and regurgitative metrics, rather than acquiring a more diverse understanding of the world, strengthening critical thinking, or developing more prosocial character; lowest-common-denominator marketing appeals and entertainment that dumb down everyone's responses (and especially our children's) to the most base reptilian reflexes; celebration of profit at the expense of good nutrition, substantive communal discourse, preventative self-care, and other support structures for human thriving; reinforcement of divisive competitiveness over mutually supportive cooperation in a majority of work environments; the ascension of corporations as having "personhood" rights, further undermining a collective sense of what being a person really means; the lack of accountability for privatizing profit while socializing risks among the corporate elite; the glorification of wealth, power and unfettered personal opportunity at the expense of everything and everyone else; the amplification of isolation, egotism and self-obsession through technologies that disrupt social cohesion; and of course the fundamental ethos of consumerism itself (i.e. bigger, better, faster, hipper, sexier, have, take, mine, more for me me me....). I could go on, but all of these are essential byproducts of the Western capitalist memeplex. Sure, many of these impulses existed prior to the current status quo, but commercialist corporationism has elevated them to the level of religious orthodoxy (or other fervent ideology), as evidenced by zealots and politicians irrationally defending even the most heinous individual, societal or environmental consequences as "just the cost of doing business." And so not only has the messaging saturated young minds, but also the socially reinforced rewards for conforming rigidly to that messaging, so that we have created a new tribalism - a robust groupthink that only an extremely strong personality can resist or circumvent. So capitalism has, quite systematically, generated this narcissistic dearth of empathy trend with its self-destructive values hierarchies. And, I strongly suspect, only a completely new form of political economy can remedy this downward spiral.

Why are we narcissists?

Why are we narcissists? Because our society values "self esteem" and self acceptance more than hard work and obtaining skills. Maybe kids shouldn't be taught to accept themselves so readily. We should be teaching kids that the only way to survive in this world is to have something to offer the world. Instead, too many children grow up expecting the world to give something to them, and in turn, they grow up as narcissists, or they grow up hating themselves and wondering where they went wrong.

What I find ironic . . .

. . . is that so many conservatives say they don't believe in evolution, yet they believe heartily, nay INSIST on, a dog eat dog world where it's everyone for him or herself.

My Narcissistic Ex

I agree with the above comment referring to social media. Everyone gets the opportunity to be a celebrity, to be important, special.

I can also add that I have dated a girl with NPD for a long time until I realized. I believe that even though she may have had a genetic pre-disposition for it, her upbringing most certainly reinforced it. Her mother was incredibly over-bearing doing anything and everything for her child. My ex gf barely had to lift a finger. She was a great mom but maybe too great. In addition she was involved in many pageants growing up. With people constantly adoring and praising her. I wonder sometimes if she would have grown up differently maybe she wouldn’t have developed it. I have heard that over-parenting seems to be a common factor in the upbringing of these narcissists. The thing is that it seems like something she cannot control. I remember her recently saying, (before I rid her of my life) "I am empty" and "I just don't feel anything anymore for anyone." Oh and my favorite, "I know you think that I am a monster, I don't care." If it is a problem in the mind, this inability to process empathy the way a sociopath cannot process it then maybe it isn’t an environmental issue. I just don’t know.

Why Is Narcissism Increasing Among Young Americans?

Over the last year I have had the enjoyment and also sorrow of dating an old high school classmate. I adored her in high school, so when I was given a chance to date her in my more mature years, I was elated. Within the first month reality set in as she started telling me about her beliefs, most of which are associated with New Age religious beliefs. To tag along with this revelation was her self centeredness. "SELF" is the ideal place to be with New Age thinking, which is based largely on Eastern belief systems.

This woman has never had a stable relationship. NPD was starting to show it's ugly face. She had all of the major markers...wanting to be center of attention, controlling all situations, lack of empathy, the drive to always be right, magical thinking, loss of reality, etc.

The sad thing is, her psychologist is also the Pastor of her spiritualist "church" (cult). Can you say "conflict of interest"?


I was looking at old pictures that date back from as late as yesterday to as old as 100 years ago. The thing that struck me was how thin (by today's standards) people used to be up until the early 80s. There seems to be a generalized average weight gain across most segments of the population in America.

This was also when cable TV, video games, computers and automation of work and information exploded! Seems these two things are highly correlated.

But also, does it seem we rely much less on peripheral vision when using these devices? Instead fixating on near-central vision for inputs? All the while shutting out side, up and down visual inputs? Let alone hearing a bird chirp, or a clutch in a machine tool chattering? The smell of an overheated dialectical line? Bread baking? The feel of the wind chill? or the warmth of a campfire?

Do we process information differently from information gained through these other senses? Especially peripheral vision? The human brain developed over millions of years using these cues and clues to the world.


This is ridiculous.

Question - IRI test results

Where can we find the IRI test results that go with the linked questionnaire?

Thank you!


Hi Anonymous, I'm not sure what you are asking here. These "tests" have been administered many times to many different groups. The results of each can be found by tracking down those studies. If you are looking for the meta-analyses, showing the trends in scores that I am writing about, then the reference I cite to Jean Twenge's work (Twenge & Foster, 2010) is a good place to start. -Peter

After reading your latest

After reading your latest book (Free To Learn) and this interesting article I would like to soften the tone a little, although I have very little science to back me up on this (maybe it's out there, maybe not).

Whatever generation you ask, they will almost always say that children nowadays are far less social than the children from their own childhood. Schools are blamed, social media is blamed, parents are blamed, food is blamed and the list goes on.

Mankind has been doing this for quite a while and mankind has been around quite a while. I bet today's youth will write articles on the decline of -whatever- in fifty or sixty years from now.

The situation (the decline) is not always as grim as presented, regardless of research, experiments and tests (there are times, not many, that I find it rather ironic that you, professor Gray, the author of Free To Learn, rely so much on tests).

Children adapt, they manage, free play will find a way.
Maybe social media has made more public what humanity is capable of, in stead of showing a rise in anti-social behavior. Maybe we have always been this way, but now we have a broader audience to show it to.

Sincerely, a schoolleader from The Netherlands.

I agree my Dutch cousin (my

I agree my Dutch cousin (my maternal Grandparents are both from Netherlands!) the two big differences are the constant flashing lights in the eyes from so many electronic devices and a high fat/high carbohydrate high salt diet (in America) It was not told if these tests were done only in America or world-wide.

Good points, "Netherlands"

Thank you for these comments, which put some perspective on all this. Yes, indeed, people find a way and the new generation will too. But that shouldn't stop us from trying to find better ways of raising our children and for looking for and correcting practices that seem, now, to be having harmful effects.

Concerning your comment about "tests," I should note that these are not tests in the sense of school tests of knowledge or ability, but self-report questionnaires. Basically, they ask people to describe their own ways of thinking about things and reacting to things, and validation studies show that they do predict actual behavior pretty well. I don't know of any such work done in the Netherlands, and it may well be that the results would be different there.


Schools impact behavior negatively.

At 82, having grown up on the edge of Lake Winona, an ideal kids lake that was alive with turtles, muskrats to trap, spawning carp to spear, where I fished and swam every pleasant summer day, there were always pick up games, with groups of different ages and genders, but scores meant nothing. I never ate a meal in school or did homework.

Today I seldom see kids on that lake. All sports are organized, The Park Rec. Dept. has professional organizers. The media covers each school event with large color photos of the best players. The school is now a maximum security prison, on the edge of this beautiful lake, with no distracting windows in classrooms, all doors are locked, except the main guarded door, cameras everywhere and students can't leaves the building between 9 a.m and 3:30 p.m.

This system of forced feeding and jumping for bribes, like trained dogs, wipes the slate clean, but does a great job of mass producing consumers and fans.

Luckily Peter didn't land in a College of Education, or he would've been ejected as a terrorist, for as John Holt concluded, after writing "How Children Fail" and "How Children Learn", schools aren't going to change, weren't mean't to change and their real purpose is not education.
Here's Peter, beating on the dead horse, then offering hope.

Dick Gallien
22501 East Burns Valley Road
Winona MN 55987 [507]454-3126

Prison bars do the confining, allowing the prisoner a mental freedom not possible in schools, where an endless barrage of assignments, lectures, questions and tests, serve the same purpose, under the guise of education, while distracting as efficiently as the cracking of whips, keeping the imprisoned from discovering and pursuing their passions or noticing that there are no real bars------and by the time they might realize the purpose of their confinement, it is too late.

This is also an effect of the widespread esteem for school


In addition, I would add that this can also be an effect of the widespread esteem for schooling and education in this, as opposed to earlier, generations.

I know that when I was a kid, most parents in the neighborhood took school with at least a grain of salt; they may have supported school during the school day, but they accepted the idea of their children being independent at the end of the day. The generation of my parents was still more skeptical about school. And the generation of my grandparents was generally accepting when their children chose to leave school. And the generation of my great-grandparents was filled with adults who actively fought truancy laws, recognizing how dangerous to liberty the very concept of school is.

When so many people take school so seriously, it becomes valuable to spend some effort learning to BS and pretend that one is at the top of one's class. That is, the projection of an image of self-confidence and understanding of the world becomes more important than actual ability. So, I suppose that I'm suggesting our society has the worst of both worlds -- the veneer of narcissism, covering a deep and abiding distrust of one's own self and one's own capacity to work to understand the world.

This is a sure means of getting people to imagine that they are acting as intellectuals and leaders, when in fact they are only acting as mouth-pieces for widespread shallow thinking because they are afraid of coming to understand the world in any manner which has not been pre-approved by a committee the year before.

More and more, after having their personalities and wisdom stunted by years of pandering and humiliation in school, people quote (or mis-quote) others, post it on a blog with a "rah rah rah" and call it thinking or leadership. Or repackage old ideas (sometimes tired and disproven, sometimes not) in a new veneer, and call it innovation. Sounds like some politicians, professors and artists we know?

What people need is the freedom, trust, support and ability to form deep and personal understandings and views of the world. What we have purchased with our outrageously expensive public education system is a world filled with few bright lights, but filled with many many mirrors attempting to reflect what little wan light there is.

On this point, that esteem for curricula or lesson planning by one's parents is more damaging than time in school, I'll suggest that you look to children who had been raised in prison camps and gulags, whose time was even more structured but whose parents clearly disdained and did not support the system. On gaining freedom those children have serious issues to be sure, but there is not (compared with others from their culture, not raised in such camps) widespread narcissism (or refusal to reflect deeply on right and wrong or to go out on a limb).

Change is possible

As Mahatma Ghandi stated, I believe we all "need to be the change we wish to see in the world." It is a matter of taking the time to embrace our own role in society, and the power of influence we have to inspire each other to live life with gratitude and perspective. As a mother and a teacher, I can say from experience, that we can positively impact our youth.

My students (college aged, international, and many with a great sense of entitlement) are engaged when I speak about kindness, patience, ignorance and understanding. Many times it seems like they are mesmerized by my words and based on the positive response I can see they are grateful as well. It is at these times, that I am hopeful that change is possible.

While it is important for me to teach them academically, I can not pass up the opportunity I have been given to capture their attention, to inspire them... to be mindful, well-intentioned contributors of society, which is my goal with my children as well.

Part of our responsibility is to recognize that some narcissists/bullies may actually be struggling; we need to have some patience and understanding in the event they do not know how to, or are ashamed to ask for help. We may need to show them empathy...

Thank you for initiating this discussion Mr. Gray, and to everyone contributing to the discussion.


Why is it important for you to teach them academically? Are they incapable of reason, of seeing the world around them, of reflecting on it themselves and forming models of the world? Are they incapable of engaging with the wealth of ideas about the world -- in books, on TV, in the Internet, among peers, in conversation -- on their own, when such questions and engagement are interesting or relevant to them, without being cajoled, imprisoned, seduced or otherwise constrained by you?

Why is it helpful to "inspire them," when any person who has seen the contrast between kids in school and kids in the Summer knows that if you want kids to be inspired one needs only respect them and leave them alone?

. . .

. . .

On an entirely separate point: I find Ghandi a poor model for leadership in the modern world. He was caste-loving, spoke frequently against the "kaffir" (look up the racist term), and made a grab for power designed to leave his family as heads of state for generations over 1/6 of the world's population. It took India decades to escape the controlling legacy Ghandi left and to finally allow their people enough freedom to prosper. Ghandi's primary concern was not how to allow or promote diversity, but how to create one unified people following his vision (a popular thing for heads of state in the early twentieth century). It is not surprising to me that he said things (like "we all need to be the change we wish to see in the world") which suggest that there is one true way to live and that one person could offer an adequate example.

I'll offer a reply to Ghandi from John Adams, on the subject of whether it is sensible for the prior generation to claim any special key to Utopia on behalf of the next generation, speaking to a young man who offered him special praise: "I ought not to object to your reverence for your fathers, meaning those concerned with the direction of public affairs, but to tell you a very great secret, as far as I am capable of comparing the merit of different periods, I have no reason to believe that we were better than you are."

I did my student my student

I did my student my student teaching at Pershing High School (99% African-American) in Detroit, Michigan. (Business & Marketing Education, Co-op) Some of the "Big Wheels" from downtown-central schools came (totally unannounced)into my classroom for a ra-ra session with the kids.

"What do you want to be young man?" they asked. The children, seemingly on cue, all started shouting out: :"Doctor! Lawyer! President! Teacher!"

"Wonderful Children! Yes you must be all that you can be! Reach for the stars!" (and so forth)

"Now you know you will have to go to college to achieve these Dreams Right?" they asked.

"Where do you want to go to college young lady?" an other Wheel asked.

And again as if some unseen cue card popped up the students all started shouting: "U of M! Michigan State! Stanford! Harvard! UNLV!(?)" and on and on this went.

Finally the wheels rolled on their way; the kids slumped back in their seats or heads on the desks. These were 16,17 and 18 year old junior & seniors; most could only read and write at 3rd grade level. Maybe two could do simple fractions; NONE could figure a discount for a sale price or mark-up from cost. I got my ass reamed by my supervisor from the University for wasting time teaching fractions. (Actual events though paraphrased)

Moral of the story? Kids have the teachers figured out: tell them what they want to hear: "Wow teacher! you changed my life! I would be nothing but a piece-of-crap if not for your God-sent gracious intervention in my life!"

Needless to say I don't teach...

You made a wise choice

You made a wise choice, smelling a rat and leaving. People enter the teaching profession from a sincere love and concern for children, but it doesn't take long to see that teaching has nothing to do with serving the actual interests of children. As a result the ones who are most sincere in their love of knowledge and concern for the students leave the career.

The sad thing is that those teachers with their eyes open -- who smell a rat and get out of there -- are generally spoken of poorly as "burnouts" by the hardened pencil-pushers that remain. Even sadder is that some of those who left come to believe the story that they "couldn't cut it in a classroom," instead of recognizing that it takes courage to refuse to be part of a feudal system just because they had already wasted years training to be part of it.

Well done!

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Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College, is author of the newly published book Free to Learn (Basic Books) and Psychology (a textbook now in its 6th edition).


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