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The allure of moral outrage


In a recent legal battles over the possibility of mandating COVID-19 vaccines, those on one side see such requirements as a tyrannical overreach into personal liberty to make medical decisions. On the other side, individuals are incensed that mandates aren’t in effect because this effectively hobbles collective efforts to mitigate the spread and continued mutation of the COVID-19 virus. It’s no secret that highly politicised issues like this seem to elicit strong emotional reactions, particularly feelings of intense anger. But not only are these feelings common, individuals seem actively motivated to seek out stories of tragedy, scandal, and injustice on a seemingly unending quest to feel moral outrage.

Moral outrage is typically defined as anger toward a perceived moral violation. What distinguishes moral outrage from other forms of anger (e.g., annoyance, feeling insulted) is that it involves a specifically moral dimension; there must be both 1) a personal moral standard and 2) a perceived violator of that standard. Additionally, moral outrage seems to reflect anger in combination with intense feelings of disgust. While some forms of anger are relatively ‘pure’ (e.g, being angry at a rude comment), moral outrage is best described as an emotional cocktail blending two intensely negative emotional experiences.

As a psychologist, I’ve long been personally interested in outrage because it seems to fly in the face of so many of our everyday intuitions about human nature. After all, wouldn’t people rather avoid unpleasant experiences that could reduce their happiness? Given the choice, people seem to prefer pleasant to unpleasant experiences but moral outrage seems a peculiar exception. Moreover, decades of data clearly demonstrate that societies like America are coming apart at the civic seams, with polarisation rapidly increasing year after year. Why would individuals actively want to feel such strong negative emotions about their leaders, fellow citizens, and others with whom their own lives are inextricably linked?

Counterintuitively, psychologists have long argued that humans seem particularly calibrated to remember things that make us feel bad and to base our decisions on negative emotions. Outrage, particularly on social media, seems like an extension of this fact. Studies show that not only do individuals encounter more information about immoral behavior online, but this exposure also elicits substantially stronger feelings of moral outrage.

To return to the question: what is the allure of all this moral outrage? Recent research in psychology highlights the valuable role that these experiences of outrage play in satisfying specific psychological needs that ultimately may help individuals cope with the human condition.


"People may be able to affirm their moral value by feeling outraged over perceived injustices."


First consider this question: How does one know that they are a good person? After all, everyone has at times done some things that are (morally speaking) good and others that are…less than good. Since humans are morally imperfect, we all experience doubts about whether deep down we actually are morally worthy.

My colleague Zach Rothschild and I spent years exploring the possibility that people may be able to affirm their moral value by feeling outraged over perceived injustices. For example, in one series of studies we found that people who felt guiltier after reading about sweatshop labor later expressed more outrage about corporations who profit from this practice. More surprisingly, we found that if people were given an opportunity to express outrage over corrupt corporations, they later felt less guilt about their own actions and even rated themselves to be a more moral person. In fact, in a final study we found that giving people a chance to enhance their moral worth (by asking them to write about a morally upstanding deed in their past) actually dampened outrage in a follow-up task.

Studies like these (and work conducted by others) show that some of the hostile emotions we feel may actually be serving a valuable role in allowing people to feel more confident that they are actually a good person deep down. By feeling angry about clear injustices, people can feel that they are advancing the cause of justice and ultimately that they are a morally good person.

In fact, the benefits of moral outrage for the individual may be even more far-reaching. In more recent work, we have found that for some individuals, the experience of outrage over a specific moral violation can actually enhance their sense that their life as a whole has meaning. Specifically, we found that when some individuals were given the chance to express outrage over a scandal, they subsequently showed an enhanced sense of meaning in life compared to a control group. Moreover, giving individuals the chance to affirm the meaningfulness of their lives also lead to a subsequent decrease in expressed outrage relative to a comparison group exposed to the same moral wrongdoing.

Other ongoing work in my lab finds that when individuals are reminded of social groups that make them feel angry, they feel even more confident that they really know who they are. In a simple series of studies, individuals were asked to reflect on groups in society that make them feel angry (or not) and those who did so subsequently felt more confident that they understood themselves and that their lives were an authentic reflection of their values. 


"For some individuals, the experience of outrage over a specific moral violation can actually enhance their sense that their life as a whole has meaning."


Taken together, these studies show that moral outrage is something of a bitter medicine; one that affords numerous existential benefits for the individual despite its unpleasant aftertaste. That said, the logic of these psychological processes gives us critical insight into why people may seek out opportunities to feel and express moral outrage, despite its unpleasantness and negative social costs.

Finally, it is worth noting that moral outrage also pays off socially for the individual: other studies we have conducted show that when individuals express outrage on social media, they are often seen as a more moral person by others as well. We found that a Twitter profile with posts expressing outrage about social issues caused the poster to be seen as more trustworthy and attractive. In other words, expressions of anger may have other benefits for individuals beyond affirming deep existential motives.

Does this mean that people who are outraged on social media are secretly manipulating others or trying to cope with their own psychological insecurities? Not necessarily; psychologists have only recently begun to ask serious questions about why moral outrage is such an appealing phenomenon. Of course, it is also simply true that many expressions of outrage may reflect genuine moral concern with no hidden psychological or social aim. In short, like most of human behavior, individual expressions of outrage are likely too multifaceted to be pinned down to a single cause.

What we can take away from this research into moral outrage are broader points about its place in our lives. Though it might seem that all the time people spend feeling angry and upset about moral violations could be detrimental to their happiness and well-being, psychological research shows that there may be much more going on under the surface. Enemies and injustices allow us to map our place in the world, to see our value, to communicate that value to others, and perhaps even to cope with fundamental concerns about our personal and collective mortality by feeling that our actions have a meaningful impact that will outlive us.

The universe can be a chaotic and messy place, but the struggles we take on ultimately allow individuals to make some sense of all of it in ways that may actually be an important ingredient in a life well-lived. That is why some theorists have argued that moral outrage, despite its toxicity, is an inevitability in modern materialistic societies where individuals must seek ways of mattering without common spiritual or cultural ground. The early research on outrage so far suggests that this may be right; that individuals and groups may need moral outrages to feel that there is a moral center in our modern world. If so, then those interested in cooling the temperature of political and social discourse may need to find new ways for individuals to secure a sense of their significance, identity, and moral goodness without the costs incurred by a culture of outrage.



Lucas Keefer is an Assistant Professor at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Topic tags: Lucas Keefer, moral outrage, psychology, anger, polarisation



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"For some individuals, the experience of outrage over a specific moral violation can actually enhance their sense that their life as a whole has meaning."

There is a war going on between good and evil within the Church and sadly they are many victims of evil. Being aware of other victims of evil (with its many different faces) will be of small comfort to them/you individually nevertheless it may help them/you to comprehend the full reality of this war, as it involves the whole Church, not just those who are entangled in the spider’s web of Clericalism ..V..

Many victims become isolated as not all priests are Christian as I can testify, which can induce outrage as I have witnessed many times, over the last thirty-five years, actions that incorporate intimidation, duplicity, gesture, stonewalling, implied talk, murmurings and symbolism, no (Worldly) lawyer or civil agency can expose what these evil men use while smiling, as they are the tools of the Evil One.

In the early fifties as a child, I lived in a slum street close to the City Centre of Leeds England, central to the street, on one side several houses had been decimated (I believe bombed) through this gap could be seen a very small Church, which also accommodated the Pastor with his wife and daughter. Through tittle-tattle, I was aware that no one played with the Pastor’s daughter and that she was isolated within the community.

Approximately fifty years later I was made aware of her presence now mentally ill, with her overcoat covered in a dozen or more of different pinned types of Crucifixes, accompanied by her spasmodic laughter and weird behavior.

In the mid-seventies during a personal attempt/calling of spiritual renewal, in my brokenness, I was encouraged to Join the SVP. While waiting outside the Clergies House that was attached to the Church where the SVP met, I was approached by a female parishioner who said “You have been ‘chosen’ to take John’s (pseudonym} place, whose wife has just died” Then the door opened and I was led into the meeting room by an SVP member (President). In the center of the room was a coffin which I was told contained the body of John’s wife, while fingering the beading on the Coffin he dislodged part of it and then said pointedly “Cheap rubbish” while requesting my attendance at the Requiem Mass, the following evening.

The Church was full and I was positioned near to the rear, when suddenly from behind me a young accompanied woman (Mentally ill) gave a burst of hysterical laughter, someone said that it was his daughter, John who was at the front of the Church turned and gave an ‘unforgettable cry of anguish’ as I was ushered out of the Church by my only known SVP member, under some pretext that he must speak to me urgently. While conversing with him, he was informed discreetly, that John had collapsed. Unaware of the full reality of this situation, I went home.

Over the next thirty (indescribable) difficult years for my wife and family, which included my wife’s nervous breakdown, eventually leading to a long separation, but reunited with my wife for the last ‘known’ year, of her life.

When the cortege arrives to collect the remains of my wife from the front room of our family home, one of the coffin bearers ‘fingers’ the beading on the coffin, smiling, then said “ Cheap Rubbish”

Just before I enter the Church I am asked “will your daughter be attending” I respond, with words to the effect of “The Hospital has offered to have a nurse accompanier her, but I declined on her behalf, as her psychotic laughter, would be more than I could bear”

It is fair to say that the problems within the church we are all now seeing are only the tip of the iceberg, as these onward flourishing manifestations of evil, emanate from a large mass of spiritual corruption, and this corruption is Satanic in nature ..V.. It is clearly evident that this evil is held together by a spider’s (Controlling Mind) web of corruption.
Please consider continuing via the link.


kevin your brother
In Christ

Kevin Walters | 27 January 2022  
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Addendum to my post above

When a serious complaint is made against a priest as my wife (now deceased) made over thirty-five years ago the church can and does use its worldly power to protect its IMAGE against the accusation of the individual concerned.

At the time of my wife’s complaint, I went to see one of the parish priests, his words were “he is a good man (and with a faint smile) he would only lie if he had to” At the time his reply confused me as I did not realize the full significance of what he had said.

I had forgotten about this incident until about 8 years ago when I read a comment on a website, made by a young man who had been abused by a priest when he complained the very same words were said to him by a priest while also smiling.

This malignant force in the Church is protected by stonewalling (refusing to speak the Truth) it appears to be used by all priests black or white. This shameful wall encircles the Church and betrays Christ and all those who profess to love Him, and cannot be justified by any teaching given by Jesus Christ.

Please consider continuing this personal theme via the link


The devil (evil) and those who serve him, fear truth, as The Truth will not permit evil to hide itself. We are ALL sinners, but being honest with ourselves and others permits us to walk in humility on the spiritual plane in friendship with the Holy Spirit (where no deception or lie is tolerated within ourselves or between each other).#
If our Bishops want to lead us on the spiritual plane, they must walk with the Holy Spirit, they must serve the Truth (which is the essence of love.) Justification for past sinful actions will only cause further division within the Church, while from without it will continue to be held in contempt, by the world (Unbelievers) for its hypocrisy.

A true act of contrition is needed to heal the church; authority comes with Truth and those who serve it. The true Divine Mercy Image one of Broken Man gives the Church the means to walk in humility before our Father in heaven while confronting evil with all its different faces.

kevin your brother
In Christ

Kevin Walters | 31 January 2022  

The best article that I've read in a while... I'm not saying it is flawed but after the introduction there seemed a brief shift from the "violator" being the violation itself then changing to towards the person, i.e.:"their leaders, fellow citizens, and others". Perhaps when the individual person makes the "immoral" violation it takes a different energy, a someone to blame. We seem too willing to impute morals on others which we may expect for ourselves (and which form our identity) and this is easier to do when it is an individual; it's a whole lot easier to do when that individual is not like "us". I'd venture society is more willing to stomach an anonymous, departmental edict which is offensive; the spokesperson's alignment is fairly irrelevant but the vox populii volume gets turned up if the decision maker is identified and the case for "immoral" is an easy catch-cry... although amoral may be closer to the point. My notion on the conclusion is that it is probably equally as frustrating to deal with the obtuse as the outraged...and the two forces in opposition too often result in an awful collision. Thanks for the great article.

ray | 28 January 2022  

Very interesting research. It, like all attempts to analyse human behaviour, seems to ignore the one human characteristic that defines the human being and contrasts this curious animal from all other life, namely, the inherent perception of right and wrong, that inbuilt trait or quality that some might say reflects a higher component of life, a soul, which generates this perception of moral and immoral behaviour that some others might call the Natural Law. Maybe it is true after all that all human beings have an inherent sense independent of the manmade constructs that we define in various ways, eg, as religious belief, religious denominations or civil law. Perhaps this natural tendency to outrage at glaring breaches of moral behaviour is one other small reaffirmation amongst the many magnificent creations beyond our capabilities (eg the beauty of our planet) that there is indeed a god, a being greater than any of us who has defined our moral responses and destiny despite our natural tendency to oppose any such concept of dependence or control by a superior being. Perhaps it is all nothing more than the search for God.

john frawley | 28 January 2022  

Such an interesting and thought provoking article!

Eoin | 28 January 2022  

Moral outrage can be a useful cover to hide corruption and signal virtue.

In the film “Casablanca” Captain Renault was “shocked, shocked” to find gambling in Rick’s café—as he pocketed his winnings.

US multinational corporations signal their virtue by pouring millions into “social justice organizations”—while opposing legislation against Uighur slave labour from which they profit.

Risking war, the US “Defending Ukraine Sovereignty Act” supports the “inviolability of borders” —while the administration destroyed successful US/Mexico border security policies enabling 1.7 million illegal crossings, 557 migrant deaths, and thousands more deaths from fentanyl and COVID crossing the border.

Outraged, Jesus drove moneylenders from the Temple—but few Christians are outraged by the annual abortion slaughter.

The thirst for moral justification for one’s life was harnessed by the brilliant communist propagandist, Willi Munzenberg, with his Front Organizations, called “Innocents’ Clubs.” Munzenberg offered everyone a role in the search for justice: “By defining what was guilty in society, Willi offered ‘innocence’ to anyone who ‘opposed’ it. People hungering for righteousness seized upon the new illusion by the millions.” (Stephen Koch)

But if you pretend something for long enough, you come to believe it. Habit turns into character. Outrage is perceived as virtue.

Ross Howard | 28 January 2022  
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Delighted, Ross, to see that you too are a fan of 'Casablanca'. I once bought a DVD (remaindered !) of it and astounded the young salesman by telling him that it was produced as part of the US government program to get the public in the mood to enter the war.

Ginger Meggs | 07 February 2022  

I sometimes feel that moral outrage is being fed by our media's constant coverage of stories about the negative effects of any particular decision or action. Rarely do they give similar emphasis to the positive effects of such events - it is almost as though we are expected to understand the positive without it needing to be discussed. Outrage at the negative is constantly drip-fed.

Joe Barr | 28 January 2022  

Thank you all for reading the piece and for those who have left comments so far. I appreciate your interest in my work.

Lucas Keefer | 29 January 2022  

A fascinating article on a most pertinent subject by a genuine research psychologist, not just an opinionatus. Thank you, Luke, you have helped me understand this modern phenomenon, which ranges across the spectrum from Greta Thunberg to Black Lives Matter. Inarticulate rage, which is another associated phenomenon, as in the George Floyd riots, is extremely disturbing and potentially dangerously destabilising. This is something I would like to hear from you on if you or Zach Rotschild have researched on the matter.

Edward Fido | 29 January 2022  
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Lucas Keefer's fascinating article seems to be saying something different to what you attribute, Edward. His research is about why moral outrage exists and what its pay-offs are for moralists. At no stage does he imply or state that the expression of moral outrage is a 'bad thing'.

My sense is that ES has sourced this article to assist us all.

Michael Furtado | 30 January 2022  

I try in my life to tone down the moral outrage. I ask simple questions. What do I know about this issue? What are the facts? What points of view are there? What are my values and how do I respond? I do the research. Most of the time I find there is enormous complexity in most issues. I often change my viewpoint after some research. My good friend, on the other hand, is often morally outraged. She does little research. Gets bored with it. She sees me as a fence sitter sometimes. She will break into a diatribe on an issue, vent her anger and then she seems to be - mmm, better! I feel like the world is moving in a direction that supports her impulses. For me, it just seems to be getting harder. There is more pressure than ever to join the outrage.

John | 29 January 2022  
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Although I'm not sure, John, that such is the precision point of Professor Keefer's terrifically parsimonious and tightly worded article.

While his opening paragraph alludes to the Covid pandemic, the contemporaneity of his precise and fascinating findings does not allow of the 'grand narrative' approaches, typical of historians and 'social' researchers, that more usually occupy our collective musings on this page.

Thus you are right to point to precisely the kind of unintended trap that your friend, as well as mine (Edward Fido: see above) have fallen into.

Flamboyance in discussion, while signalling an opportunity to demonstrate flair of personal expression through resort to the entertaining value of persiflage, as I deliberately demonstrate in this instance, is regrettably also a sign of boredom and perhaps an inability to concentrate.

While I hardly think that the urbane and gentle editors of ES would wish to expose readership behaviour to the brutalist scrutiny of scientific investigation, it may be that one of their intentions, as a Jesuit publication committed to nurturing deep thought and consideration of others, is to politely show who the morally outraged on this page really are. Thanks.

Michael Furtado | 31 January 2022  

Me Too, Bad! 'Has fallen' rather than 'Have Fallen'. Thanks

Michael Furtado | 08 February 2022  

Oops! Sorry Lucas, I called you 'Luke'. My bad. Apologies. Age?

Edward Fido | 31 January 2022  

a great article, which has helped me understand something which has always puzzled me. What is the attraction and success of the Murdoch press, which seems to specialise in moral outrage (and use it for their own ends)

adrian jones | 31 January 2022  
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Indeed, Adrian! Unfortunately the sobriquet 'Dirty Digger' was misattributed by his critics in the UK, where the Daily Mail (which Murdoch doesn't own) fulfills that coarse niche in the boyos' market.

Instead his more refined task is to spread the moral outrage that a segment of the voting public with an attention span that is awakened only by sensation, rather than critique, will respond to.

Andrew Bolt of Sky News specialises in this genre of right-wing 'beat-up' journalism.

Michael Furtado | 08 February 2022  

The allure is to fill the God-shaped hole with virtue because that is what humans are designed to do. Unfortunately, without instruction from fundamental principle, eg., that anger is not from the Holy Spirit unless it is a virtuous anger which only seems scripturally to occur in very limited circumstances (temporarily o remove pollutants from the temple but not to remove a perpetrator’s ear), the hole is filled with the narcotic of an emotion of virtue which, not being the real thing, doesn’t last and needs to be replenished.

roy chen yee | 01 February 2022  
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ALL virtue needs to be replenished, Roy, especially in you and me! There's no way of loving ourselves and others without it, surely! That's why we have the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist; ain't it so, old mate?

Michael Furtado | 18 February 2022  

It is your own responsibility when you, as an opinionatus, take genuine research and apply it to a pet peeve, Adrian Jones. You have already applied your own value judgement and therefore cannot pin those either on the research or the research. You are out there on your own.

Edward Fido | 01 February 2022  

Oops! I meant 'the research or the researcher' in my last post. Silly me! A 'senior moment'?

Edward Fido | 02 February 2022  

Essentially moral outrage is subjective and a matter of degree. How to express it is then a choice. Should one resort to banter or careful research? For instance I may feel outrage over the church hierarchy resorting to a plenary council (basically praying about the matter- trivialising the problem, invoking the concept of "forgiveness") but not tackling it head on like Francis did with McCarrick. I feel disgust that the hierarchy think that "00005 of 1% of Catholics" chosen and hand picked by them can make decisions for the rest of us.
That the Vatican can thumb their nose at 12 of the 14 considered findings of the Royal Commission into abuse.
Meanwhile the church gathers up its impenetrable garments,shrugs and swings a smouldering thurible at Yaweh.

I wrote this about a guy I worked for who ran a legal sweatshop. Hence alternative banter:

Here lies the corpse of an angry ant;
who at his clerks would scream and rant!
Struck off by law that he professed;
No wife, no children, family blessed.

He bravely shot his neighbour's dog,
which disobeyed his boundary fence;
He never smiled, just gathered pence;
and when he died- the nave was bare,
The Pearly Gates, no welcome there.

Francis Armstrong | 03 February 2022  
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I wouldn’t be surprised if the old rascal (or ex-rascal) can hear your thoughts, including the fact that you’ve written them down, because one can only make perfect reparation if one knows the effects of everything that one has done, whether the reparation is made from Purgatory or Hell. In any case, whether he is in the inferno or not, he now has a balanced mind which might well agree with everything you have thought about him. And, if he isn’t in the inferno, here’s an opportunity, like that of the prudent steward’s, to make a friend in high places by discounting your commission on his debts to God through you, by way of a few prayerful bookkeepings.

roy chen yee | 06 February 2022  

Roy I find your last sentence completely baffling and I've no idea what it means.

Francis Armstrong | 09 February 2022  

Well, they call it the parable of the dishonest steward but there is an interpretation that he was only cutting his own agent’s commission on the various debts.

roy chen yee | 10 February 2022  

Never mind, Francis. I doubt if Roy does either. The pearly gates you parody in your sparkling piece of doggerel are indeed open to all because the story says that the Guy who runs the Show invites everybody to the Party.

Michael Furtado | 18 February 2022  

I must confess to just having read through Kevin Walters heartfelt post on this thread. I appreciate his utter frankness, but am always a bit chary of it because you never know who's auditing.

Kevin and others mention the matter of mental illness. I personally do not regard this as the result of some sort of Sin, but as an unfortunate genetic flaw or the result of a problem in upbringing. Neither of these are the person's fault. This seems to be the mainstream Christian view. I am very chary of using the word 'sin', not because I don't believe it exists, far from it, but because what we regard as sinful actions often have a psychological component in them. A skilled, experienced and mature priest, on hearing Confession aka Reconciliation, might feel the penitent needs professional psychiatric or psychological assistance. It would be his duty, if safe, to suggest the penitent see their GP in the first instance.

Edward Fido | 07 February 2022  
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Well said, Edward. Our Parish priest never mentions the word and always encourages with support for mending our breaches of trust with God and our neighbour. So also does contemporary religious education, which focuses on encouragement rather than guilt.

This reflects a horizontal theology rather than one that 'prays to God and upon our neighbour'. Indeed, our sacramental program on Baptism makes no mention of original sin but a great deal on the responsibility of parents and sponsors to cater for the holistic well-being, both spiritual and physical, of the child.

Michael Furtado | 08 February 2022  

If thinking seriously about an adultery is the same as adultery, sin can be an event which is all psychology and no action.

It doesn't matter where the impetus comes from, the result is a marring of some aspect of God's perfect creation. There's been a sin alright as the graffiti on creation is there to be displayed at personal and universal judgement. What might save the sinner is the lack of subjective responsibility. But, the actual defacement of perfection and the legal excuse of lack of subjective responsibility for causing the defacement are different things.

roy chen yee | 09 February 2022  

The problem with 'outrage', as Keefer shows, is that some people will only turn a deaf ear to the sound of it, rather than truly listen and respond.

To classify Greta Thunberg as 'outrageous', as Edward has done, when she has made climate change the centrepiecce of a highly-effective global policy campaign, is to miss Keefer's point about driving public discourse to extremes by those who in earlier stages of the debate would simply not listen and dismissed the evidence of global warming without engaging in a supposedly more seemly discussion.

When climate-change denialists, as in the Thunberg case, as well as Black Lives Matter and those who expressed their rage - justifiably as subsequent sentences reveal - in riots against the inaction of the authorities in the instance of George Floyd being slaughtered by a policeman, swiitch off their ideological hearing-aids, the victims have no option but to turn to the streets!

For those who don't know their Walter Bagehot (See St John-Stevas' edition of his collected works): 'When constitutional decision-making fails, the put-upon will take to the streets in extra-parliamentary resolve.'

Michael Furtado | 27 March 2022  

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