Social Psychological Approaches to Intergroup Communication
Summary and Keywords
Communication and social psychology have much in common. Both fields seek to answer basic questions about human behavior: how do we persuade and influence others? How do we develop and maintain social connections? When and why do relationships break down? But despite overlap in the questions they ask, social psychology and communication have remained remarkably separate disciplines, with vastly different research philosophies, methods, and audiences. It is important to interrogate the theoretical threads connecting communication and social psychology in the arena of intergroup communication, in order to bring the lenses of both fields to this arena. In particular, the construct of identity is woven through communication and social psychology research, and connects both fields to intergroup relations and communication. Paradoxically, issues of identity—how it is created, shaped, and signaled by the social contexts we inhabit—are frequently overlooked in both fields; in the future, there should and will be much more emphasis on the impact of identity in intergroup communication.
Language and Communication Research: Central Features
Most communication scholars trace the roots of the field to Aristotle. Thus, unlike the relatively new field of psychology, the study of communication goes back to antiquity, and this field has always had a strong group and intergroup focus—after all, communication is the quintessentially social behavior. One consequence of this emphasis has been a strong focus on public communication and an examination of rhetoric. Indeed, a key difference between rhetoric (the social uses of language and communication) and more recent work in persuasion, in both communication and social psychology, is that the former concentrates on public contexts, whereas the latter tends to be interpersonal in focus. One would think that the public emphasis of rhetoric would highlight large-scale social and intergroup aspects of communication. Yet while this is true of the classical strategies in rhetoric, modern persuasion research has focused almost entirely on individual behavior (e.g., Berger & Burgoon, 1998).
The large literatures on interpersonal, organizational, mass, and other forms of intergroup communication will not be canvassed, as these are covered elsewhere. It is, however, worth pointing to some of their central features. One is an emphasis on the details of communication—for example, through the development of taxonomies of persuasion and compliance-gaining (e.g., Kellermann & Cole, 1994)—rather than on its antecedents and consequences. This concentration on the message has also led to a focus on the dynamics of communication, rather than on studying it as a static part of social interaction (e.g., Brosius & Kepplinger, 1990).
Interestingly, in recent times, as identity has been more explicitly studied in communication, rhetoric has been conceptualized in new ways. For example, Lingard and colleagues (e.g., Lingard, Espin, Evans, & Hawryluck, 2004) have used rhetorical strategies to characterize communication failures among health professionals in operating theaters. They describe the “tribal” nature of health professions, and the ways in which identity gets in the way of effective communication and healthcare. In doing this, they come close to social-psychological approaches (see “Social Identity”), but maintain a focus on individuals’ communication behavior. Hewett and colleagues (e.g., Hewett, Watson, Gallois, Ward, & Leggett, 2009) analyzed communication among doctors across medical specialties in a similar way, but specifically through the lens of identity and thus with less exploration of the message. It is worth noting that research such as this has not typically been published in mainstream journals in communication (or indeed in social psychology); instead, it tends to appear in specialized journals in content areas (e.g., health and medicine; law; organizations and management).
As the intergroup turn in communication grows in importance, researchers are making much more use of work in social psychology to underpin their projects theoretically and methodologically. The recent Handbook in intergroup communication (Giles & Maass, 2016) is a good example of the ways in which communication and social psychology research can be blended.
Social Psychology Research: Key Features for Intergroup Communication
Social psychology has traditionally been defined as the study of the ways in which people influence, and are influenced by, others (Allport, 1954). The field emerged out of work by early experimental psychologists who studied, among other things, social facilitation (Triplett, 1898), leadership (Lewin, Lippitt, & White, 1939), and social norms and conformity (Asch, 1951). These early experiments offered rich and dynamic investigations of complex psychological phenomena, and brought ecological richness to the study of social interaction in social contexts.
Early work on social psychology was hampered somewhat by the advent of behaviorism, which was the primary psychological paradigm of the early part of the 20th century. The behaviorist approach prioritized methodological rigor and sought to establish psychology as a “purely objective experimental branch of natural science” (Watson, 1913, p. 158). The goal was to catalog and understand behavior per se, not intuit supposed internal processes—thoughts, feelings, and beliefs—that underpinned such behavior. These principles stood in stark contrast to the richness of early social psychological investigations, and the emphasis on tightly controlled observation of behavior was in many ways at odds with work that examined interactions between individuals and their social environment. For this reason, a good deal of the early work on social behavior was eclipsed by the strong focus on individual behavior—in theory, the behaviorist lens would eventually be turned onto behavior in groups, but this was a long and slow process.
Dissatisfaction with behaviorism led to the rise of the cognitive approach in the mid-20th century. Cognitive psychologists aimed to understand the workings of the human mind, examining how people encode, store, retrieve, and manipulate information (Neisser, 1967). Facilitated by the metaphor of a computer, the cognitive approach sought to investigate the processing systems underlying the relationship between input (stimulus) and output (response). This liberated a range of previously “forbidden” topics for study: thoughts, emotions, plans, goals, social rules—internal processes that cannot be observed and were therefore ignored by behaviorists. In line with this change, the 1950s spawned a resurgence of now-seminal social psychological investigations into topics as diverse as cognitive dissonance (Festinger, Schacter, & Back, 1950), prejudice and discrimination (Allport, 1954), obedience (Milgram, 1963), leadership (Fiedler, 1967), and attribution (Weiner, 1986).
This revival of interest in cognitive phenomena led to the creation of a new branch of psychological science referred to as social cognition. Research in this field applied traditional cognitive approaches to understanding how people process, store, and apply information about their social world (Fiske & Taylor, 1991). Yet despite its purported focus on social phenomena, social cognition research tended to construe the individual as its main research subject. Classic topics included attribution, schemas, person perception, and interpersonal relations—phenomena that occur inside an individual’s head or (at most) between two individuals. As Augoustinos and colleagues (2014) note, this means that social cognition research does not always consider the broader social context in which people live their lives:
Currently, research and theory in social cognition are driven by an overwhelming individualistic orientation which forgets that the contents of cognition originate in social life, in human interaction and communication. Unfortunately, the information processing models central to social cognition focus on cognitive processes at the expense of content and context. As such, societal, collective, shared, interactive, and symbolic features of human thought, experience, and interaction are often ignored and forgotten (p. 7).
One reason for the tension between the social cognitive approach and scholars interested in group behavior, particularly intergroup behavior, is methodological. Taking the lead from those studying cognitive processes like memory, neural aspects of language, and judgement tasks, social cognitivists have tended to use strictly controlled and randomized experiments to explain causal relationships among cognitive and social variables. This has necessitated a strong focus on individuals in relatively impoverished contexts in the laboratory. As Augoustinos, Walker, and Donaghue (2014) point out, few real social situations in real life are like this, or are amenable to randomized controlled study, so that their preferred methodology—and that of many people interested in complex social behavior—generally involves observational or discourse analytic work in real-life contexts. Resolving this tension has been and remains a challenge for social psychology, and the more communication is studied, the greater the need will be to resolve it. The approach of social identity theory came in part from a desire to do just that.
In contrast to the individualistic focus of social cognition, researchers in the 1970s argued for the need to explain the distinctive features of group processes and intergroup behavior, picking up an earlier thread on intergroup conflict (e.g., Sherif, Harvey, White, Hood, & Sherif, 1954). In this vein, social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) emerged from a post–World War II context in which researchers applied themselves to understanding the intergroup dynamics that culminated in the Holocaust and the other intergroup atrocities of that period. The theory argued that human interaction ranges on a continuum from purely interpersonal to purely intergroup, in which participants view themselves and others solely in terms of group membership. This intergroup categorization creates a psychological distinction between “us” (in-group members) and “them” (out-group members), which is implicated in various forms of intergroup antagonism (e.g., Tajfel, Billig, Bundy, & Flament, 1971).
The perspective was further refined with the development of self-categorization theory (Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, & Wetherell, 1987), which aimed to explain intragroup as well as intergroup processes. The theory posited that people categorize themselves at three levels of increasing psychological inclusiveness: the personal level, the social group level, and the human level. Self-categorization theory also outlined the cognitive conditions that influence which social identities will become salient, when. A key insight from this theory is that identity is context-dependent, so that different situations will cause people to construe their identity differently. For example, a woman’s gender identity may be particularly salient in a boardroom full of men, while her religious identity may be salient in church. The way this woman thinks about who she is and the social identities she holds—and how she interacts with other people as a result—is therefore highly dependent on the social context she inhabits.
Together, social identity theory and self-categorization theory constitute what is referred to as the “social identity approach.” While this approach was originally developed as a means of explaining group behavior, it is also a useful lens through which to understand the individual self-concept. This is because a core insight from the social identity approach is that groups shape individual psychology through their capacity to be internalized into a person’s sense of self. This approach assumes that individuals are motivated to hold a positive image of the groups to which they belong, and through identification with groups they hold in high esteem can feel positive about themselves as individuals (Abrams & Hogg, 1988).
The social identity approach has transformed in more recent years from a theoretical interrogation of the social self to a powerful applied tool that can affect policy and practice (Haslam, Jetten, & Haslam, 2012). This theoretical perspective has also been applied to transform understanding of health and well-being (Haslam, Cruwys, Haslam, Dingle, & Chang, 2016; Jetten, Haslam, & Haslam, 2012), leadership behavior (Haslam, Reicher, & Platow, 2010), and education (Haslam, 2017). In addition, and of particular interest here, the social identity approach has been fruitfully applied to the study of communication.
The social identity approach has something in common with intergroup theories of communication, particularly multilayered ones like the communication theory of identity of Hecht and his colleagues (e.g., Hecht, Warren, Jung, & Krieger, 2004). Hecht et al. argue that identity is negotiated through communication, and can be categorized at four levels: personal, relational, enacted, and communal. Personal and interpersonal identities in this theory are similar to personal identity in social identity theory, whereas communal identity has something in common with social identity. The differences between these approaches, however, highlight the divergent lenses of social psychology and communication. Where social identity theory emphasizes group memberships, intergroup relations, and attitudes as drivers of social behavior, the communication theory of identity emphasizes communication as a determiner of identity—in other words, the focus on independent and dependent variables is to some extent reversed. What these theories share is a strong focus on the dynamics of social interaction, its negotiated nature, and the potential for rapid changes in the salience of specific identities as the context changes.
A Social Identity Approach to Communication
As noted, communication is the cornerstone of human social life. People use communication to achieve social goals, make group decisions, develop and maintain relationships, and to receive and provide support. Communication is therefore a ubiquitous social behavior, occupying a substantial portion of our waking lives, and communication is the main process through which group life is maintained. Students learn; business deals are made; scientific breakthroughs are applied; citizens are governed—all through our ability to convey our own meaning, to understand others’ meaning, and to coordinate and develop joint meaning. In recent years, social psychologists have taken these issues much more seriously, as their colleagues in communication have done for many years.
Importantly, principles analogous to those in social identity theory provide the basis for a general theory of communication in intergroup (and intragroup) contexts: communication accommodation theory (CAT; see Gallois & Giles, 2015; Giles, 1973, 2016; Giles, Coupland, & Coupland, 1991). A key premise of CAT is that people change the style (and therefore often the effectiveness) of their communication when faced with different audiences. Research in this area has shown that people tend to accommodate to an interlocutor’s communication style when they are motivated to make their messages easily understood or to appear similar to the other—a process known as convergence. The countervailing process of divergence occurs when people aim to distinguish their communication style from that of their audience. CAT theorizes that people are motivated to converge with people they want to be socially close to, and to diverge from people from whom they want to be socially distant (Giles, Taylor, & Bourhis, 1973). In more recent years, CAT has been broadened to consider the antecedents, process, and consequences of accommodative communication (where speakers attend to the needs of conversational partners and treat them as individuals) and non-accommodative communication (where speakers emphasize their social identities and intergroup relations, and put distance between themselves and conversational partners by under-accommodating or over-accommodating; Gasiorek & Giles, 2012; Giles, 2016). These communication processes have profound implications for communication success, insofar as accommodation tends to improve, and non-accommodation compromise, communication effectiveness.
This theorizing, and empirical work supporting it, indicates that shared identity is a key to communication success (Swaab, Postmes, van Beest, & Spears, 2007). Indeed, a range of research suggests that it is generally easier, and more fruitful, to communicate with in-group members than with out-group members. This appears to occur through multiple communication channels, so that shared identity influences communication outcomes both through what people say (i.e., verbal communication) and how they say it (i.e., nonverbal communication).
Shared identity influences how people speak about, and to, others. Research on linguistic intergroup bias (LIB; e.g., Maass, 1999) has shown that people tend to use different words and phrases to describe the actions of in-group members and out-group members. In general, people use abstract language to describe positive actions of in-group members (implying the behavior reflects an internal trait and is therefore likely to occur again) and concrete language to describe positive actions of out-group members (implying the behavior was situationally caused and is therefore unlikely to occur again; Maass, Ceccarelli, & Rudin, 1996). The opposite pattern of results is observed when describing negative actions of in-group and out-group members. In general, LIB has been shown to operate particularly in negative contexts (see Giles & Maass, 2016). In this, it is similar to an earlier, allied theory of language use: the linguistic category model (e.g., Semin & Fiedler, 1991), which posited that more abstract language is used for the self and liked others in positive situations, and for disliked others in negative situations, whereas the opposite is true for concrete words. An issue with both these theories is that they have usually been studied at the level of judgements of individual sentences, although an interesting exception is found in work by Schmid and Fiedler (1996), who examined the transcripts of prosecuting and defense lawyers at the Nuremberg trials, and found that this model predicted verb and adjective use well. Currently, LIB in particular is showing its usefulness in an increasing variety of contexts.
Shared group membership also structures when information is, and is not, revealed to others. For example, experimental research by Dovidio and colleagues (1997) found that participants who were led to believe they shared a social identity with an interaction partner were more likely to disclose personal information to that partner than participants who believed identity was not shared. Related research suggests that once confidential information is disclosed, people’s willingness to pass it on is structured by shared group membership. In this way, people are much more likely to pass on confidential out-group information to fellow in-group members than to pass on confidential in-group information, or indeed any form of confidential information, to out-group members (Fine & Holyfield, 1996).
In addition to shaping what is said, shared identity also influences the way people react to and process what is said by others. Work on the intergroup sensitivity effect (Hornsey & Imani, 2004) shows that people react with suspicion and defensiveness to criticism from an out-group source but react with greater tolerance to the same criticism from an in-group source. This is thought to be because messages from in-group sources are perceived as more constructive and useful for the group, thus allowing people to engage with the criticism non-defensively (Hornsey, Trembath, & Gunthorpe, 2004). However, even when the content is not negative, people may be unwilling to engage constructively with information from out-group sources. A concerning demonstration of this fact emerges from work by Hewett and colleagues (2015), who found that hospital doctors were more likely to read closely, and therefore act upon, information contained in medical records written by doctors in their own specialty (medical in-group members) than by doctors in another field (medical out-group members).
Greenaway and colleagues (2015) assessed the behavioral outcomes of this intergroup communication process using an experimental paradigm in which participants created Lego models from instructions ostensibly written either by an in-group member or an out-group member. Despite working from exactly the same instructions, participants who believed instructions came from an in-group member created better models than those who believed they came from an out-group source. A follow-up study focused on production of, rather than reaction to, written instructions. This revealed that high identifiers produced superior instructions for in-group members than for out-group members. This occurred because high identifiers invested greater effort in writing the instructions for the in-group partner and in turn believed that that partner would invest greater effort in trying to understand the instructions (Greenaway, Peters, Haslam, & Bingley, 2016).
Social identity is therefore an important determinant of verbal communication. At the same time, though, verbal communication is also an important determinant of social identity (Tausczik & Pennebaker, 2010). Even minor changes in the choice of words people use can generate an impression of shared group identity and thus act as a powerful persuasion tool. For instance, Steffens and Haslam (2013) found that politicians who used collective pronouns (“we,” “us”) in speeches were more likely to be elected than those who used personal pronouns (“I,” “me”). In the same vein, in a number of contexts (including small groups and public speeches, and across several cultures) Kacewicz and her colleagues (2014) found that leaders and high-ranking speakers used more first-person collective pronouns (“we”), whereas those with lower status used more first-person singular pronouns (“I”). It is no wonder, then, that references to collective entities have increased in political rhetoric over time (Lim, 2002).
Other work suggests that shared identity impacts communication not only through what people say, but how they say it. A classic example is found in work on ethnolinguistic identity theory, a satellite model of CAT (Giles & Giles, 2012; Giles & Johnson, 1987). Extending CAT’s concepts of convergence and divergence, this theory argues that individuals will emphasize certain ethnolinguistic characteristics (e.g., dialect, accent) in certain social contexts, and de-emphasize the same characteristics in others. For example, Bourhis and Giles (1977) found that Welsh speakers responded to an English experimenter who made disparaging remarks about Wales by exaggerating their Welsh accents and making explicit reference to their nationality. Relatedly, Giles and Johnson (1987) found that Welsh participants who felt highly identified with their national group reported speaking Welsh and switching from English to Welsh more often than low identifiers. Similar results have been observed in other European countries (e.g., Bourhis, Giles, Leyens, & Tajfel, 1979), as well as in many other parts of the world, particularly in bilingual or multilingual communities (Canada, India, etc.).
Other work has focused on the physical delivery of speech and how it facilitates or impedes development of shared identity. Koudenburg and colleagues (2013) examined the quality of the social bond that developed between two previously unacquainted participants when they engaged in a computer-mediated conversation that included a brief delay in audio feedback, compared to no delay. They found that interrupting the conversational flow through a short delay reduced feelings of belonging and closeness with one’s interaction partner. Another set of studies found that brief silences in conversation led to the feeling of being rejected by one’s interaction partner (Koudenburg, Postmes, & Gordijn, 2011). In addition, Gonzales and colleagues (2010) found that small groups who engaged in linguistic style matching—a process of verbal mimicry—tended to be more cohesive and performed better than groups who did not engage in linguistic style matching.
Physical mimicry, too, has been shown to be influenced by group membership. For instance, Yabar and colleagues (2006) found that participants were more likely to unconsciously mimic the actions of an in-group member than an out-group member. Moreover, being mimicked by others fosters a sense of social closeness and improves attitudes toward the mimicker, even when they are an out-group member (Inzlicht, Gutsell, & Legault, 2012).
The Connecting Thread of Identity
Given that communication is such a social endeavor, one might expect it to typically be studied through a social—possibly a social psychological—lens. Yet, as noted, communication and social psychology have remained remarkably separate disciplines throughout their histories (Hornsey, Gallois, & Duck, 2008). Communication research often fails to consider group-based influences on and outcomes of this process. In the same way, social psychological research rarely investigates communication, even though this is the key process through which social interaction occurs—without communication, group life is impossible. Social psychologists typically think of communication in terms of content, rather than process. Reciprocally, communication researchers typically think of social context as window-dressing to a core process, rather than as something to be studied in its own right.
As shown, identity acts as a bridging construct between the two fields. Yet, beyond the literature that is directly informed by social identity theory, the power of group identity in shaping human behavior remains relatively unarticulated in the broader disciplines of social psychology and communication. Surprisingly, theorists in both social psychology and communication have frequently preferred to examine either variables within individuals (minds, brains, or individual behavior) or communication between individuals (interpersonal communication), even in contexts where an intergroup approach would be more appropriate and more fruitful (e.g., in organizations of many types).
Even in the quintessentially intergroup area of intercultural communication, researchers have tended to neglect this dimension, focusing instead on individuals’ adaptation to new cultures (e.g., Gudykunst, 2005; Kim, 2001). There has been some theorizing around identity (e.g., Ting-Toomey, 2005) that nevertheless still concentrates on individual social-cognitive processes (cf. Hecht, Warren, Jung & Krieger, 2004). There have long been calls for a more intergroup approach to communication in many contexts, but it is only recently that mainstream communication researchers have taken these calls seriously.
Moreover, although social psychology is ostensibly interested in studying social interaction and social life, it often fails to consider the role that group identity plays in individual functioning. As noted, “social” in this field is often taken to mean individuals thinking about or interacting with another individual. Even social psychological research that takes an explicitly intergroup focus often neglects theorizing about the role of identity in the topics under study. For example, system justification theory (SJT; Jost, Banaji, & Nosek, 2004) elucidates the ways in which people are motivated to support established social systems, even when the status quo does not benefit them in a material way (e.g., disadvantaged groups). Relatedly, social dominance theory (SDT; Sidanius & Pratto, 1999), postulates that some people are motivated to maintain stable group-based social hierarchies in which some groups (e.g., advantaged groups) are considered “better” than others (e.g., disadvantaged groups). Both these theories describe intergroup relations in detail. Yet, aside from an implicit acknowledgement of identity in distinguishing between advantaged and disadvantaged groups, neither theory probes the nature of the identities at play, often taking for granted that the motives for positive and distinct identities will be subsumed by the broader desire to support the status quo.
Applying an Intergroup Lens
Applying an intergroup lens to the study of social communication means taking seriously the idea that communication is structured by people’s conception of themselves (and others) as group members, and that group identity is in turn shaped and signaled in the ways people choose to communicate. A further insight derived from self-categorization principles is that group identity is not fixed, but contextually malleable and therefore open to constant reinvention. This means that changes in identity from context to context will inevitably affect the way in which people communicate. In particular, we would expect communication to improve if categorizations that highlight in-group/out-group identities are recategorized in terms of a superordinate identity that encompasses both groups.
Archival evidence suggests that making salient a superordinate identity has the capacity to improve communication outcomes. For example, interconnected companies such as franchises (Darr, Argote, & Epple, 1995) show performance advantages over companies that do not have an overarching identity structure. This is thought to be because information and procedures in interconnected companies become predictable and routinized such that employees are able to “speak the same language” (Argote & Ingram, 2000).
Experimental research has also demonstrated performance benefits for communicators who are encouraged to view themselves as sharing a superordinate identity with others. For example, groups that are encouraged to develop a common in-group orientation are able to reach group consensus and show greater shared cognition than groups without this orientation (Swaab, Postmes, Neijens, Kiers, & Dumay, 2002). Along similar lines, research by Kane (2010) found that groups who were led to share a sense of superordinate identity performed better on an origami construction task than those who were not. This is because group members with a shared superordinate identity trust and coordinate with each other more, and therefore adopt an optimal construction style. Similarly, work by Greenaway and colleagues (2015) found that the difference in construction quality between Lego models created from in-group and out-group instructions was eliminated when a shared superordinate identity was made salient. As a result of this minimal change, the psychological group boundaries were redrawn: previous out-group members were recategorized and thus afforded the same status as in-group members.
It is clear from this accumulated work that restructuring group identities has a profound impact on people’s ability to communicate with one another. While communication is often compromised when communication partners do not share group identity, it can be improved through the renegotiation of those group identities.
The future looks bright for researchers interested in understanding processes of social communication, as social-psychological approaches become more common in communication research and vice versa. Recent years have brought exciting methodological advances that promise to augment and improve existing research techniques. Methods for quantifying the qualitative content of communication have revolutionized the way communication is studied, providing new options for analyzing large quantities of text quickly and with scientific precision (e.g., Leximancer: Smith & Humphreys, 2006; Linguistic Inquiry Word Count: Tausczik & Pennebaker, 2010; Discursis: Angus, Smith, & Wiles, 2012). Psychophysiological methods, too, are being used more widely to understand social communication processes in situ, and these are made even more accessible through the availability of portable and unobtrusive recording equipment (e.g., Empatica; Garbarino, Lai, Bender, Picard, & Tognetti, 2014).
Further methodological advancements will be made by attempts to integrate different communication channels in the same research design. Research, particularly in social psychology, currently tends to focus on either verbal or nonverbal channels when assessing the communication process. Exciting future directions involve assessing communication from a “360 degree” view that considers what people say, how they say it, their body language, and psychophysiological responding. Another new development is the opportunity to assess how people influence these channels in one another. For example, research on turn-taking in conversations (Wiemann & Knapp, 1975) and emotional and psychophysiological concordance between couples (Butler & Randall, 2013) is already assessing synchronicity within independent channels. Putting these separate channels together and understanding their interaction within and between people is the next frontier in social communication.
Looking forward theoretically, we believe that much is to be gained by opening a more formal dialogue between the fields of communication and social psychology. Social psychological theories can provide theoretical structure for integrating insights from communication about how and why people communicate (in particular, as suggested by social identity theory and related perspectives). Communication research can bring richness to the understanding of social processes by highlighting communication as the key mechanism through which social identities are shaped and have impact. The combination of insights from both fields has implications for research topics in intergroup communication as diverse as interpersonal relationships, organizational functioning, and intergroup conflict and reconciliation. Identity is the thread that underpins this connection, and efforts to clarify its role offer prospects not only for stronger ties between fields of communication and social psychology, but also for a richer understanding of the broad range of tapestries into which this thread is woven.
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