(The article was written for the academic journals in 1990 but was not accepted for publication)


J.J. Ray

University of N.S.W., Australia


Not only does authoritarian government seem to be receding in the Communist world. Rightist military dictatorships are also converting to democracy at a rapid rate. It is noted that both Leftist and Rightist governments may be conservative and it is submitted that Leftists want to enhance State power and intervention in order to help the poor and disadvantaged while Rightists reject that. So Leftists should approve of government authoritarianism more than do Rightists. The paradox is considered that the reverse appears to be the case. It is suggested that Leftists may have to deny their true motives. Altemeyer's work on Right-wing authoritarianism is considered but his scale is found to be invalid. Only one study could be found which applied a valid scale of attitude to authority to a general population sample where vote was also recorded. There, a 10% variance overlap was found between Rightism and acceptance of authority. It is concluded that authoritarianism now has little relevance for politics at both the personal and governmental level. It is also pointed out that attitude to authority may not exist as such.

Contemporary politics

To the optimistic lay observer, governmental authoritarianism would seem to be just about dead in the Communist world. It is showing some last flickerings of life among the gerontocrats of China but seems destined for the scrapheap of history in most formerly Communist countries.

Less remarked but very much in parallel with this is the fact that authoritarian governments of a Rightist hue also seem to be vanishing at a rapid rate. Before any Communist-ruled country had made the transition to full-blown democracy and a free-market economy, many countries formerly ruled by Right-wing Generals had done so, often in a quite low-key way: Greece, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Turkey, Taiwan, Thailand, Brazil, Pakistan, Chile etc. This is a considerable, remarkable and heartening record of authoritarianism in retreat. It seems a fitting backdrop against which we might re-examine the status of authoritarianism as a psychological phenomenon.

Psychological authoritarianism

The thesis of the present paper is that a "dying out" of authoritarianism at the psychological level of analysis has also been occurring. It will not, of course, be assumed that the "deaths" of political and psychological authoritarianism are connected. Mere caution mandates that. Since authoritarian attitudes and at least some types of authoritarian personality have been shown to be unrelated (Ray, 1976; Ray & Lovejoy, 1983), the need for caution about generalizations in this area cannot be overstressed. The theory that there is a connection between political and psychological authoritarianism has, however, long been the subject of research (Adorno et al, 1950) and cannot therefore be dismissed out of hand.

The politics of psychological authoritarianism have, in fact, always been puzzling. While it has never been difficult to find governmental authoritarianism of both the Left and Right on the world scene, attitude studies have always seemed to show that only Rightists have pro-authority attitudes (Adorno et al, 1950; Ray, 1973a; Stacey & Green, 1968). Why that is so would seem therefore the first thing in need of exploration.

Are Rightists conservative?

Perhaps the hardest thing to do in approaching this topic, however, is to define what is meant by terms such as "Rightist", "Leftist", "conservative" etc. To the thoughtless it seems easy: Rightists are conservatives and conservatives are people who oppose change, are they not? Certainly it is true that what appears to be the first application of the term "conservative" to politics (the term had previously equated to "preservative" -- as in a food preservative) by J.W. Croker in The Quarterly Review of 1st. January, 1830 did refer to the British Tories but this hardly means that it always must. Just what does characterize Rightism, then, is not at all simple, as many scholars have long observed (Laponce, 1972; Middendorp, 1978).

Furthermore, if we listen to political commentators in the mass media and elsewhere (e.g. Brahm, 1982) conservatism is now not at all solely characteristic of the political Right. When they report events in China and Russia, it seems now customary for journalists to refer to hardline Communists such as Deng Xiaoping and Yegor Ligachev as "conservatives". Why they do this is no mystery. The literal, lexical meaning of "conservative" is "resistant to change" and where Communism is dying, Communists are conservative. They want the old, Communist, status quo maintained. They resist change away from Communism.

At the other end of the political spectrum there is the same incongruity. Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was one of the most energetic reformers Britain has ever seen. Nothing seemed sacred to her. She introduced changes even in areas that once seemed impervious to change. She even privatized the water supply and tried to replace property tax with a tax (the "poll" -- meaning "per head" -- tax) on the right to vote (It is applicable only to registered voters). The right to vote would have to be bought! Yet this practitioner of radical change heads a political party called the "Conservative" party. Margaret Thatcher is certainly of the Right but to call her "conservative" is clearly a travesty of the term in its lexical sense.

What at least the last decade has clearly shown, then, is that people's political attitudes are not determined by anything so vague as "attitude to change". People of both the Right and Left will oppose change if the status quo in their country suits them and advocate change if it does not. Calling Rightists "conservatives", therefore, may be a calumny but it is certainly ill-informed.

Defining "Rightist" and "Leftist"

What, then, is a Rightist or a Leftist? Surely this is no mystery. Anyone who has taken any interest in politics must have noticed that Leftists claim that a high level of government power, control, intervention and regulation will benefit the poor and disadvantaged whereas Rightists reject that. At its simplest, Leftists want big government and Rightists want small government. Thus Mrs Thatcher is an extreme Rightist while old-style Communists such as Yegor Ligachev and Deng Xiaoping are extreme Leftists.

Right-wing dictators

This seems like a fairly neat picture at first but human behavior is nothing if not complex so some complicating factors have to be expected. The major complicating factor on the present occasion would appear to be the authoritarian governments of the Right. Did General Franco of Spain or General Pinochet of Chile want small government? Have both not exercised extreme governmental power in repressing their opponents? Clearly both have. Equally clearly, they did want and did get small government in the economic sphere. Both eventually ran quite capitalistic, free-enterprise, market-oriented, unregulated economies - - thus suggesting a need for some sort of differentiation here. Can people favour strong government in one or two spheres only and, if so, why?

The military influence

It should be noted that there is a remarkable uniformity about the Right-wing dictatorships of the post-World War II era. They were all initiated and led by senior military men, usually Generals (e.g. Generalissimo Franco of Spain, Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek of Taiwan, Colonel Papadopoulos of Greece, General Pinochet of Chile, General Zia of Pakistan). This is so much so that it is easier to consider the possible exceptions than list those true to the rule: Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines perhaps occurs most readily to mind as an exception. He, of course, first came to power as the result of a democratic election. As election followed election, however, greater and greater corruption of the electoral system became needed for his hold on power to be validated and when the corruption became extremely obvious, we had the unusual phenomenon of the military refusing obedience. This suggests that the base of Marcos's power always remained democratic, albeit in a very corrupt form. He was oppressive but not a dictator, as such.

Authoritarian Leftist regimes, by contrast, seem generally to be initiated and led by intellectuals rather than by professional military men (Castro, Mao, Pol Pot etc.).

The point of all this is to suggest that authoritarian governments of the Right owe their authoritarianism not to their Rightism but to their military nature. Outside of Africa such governments usually seem to come to power in response to the perceived threat of a complete takeover by extreme Leftists (e.g. Franco, Suharto, Papadopoulos). Confronted with this perception, Rightist Generals react by setting up regimes that are both Rightist and military. The Rightism shows in the way the economy and anything not explicitly opposing the regime is basically left alone and the military orientation shows in the way military systems (death to "traitors" etc.) are applied nationwide. In other words, military men tend to fall back on military ways when running governments. In the end, therefore, the conceptualization of Rightism as favouring small government can be useful even in accounting for and describing Rightist military dictatorships.

Why no Left-authoritarian attitudes?

Defining what was meant by "Leftist" and "Rightist" did prove to be a rather large detour so how does it help with our understanding of authoritarian attitudes?

What it does is suggest that denial of motives may be an important part of Leftism. The bare fact that Leftists normally deny authoritarian motives while still being quite prone to setting up and supporting regimes where the State monopolizes or substantially monopolizes power is suggestive enough. When, however, we see that the whole point of Leftism is the setting up of such regimes, we clearly have a phenomenon of considerable interest before us. Logically, Leftists should be strong supporters of authoritarianism with Rightists being only weak supporters. The reverse, of course, is the truth -- at least as far as expressed attitudes are concerned (Adorno et al, 1950).

There may be many ways of explaining this particular puzzle but the one that suggests itself to the present writer is that Leftists who support democracy are in a situation of fundamental conflict. On the one hand they see the value of democracy, civility, human rights, liberty etc while on the other they see that such systems do not by themselves lead to the sort of outcomes that Leftists desire -- i.e. the poor and disadvantaged in such systems tend to stay relatively poor and disadvantaged. People just do not behave in a sufficiently "brotherly" way towards one-another. "So if people will not be brotherly towards one another by themselves we will have to make them more brotherly" seems to be the next step in a Leftist's thought. Such a thought is, however, very authoritarian and completely at odds with all the civilities and respect for human rights of a modern-day democracy and to admit to it would entail an admission of complete incoherence of thought. As a result, all expressions of attraction to anything authoritarian are, consciously or unconsciously, quite thoroughly inhibited and denied. This is so much so that even reasonable admissions of the desirability of authority in certain circumstances get suppressed.

We are thus left with the rather odd situation where the Rightist who is generally averse to authority in government but who can see that there are some things to be said for it in some circumstances is prepared to admit the ways in which it can be desirable while the Leftist who very much wants to expand the authority of government is forced to ridicule authority generally to compensate for his real attraction to it. Were he/she to admit his/her real thoughts, he/she would be exposed as opposing other values that both he/she and others generally respect. In other words, the Leftist's humanitarianism carries with it the seeds of its own destruction. The Leftist wants to make the whole world more humanitarian but to make it do anything is, of itself, inhumane. Pol Pot was merely the most extreme example of that.

Students versus the public

The phenomenon just described is very much an intellectual one, if not in fact intellectual gymnastics, and it should be noted that most of the research on attitude to authority and psychological authoritarianism generally seems to have been done using well-educated samples -- young American college students in particular (Sears, 1986). It is possible, therefore, that the phenomenon just described is confined to well-educated people. Less educated people might have less need for and ability at such intellectual repressions. It would therefore be something of a confirmation for the theory if Leftists in the general population were less troubled about authority. As we shall see, this appears to be to at least some extent the case.

Acquiescent bias

There have been a considerable number of studies of attitude to authority in the general population, mostly using some form of the California F scale of Adorno et al (1950). Overwhelmingly, however, such studies have ignored or overlooked the important problem of acquiescent bias -- the tendency for at least some people to say "Yes" to questions in a fairly thoughtless way. There have been optimists (e.g. Rorer, 1965) who have explicitly considered this problem and rated it as an unimportant one but the responses to such optimism have been fairly crushing (Campbell, Siegman & Rees, 1967; Peabody, 1966; Jackson, 1967; Ray, 1983a & 1985c) and it seems clear that tendency to acquiesce can have effects on racism and politics all by itself (Heaven, 1983; Milbrath, 1962). The situation appears to be that acquiescence effects on attitude scales do sometimes generalize from scale to scale (and hence cause spurious correlation) but when they will do so is essentially unpredictable. In the circumstances, one can never rule out an explanation of one's findings in terms of acquiescent bias unless one uses scales that are proof against its influence (i.e. "balanced" scales where there are equal numbers of "For" and "Against" items). The original F scale of Adorno et al was, however, devised before acquiescence effects were well-known so is not balanced. Most research using it, therefore, must be of uncertain implication. To make a proper examination of authoritarianism in the general population, therefore, one must turn to research using balanced scales.

General population authoritarianism

There appear to be only two studies carried out among general population samples which used balanced versions of the California F scale. Both are by the present author (Ray, 1973b & 1984) and both show no relationship between authoritarianism and vote. Among the general public both Rightists and Leftists seem equally likely to concede that authority can have both good and bad points.

A great problem with using the California F scale, however, is its dubious validity. Only about a third of its items refer to authority or its exercise and it would appear to measure many other things than attitude to authority. The implications of this have already been explored at great length elsewhere (Ray, 1988) so it should suffice here simply to note that, more than anything else, the F scale would appear to measure an old-fashioned orientation (Ray, 1988). It certainly does not predict authoritarian behaviour (Titus, 1968; Ray & Lovejoy, 1983). More satisfactory evidence on the incidence of psychological authoritarianism than that so far considered does therefore seem needed.

There have been two alternative scales designed, as was the F scale, to measure Right-wing authoritarianism. Of these, the Ray (1972a & 1984) "A" scale focuses quite strongly on authority-related issues while the Altemeyer (1981 & 1988) RWA scale contains many items that would not be out of place in an ordinary scale of political Rightism (or "Conservatism", as some still call it). Both scales are fully balanced against acquiescence, have good reliability and a variety of validity demonstrations behind them. Many of the validity demonstrations provided by Altemeyer (1981 & 1988), however, appear to have been done with insufficient thought for the possibility that the scale might measure Rightism only rather than a particularly authoritarian form of it. Both scales, however, are clearly an improvement over the F scale.

There is also a well-constructed scale by Rigby & Rump (1979) that measures attitudes towards four different institutional authorities (the Army, the law, the Police and teachers) but this scale has no obvious political polarity. The most overtly political is the Altemeyer scale.

Altemeyer's work

Unfortunately, the nearest approach Altemeyer seems to have made to general population sampling is to survey the parents of his students. This would hardly be an educationally unbiased sample. Altemeyer's findings are, nonetheless, of considerable interest. What he finds is that, even among students, his RWA scale gives virtually no prediction of vote. Studies of well-educated samples show Rightists as strongly authoritarian if you use the F scale to measure authoritarianism and another scale to measure Rightism (Adorno et al, 1950) but if you use Altemeyer's RWA scale and vote as the respective criteria, there is essentially no connection between authoritarianism and Rightism. Does this mean that the RWA scale is more valid and that results from it are the ones that we should accept? Unfortunately, no. The real situation would appear to be that both scales are of deficient validity. If the RWA scale was designed to measure Right-wing authoritarianism but does not provide any substantial prediction of anything Right-wing is not that a fundamental flaw? Is it not ridiculous and self-contradictory to say (as Altemeyer implicitly says) that many Right-wing authoritarians are Leftists? Black might as well be white. The RWA scale surely lacks even the minimum condition for validity.

In response to Altemeyer's first book (Altemeyer, 1981) I was able to devise research to check on the validity of the RWA scale. I found (Ray, 1985b & 1987) that it was not valid as a measure of authoritarianism. In response to Altemeyer's (1988) second book however, I was able to design no new research that would test his claims as it seemed to me that Altemeyer's own research clearly showed his scale to be invalid! Thus, although Altemeyer's claims are large and must, as such, be considered, it seems that to consider them with any care is to dismiss them. That would seem to leave us with only the "A" scale to consider.

The "A" scale and attitude to authority

The "A" scale does show a modest (r = .29, p <.01) correlation with tendency to vote Right-wing (Ray, 1984). It could be maintained that this was due only to its somewhat "Rightist" character but, against that, there was also included in the study a derivative of the "A" scale called the "AA" (Attitude to authority) scale wherein an attempt was made to have no overt party political content. This scale was in fact an even better predictor of vote (r = .32). This is in line with the view that some recognition of the need for certain types of carefully limited authority has always been part and parcel of "conservative" thought (Ray, 1973).

Once more, however, a caution about generalizing is in order. So far in this paper it has been assumed that "attitude to authority" and "authoritarianism" exist as such. They may not. We may simply have attitudes to particular authorities that do not correlate. This became evident in the construction of the "AA" scale (Ray, 1971) and can also be seen in the work of Rigby and his associates.

Rigby & Rump (1981) found that respect for one's parents generalized to respect for other authorities only in early adolescence. By late adolescence, the relationship had vanished entirely. Since it was a central claim of the Adorno et al work that attitude to authority was formed by experiences with parents, this seems an important disconfirmatory finding.

Such disconfirmations are far from unprecedented. For instance: 1). Arap-Maritim (1984) found parental strictness to produce competitiveness in children rather than submissiveness; 2). Elms & Milgram (1966) found that it was rebellious rather than submissive children who came from strict parenting; 3). Baumrind (1983) found that children who had experienced firm parental control developed with better competencies than did children who had experienced less parental control; and 4). Di Maria & Di Nuovo (1986) found that authoritative training and parental behaviour had very little influence in determining the dogmatic attitudes of children.

Rigby, Schofield & Slee (1987) extended the work further. They noted that Johnson, Hogan, Londerman, Callens and Rogolsky (1981), in a study of college students, found that ratings of "father" and "mother" loaded on a factor different from that loading "police" and "government". They also noted that, using a younger sample, Lapsley, Harwell, Olson, Flannery and Quintana (1984) reported some correlation between ratings of "father" and ratings of "police" and "government" but no prediction at all from ratings of "mother". Rigby et al (1987) then went on to report more data of their own which they viewed as generally supporting the view that attitudes to authority do generalize.

In arriving at this conclusion, however, Rigby et al (1987) relied fairly heavily on factor analysis and reported very few of their zero-order correlations. Those they do report, however, are instructive. From their table 5 we can calculate that the average correlation between rebellion/submission to parents and attitudes to the Police and the law was less than .20. This is very close to orthogonality indeed. Rebellion/submission to teachers, however, was a more substantial predictor of attitude to the Police and the law -- with a mean correlation of over .40. If, then, parents are an example of authority (as Adorno et al contended), they seem to be a very special case of it.

Perhaps more decisive in evaluating the generalizability of attitudes to authority, however, was the finding that, among High-School students, one of the three proposed components of the "AA" scale did not correlate with the other two (Ray, 1971). The body of items devised to measure "View of the leader as an executive versus a decision-maker" did not correlate with the bodies of items concerned with "Freedom versus regulation" or "Evaluation of authoritarian institutions". The latter two clusters did, however, correlate. The first cluster, therefore has to be discarded, leaving an "AA" scale that is thematically rather limited. Perhaps more disturbing, however, was the finding that none of this applied when the items were administered to an Army conscript sample. There all three elements intercorrelated highly. The degree of generalizability of attitude to authority is, therefore, not only limited but also variable.

A recent replication among adults of the relationships (between components of the AA scale) found among the High School students can be found in Byrne, Reinhart & Heaven (1989, Table 2) so it cannot be maintained that the High School students were a "special case"

A final finding of failure to generalize in this area also comes from Ray (1971). It was found that the "AA" scale showed a correlation (.19) of only borderline significance with a scale of Social Deference. The study reported in Ray (1971) was carried out in Australia and Social Deference is an explanation that is sometimes used in Britain and Australia (See Ray, 1972b) for the fact that around a quarter of the working class vote Tory (i.e. for Rightists). British and Australian politics tend to be class-polarized with the Left being represented by a "Labor" party. It is therefore seen as requiring explanation that some workers do not vote for "their" party.

An attitude of Social Deference is one where the voter feels that he would be best represented in Parliament by a person of "standing" -- i.e. an upper-class, educated or accomplished person. Since Tory politicians tend to qualify in that way, a deferent person would vote for them even though the voter himself is very humbly situated.

It would seem therefore that a deferent attitude is a strong form of authoritarian submission. That it does not in fact correlate with other pro-authority attitudes must therefore be seen as considerably disturbing to any belief that there is such a thing as a generalized attitude to authority. More inclusive concepts such as "authoritarianism" are also therefore shown as of doubtful viability.

Remmers (1959, p. 55) argues for the value and generalizability of results derived from High-School student surveys but it might nonetheless be held that a finding among a group of 110 Australian High School Students could well be a "one-off" event that should not be taken too seriously. As it happens, however, the finding just discussed has been replicated among a general community sample of Australians (Ray, 1985a, Table 2). How much evidence can we afford to ignore?

The caveat should, then, obviously be borne in mind that the "AA" scale measures only one form of attitude to authority. The items of the scale do focus rather heavily on attitude to the Army but fortunately Rigby & Rump (1979) have shown that attitude to the Army is highly predictive of attitude to the law, the Police and teachers. As far as it goes, then, it has been confirmed that Rightist voters in the general community are more acceptant of authority than are Leftist voters. The correlation observed (10% of common variance), however, is much lower than the very high correlations generally reported for well-educated respondents in Adorno et al (1950). General population Leftists are only slightly more likely to be anti-authority than are Rightists but the tendency is there.

Other studies?

At this point someone must surely ask: "Are you seriously proposing that in all the vast literature on the psychology of politics there is only one study that can tell us anything about the relationship between attitude to authority and vote in the general population?" Improbable though it sounds, I am saying just that. The reason is an intersection of rarities. Psychologists who use human subjects at all usually use students as their source of data (Sears, 1986). Studies that use general population samples are rare. Also rare are studies that use balanced and valid versions of authoritarianism or attitude to authority scales. So finding a rare type of measuring instrument used on a rare type of sample does bring us down to just one study. For what it is worth, however, there are also a large number of studies using non-balanced "authoritarianism" scales based on the F scale that show relationships between vote and authoritarianism that are weak or even non-existent (Hanson, 1975; Ray, 1973b & 1983b).

Personality scales

The discussion so far has concerned political attitudes. Adorno et al (1950), however, have argued that underlying authoritarian attitudes is an authoritarian personality. So strongly did they believe this that they even purported to measure personality via attitudes. Since their F scale proved non-predictive of behaviour, however (Titus, 1968; Ray & Lovejoy, 1983), it seemed desirable to construct a measure of authoritarianism in personality scale format (i.e. a behavior inventory). When this was done, the personality scale concerned (the Directiveness scale) was found to correlate with neither authoritarian attitudes nor with political party preference (Ray, 1976 & 1983).

Domineering, directing, authoritarian personalities are, then, equally likely to be found on both sides of politics but such personalities tell us nothing about the policy choices that will be made. Adorno et al were simply mistaken in their view about the influence of personality. See also Heaven & Connors (1988).

Studies of political extremists

It might be argued that studying authoritarian attitudes in general population samples drawn from any of the Western democracies is a fundamentally irrelevant exercise. Would it not be more relevant to study samples of political extremists (e.g. Communists) who support the authoritarian regimes on the world scene? This is surely true and Stone (1980 & 1988) is nearly right in pointing out that no-one ever seems to have done a study which shows Communists as having attitudes or personalities which are in any way conducive to authoritarianism. There is the Eysenck & Coulter (1972) study but it relies on the highly questionable "T" scale as the measure of authoritarianism. See Ray (1986). If it is true, as suggested above, that denial of motives is fundamental to being Leftist, such studies would probably have little point anyway but, since this aspect of Leftism is not so far generally known or accepted in the academic community there must be some other reason for the dearth of such studies. As one who has often attempted to do such studies, I wholeheartedly concur with the reason for this given by McClosky & Chong (1984): No matter how cannily you plan it and no matter how much prior assistance you arrange from influential members of such groups, the comrades just will not do the task. They will not answer the questionnaires. They bridle immediately. The reasons given are essentially the usual objections to any questionnaire but the point is that most people have such reservations and still undertake to give answers. In other words, Communists and their ilk do not exactly deny their motives; rather they refuse to discuss them at all! Their motives and attitudes are ones that they apparently prefer not even to think about. It does rather well fit in with the picture of Leftists as being inherently in the grip of a fundamental conflict of motives.

While what I have just said is generally true, there are exceptions to every rule and the exception on the present occasion would seem to be that Rokeach (1960) did manage to obtain a sample of English Communists. They showed the highest scores on both Dogmatism and opinionation of any group surveyed.


There are, then, four probably interrelated ways in which authoritarianism is "dead". 1). Psychologists are no longer generally interested in studying it; 2). Pro-authority attitudes are only a slight (and paradoxical) influence on general population political choice. 3). Nobody any more seems much to approve of authoritarianism of either the Right or Left in government. 4). There may be no such thing as a consistent attitude to authority anyway.

The reasons for the last three conclusions have been discussed already so it merely remains to be mentioned how interested psychologists generally seem to be in the topic. There are plenty of passing references and even many laudatory references to the Adorno et al (1950) work in the literature each year, but, against that, there are only three psychologists worldwide who have written year after year specifically on the topic of authoritarianism: Ken Rigby, Patrick Heaven and myself. Other authors seem to contribute only one or two publications on the topic and then fall silent. Considering the many thousands of psychologists that there must be worldwide, that only three psychologists have authoritarianism as a serious research interest must surely mean that authoritarianism for psychologists generally is quite "dead" -- at least as a research topic. Whether that should be the case, however, is quite another matter.

It may be noted that the present paper has concerned itself only with phenomena of the post World War II era. It would not be a matter of any great difficulty to extend the analyses here to events prior to that but it might seem something of a digression on the present occasion. A future occasion may, however, be found wherein such an extension could appropriately be done.


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Stone, W.F. (1988) Left-wing authoritarianism: Yet to be demonstrated. Paper presented at the 11th annual meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology, July 1-5, Seacaucus, N.J.

Titus, H.E. (1968) F scale validity considered against peer nomination criteria. Psychological Record 18, 395-403.

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