A guide to everyday psychology


How we get superstitions (and phobias and OCDs)

Author’s Collection

The Takeaway? Phobias, OCDs, superstitions, fears and anxieties are everyday occurrences in everyone’s lives. Understanding the simple psychological mechanisms by which they work helps us to live with them.

Just suppose a Martian landed tomorrow and met three people – one with superstitions, one with phobias and another who was a religious zealot. Is there any psychological test the Martian could do to work out which was which?

Understanding the origins of our superstitions is important because there are clear parallels between superstitions, phobias and extreme religious beliefs. If we want to understand such things as ‘radicalisation’ and how lives can be blighted by anxiety, phobias and OCDs, there is no better place to start than with superstition.

In this article I want to set out what superstitions are, describe how we acquire them and explain why they are sometimes difficult to eliminate.

Are superstitions a mark of stupidity?

People who pride themselves as being very rational often view superstition very negatively – the irrational beliefs of stupid people or ‘old wives’ tales’. Religious beliefs are also often criticised by people who think they are far too clever to be fooled by ‘all that superstitious mumbo-jumbo’. But to believe that anyone is exempt from superstition is to misunderstand the universal psychological processes that create superstitious belief.

These psychological processes – and especially the ‘rules of learning’ that created superstitions in our ancestors – are still present in all of us today. Why? Because, as we’ll see in a bit, these processes give us many other priceless things, which help us to survive.

The most widely held modern superstition is probably our belief in ‘karma’ (or ‘what goes round comes round’). Another widely held superstition is anxiety about tempting fate (particularly in team sports, where team members might exert pressure on one another). Both of these superstitious beliefs bring people benefits in their lives. So, what are they? And why do we ‘like’ these two superstitions so much?

To believe in karma helps us to tolerate living with injustice. To avoid tempting fate (in public) helps to make us look modest and humble. It also protects us from the worst ridicule when things go wrong! And, as we will see later, it is produced by ‘avoidance learning’ – a notion that is key in understanding superstitions and phobias.

Karma and tempting fate are ‘old school’ superstitions of course. They’ve been around forever, But as we will see, new superstitions arise constantly. Superstition is not a state of mind, but a dynamic process.

1. What are the characteristics of a superstitious belief?

Before describing how we acquire our superstitions, it’s worth setting out clearly what superstitions are.

1.1 They all involve anxiety

Perhaps the most important point here is that superstitious beliefs always involve fear and/or anxiety (see related article).

The presence of anxiety in our superstitious beliefs usefully distinguishes them from ‘urban myths’. Urban myths are stories that are widely believed to be true but are not… For example, the belief that lemmings jump off cliffs, and the belief that cats swish their tails because they are angry are both urban myths. They are not superstitious beliefs though: believing these things does not cause anxiety.

1.2 Superstitions often connect events that are – by ‘logical’ standards – completely unrelated.

For example, we might believe that seeing a lone magpie or a black cat will cause misfortune. Failing to blow on dice before rolling them also causes bad fortune. Similarly, touching wood or carrying a talisman (a St Christopher’s Cross, for example) is a way to avoid misfortune. There is no ‘logical’ reason to connect any of these actions or events with good or bad fortune. But we do.

Other superstitious beliefs take genuinely connected things (say, the connection between black clouds and rain), but then invent an unlikely – often semi-religious – cause for the connection. We might believe, for example, that the connection between black clouds and rain is because there is a ‘rain god’ living in the cloud.

Although the notion of rain gods in clouds might seem laughable in the 21st century, it illustrates a very important human characteristic – the inborn urge to find explanations for the connections that we see in the world. We’ll come back to this shortly.

1.3 Superstitions are all learned

A very important characteristic of superstitious beliefs is that we learn all of them.

1.3.1 We learn some superstitions through our own individual experiences

When two things happen very closely together, our first thought is that the first one has caused the second. (This inbuilt tendency is very strong because, when things happen together, it usually is because the first has caused the second!)

Let’s say that, for the first time ever, I wore a red t-shirt in the school race. And let’s say that, for the first time ever, I won the race. Part of me is hard-wired to conclude that wearing the red t-shirt caused me to win the race.

We learn other superstitions through being taught them by other people. But we’ll come back to how we acquire superstitious beliefs shortly.

1.4 The devil is watching you all the time

Another characteristic of superstitious beliefs is that they usually infer the existence of some ill-defined over-watching agent who ‘checks’ and ‘notices’ when we do unlucky things (say, when we passively see a black cat, or actively walk under a ladder). This has obvious parallels in the religious belief that there are all-seeing gods and devils.

1.5 They cause superstitious behaviour

Superstitious beliefs often trigger superstitious behaviours through which we hope to avoid bad luck. If we believe that seeing a solitary magpie will cause bad luck, we might recite a little invocation to avert that misfortune. Or we might touch wood. This type of action can easily become a compulsion, of course.

2. What value do superstitions have?

Superstitious beliefs have no value in themselves (unless they happen to be true!).

The point to understand about superstitions is that they are an accidental by-product of some important inbuilt psychological processes – and these are extremely valuable.

The processes of ‘classical’ conditioning and ‘operant’ conditioning and social learning are so important that we could not live a day without them. Through them we learn all the valuable associations between things that enable us to survive. But these processes are a rather blunt instrument. Sometimes we learn wrong associations – leading to unnecessary anxieties, faulty superstitious beliefs and phobias.

3. Modern superstitious beliefs – and the concept of sciencestition

In the western world, science is steadily displacing semi-religious beliefs about the universe. Western people are much less likely to attribute connections between things to the actions of capricious gods and devils than they did a hundred years ago. But we still learn incorrect connections – often because of reliance on faulty theories drawn from faulty science.

And sometimes, even when we have made the correct connections between events, we get the causes wrong because of faulty science.

This is a thing I like to call sciencestition.

3.1 Sciencestition

For example, the belief that shaving your legs with a razor causes the hairs to grow back thicker is a sciencestition. The view that masturbation could cause you to go blind was another. Many medical and pseudo-medical therapies are based on faulty scientific reasoning. Sciencestition, like superstition, involves faulty beliefs – but this time rooted in science. And both cause anxiety.

With sciencestitions, the quasi-religious over-watching agents, the gods and the devils of superstition are all gone. In their place, we introduce a different kind of dogma: the certainty of absolute ‘scientific laws’ whose rules we mustn’t break – because breaking these scientific laws will bring us misfortune.

Interestingly, our sciencestitions can actually compete with one another. The coronavirus pandemic has seen an explosion of competing sciencestitions – with opposing scientific camps accusing each other of holding beliefs rooted in faulty science and/or ‘conspiracy theories’. Example… Some scientists argue that you must wear masks to protect you and others from coronavirus. Other scientists argue that masks trap bacteria and increase your exposure to excessive CO2 that could kill you. Either or neither could be true.

Similarly, some scientists implore us to take the vaccines. Others tell us that vaccines are ineffective, untested and possibly dangerous.

And Joe Public has no way to judge which is true. We must rely on our best guesses about who we can trust – in the same way that our ancestors relied on High Priests and soothsayers.

Just one more example here. The arguments around the precision of the 2-metre rule (should safe social distancing be one metre, two metres or one and a half) illustrate anxieties caused by sciencestition. Each opinion is claimed to be based in ‘science’. But, in terms of solid science, none is proven.

Many people have learned to fear having people standing close to them – in a way that was never the case before. And some will always feel anxious, long after coronavirus has ceased to dominate headlines.

4. How do we acquire superstitious and sciencestitious beliefs (and phobias)?

We learn all of them. We learn them in two ways, either directly or indirectly (and sometimes through a combination of the two).

4.1 Direct Learning of our individual superstitions.

Let’s go back to that race I won while wearing that red t-shirt. I’ve never won the race before. And I’ve never worn that t-shirt before while running the race. Now I ‘know’ that they are connected, I’ll never run another race without it.

But why would I imagine such a connection – or even dafter, think that the t-shirt somehow caused me to win the race?

The reason why we are so strongly predisposed (biologically hard-wired, in fact) to make connections between things that happen together is because in nature they nearly always are connected.

Black clouds do ‘cause’ rain. When your pet dog hears the sound of the boot cupboard opening, it usually is followed by a walk. We have evolved with a predisposition to learn connections via the process of ‘classical’ conditioning because that learning usually gives us correct information.

But, and perhaps uniquely among the Earth’s species, humans are also hard-wired to seek out complex causes for connections that we observe. So, once I’ve concluded that wearing the t-shirt caused me to win the race, I want to know why and how. And in the absence of anything obvious (better wind resistance, less weight, the colour distracted my opponents), I will choose an answer from the even more unlikely options left behind – like the intervention of some divine force.

4.1.1 We see intentions as well as connections

This tendency to find gods and devils is reinforced by the fact that we have also (probably) evolved with a predisposition to attribute intentionality to events. Whatever the objective truth about free will, choice and intentions might be, it certainly feels as if intentions exist. And we see them everywhere. Why is that?

Alongside humans, many  animals seem to have evolved with a capacity to notice intention. This is a priceless asset because it enables them to avoid things that do intend to harm them – while enabling them to mate with or feed alongside things that don’t. Ask any Thompson Gazelle about intention… Lions don’t eat them by accident…

Humans are also equipped to notice and attribute intention because detecting intention is extremely valuable. But ‘here’s the thing’: unlike other animals, humans are ‘clever’ enough to see intentions in all kinds of places where they don’t exist… Oh yes. Uniquely, we can see and attribute intention to malevolent rain-gods, dark forests, fast-flowing rivers and deep seas.

4.1.2 We see connections and intentions everywhere – and we act on them

So, we are always looking for connections and intentions – and working out the causes for those connections and intentions.

The number of unrelated events that happen to us every day is enormous… It could turn out that on the same day that I give money to a beggar, I get a pay rise. Could they be connected?? Our capacity to notice possible connections is almost infinite. And so too is our capacity to look for the causes of those connections.

An important point about superstitious beliefs (perhaps the important point) is that they often change our behaviour. Once we’ve ‘noticed’ a connection, we use that knowledge to try to shape our luck actively. And herein lies the risk of anxiety turning a bad habit into an obsession and compulsion.

4.1.3 Superstitious actions

Having noticed, for example, that giving money to a beggar appeared to improve my luck on one occasion, I might feel an urge to find a beggar to give money to before I do ‘anything important’ in future. Indeed, I might develop a dread of doing anything risky unless I’ve first given money to a beggar. I might think that giving money to lots of beggars, rather than just one beggar, will improve my luck even more. Thus, a superstitious connection based in coincidence can create anxiety – even a ‘phobia’ and ‘compulsive’ thoughts – leading to stereotyped and ‘obsessive’ behaviour.

This is ‘operant’ (or ‘instrumental’) conditioning in action. We learn that doing certain (superstitious) actions will provide us with good outcomes. If I touch wood or ‘salute’ the magpie’ it will bring me good luck. This is harmless enough and will not intrude into our lives. But if the anxiety is great enough, my behaviour could become extreme, obsessive and compulsive.

Touching wood might not change my luck, of course. So, what happens then? Well, even if touching wood doesn’t protect me, there is another big plus…

By far the most important good outcome is immediate anxiety reduction. If I touch wood after seeing a magpie, I feel better. If I keep 2 metres away from other people, I feel better. And that’s why I carry on doing it.

4.2 Indirect learning and collective superstitions

We humans are able to obtain vast amounts of abstract knowledge from other people – enabling us to anticipate and know about things that we have never encountered before. This is called ‘social learning’. As young children, with almost no direct experience to draw on, we allow our parents to tell us what to think and do in almost every aspect of our lives. But alongside the many useful things that our parents teach us, like how to safely cross a road, they also teach us their superstitions.

And it is through this indirect learning that we acquire all our widely-held superstitions… It is through someone else telling us that touching wood is good, or that doing anything risky on Friday 13th is bad, that we learn these superstitions.

Very often, we learn and internalise these superstitious beliefs without understanding why we must follow them. Millions of people touch wood when doing risky things (especially when tempting fate) – but it is unlikely one wood-toucher in a hundred could identify any reason why they think touching wood brings them luck (the origin, reputedly, lies in symbolically touching the wood of the Saviour’s cross). Many superstitions (and sciencestitions) are implanted into us by our parents and other influencers – and many persist throughout life.

4.2.1 So why do we let other people do our thinking?

Maturity is a long and dangerous process for humans. And even in adult life, we benefit hugely from allowing other people to think on our behalf. Sensibly, we allow car manufacturers to do our ‘engineering thinking’. We allow doctors to do our ‘medical thinking’. But the difference between acquiring genuine knowledge and acquiring falsehoods and superstitious beliefs is blurry. Not all ‘knowledge’ is accurate. The personal biases of our influencers and our culture determine many of the things we learn to believe.

The world of medicine and health illustrates particularly well how easily our self-delusions, cultural biases, superstitions and sciencestitions can all overlap.

And as mentioned earlier, the coronavirus pandemic illustrates tellingly how reputable scientists can tell us many equally plausible – but flatly contradictory things – and make us very anxious about them.

5. Individual superstitions can become shared superstitions

Appealing, easy and plausible individual superstitions sometimes grow to become collective ones – and sometimes, when these come to form an internally consistent body of belief, they might even develop into religions.

Our belief in lucky talismans is an individual superstition that has turned collective.

Although our talismans all differ, they share a number of general characteristics: usually it is small objects that we can carry that we call ‘lucky’. The St Christopher medallion is a good example.

But even cars, aeroplanes and ships can get the attribution of being ‘lucky’ (or the opposite, a ‘Jonah’) We even attribute them with human characteristcs, intentions and personality too. But although our talismans are varied, there are still some cultural limits… Nobody, to my knowledge has ever had a lucky wardrobe!

6. A closer look at the mechanics… and how superstitious behaviours endure 

6.1 Avoidance learning

Bearing in mind that many superstitions are based on false associations, how come the behaviours that they cause endure? After a while, surely, we must realise that carrying lucky mascots, touching wood and blowing on dice brings no advantage – so, logically, the behaviours should just fade away. 

There are several reasons why superstitious beliefs (and phobias) endure. But easily the most important reason is because we learn them through a process called avoidance learning. Avoidance learning is a fantastically useful concept to understand – not just for the endurance of superstitious belief but also for the endurance of long-term phobias and habits. The central point is that we find it very difficult to ‘unlearn’ something when we have learned it through avoidance learning. So how does it work?

6.1.1 Examples…

Let’s say I never go out on Friday 13th because I’ve heard that it’s dangerous (or maybe I had a bad Friday 13th experience). Because I now always avoid going out on Friday 13th I can never learn that it is safe to do so!

Similarly, I can never learn that touching spiders is harmless if I always avoid them. I can never learn that driving my car without my ‘lucky’ mascot is completely safe – because I always take it. By constantly washing my hands to avoid contamination, I can never learn that I don’t need to do it.

Put like this, avoidance learning sounds like a pain: something that actively prevents us from learning the ‘truth’ and makes idiots of us. But evolution doesn’t care about us looking like idiots. It wants us (or the genes within us) to survive. And every species on the planet capable of learning by avoidance, has evolved with it.

6.1.2 The benefits of avoidance learning

Avoidance learning is how we learn to make responses where even one failure to respond correctly might be fatal.

Consider your pet puppy’s ‘superstition’… Although Fido only snapped once and painfully at a wasp, he has learned to avoid snapping at all wasps forever. Well done Fido. But the problem is that he now fears and avoids all flying insects [avoidance learning can combine with other normally useful processes, such as stimulus generalisation, perceptual set and stereotyping: see short reads on these].

So, for Fido, any buzzing fly = sting. And when any fly buzzes around Fido, he leaps in alarm or he hides. Fido, in fact, has a phobia. What a pain for him. But there is a plus. This occasional inconvenience is a small price to pay in order to avoid being stung by wasps and bees. Evolution has favoured avoidance learning in animals because the hiding but unstung Fido might be very fed up, but he is more likely to survive and breed than a dog that dies from anaphylactic shock.

The tendency to learn avoidance responses is so universal and potent that it has even shaped evolution in some prey animals. Harmless hoverflies have evolved with wasp-like yellow and black markings – which encourages some predators to keep clear. There are many other examples, of course, of fish and insects that mimic predators.

Avoidance learning is an interesting example of the clumsy blindness of evolution. It is a fantastic device ‘intended’ to protect us from danger permanently. But it can also enable our faulty beliefs, superstitions and phobias to last a lifetime.  Poor Fido…

Clinical treatments for phobias are often designed to break the learned avoidance of the phobic object (through ‘exposure therapy’ – either gradually or suddenly). So we touch spiders, for example.

6.2 What other reasons, apart from avoidance learning, make superstitions so commonplace and enduring?

6.2.1 Social pressure

Social pressure increases our susceptibility to superstitions (and religions). Team members who tempt fate, or sailors who shoot albatrosses might imperil everyone. So they are pressured to conform. Being constantly obliged to behave superstitiously by others increases the chance that a person will ‘internalise’ the superstitious belief. 

6.2.2 Easy superstitions

‘Easy’ superstitions, like touching wood, endure better than ones that are difficult to perform (like constantly avoiding the cracks on the pavement). This is because there is always an implicit cost-benefit analysis that regulates the endurance of all our behaviour – and our superstitions are not exempt. It doesn’t cost much to touch wood or avoid walking under ladders, and the benefit could be the difference between life and death. So why take the chance? In contrast, constantly avoiding the cracks on the pavements is hard work – so it is much less likely to endure.

6.2.3 Selective perception

The endurance of superstitions is also a by-product of our innate (and usually very useful) tendency to perceive things selectively. If we know that we’ve done something ‘unlucky’ we look out for, and notice, evidence of consequent misfortune. So after I see a solitary magpie, I start looking out for something bad… It might be stubbing a toe (or getting caught in a traffic jam, or arguing with the children, or spilling the cornflakes or a thousand other mishaps). Whatever it is, I will attribute it to the fact that I failed to touch wood when I saw the black cat catch the solitary magpie as it walked under a ladder for the 13th time that morning. My tendency towards selective perception will tend to confirm my superstitious beliefs – and so help them to endure.

6.2.4 Cognitive dissonance

Closely related to this is – our regular friend – cognitive dissonance. We want the superstitions (or religions or scientific beliefs) that define who we are to actually be true. Our beliefs give us identity, consistency, clarity, meaning and certainty in life. So we look for connections between our superstitious behaviours and outcomes that confirm our beliefs, often hoping the connections are real. If we go to the trouble of blowing on dice, we want blowing on dice to be lucky.

6.2.5 They have functional value by reducing anxiety and stress

Superstitious behaviour also endures because it has functional value, enabling us to relax better in stressful situations. Some people perform their rituals, chants and talismans as much to de-stress themselves, as to ward off a specific misfortune. Buddhism may be an example of this.

6.2.6 Superstitious rituals can become simple habits

Superstitious behaviours sometimes endure through evolving into habitual actions – although I don’t really think my lucky ring is going to bring me luck any more, I’m just in the habit of wearing it.

7. Which people are most susceptible to superstition?

Superstition is universal. So the real question here is: who ‘has superstition’ most? 

It is common to attribute superstitious behaviours to irrational, illogical and foolish people (such as the much-demeaned ‘old wife’). However, it is people who have high anxiety/high risk occupations – such as motor racing, gambling, or military service who most commonly have ‘live’ superstitions. This is because such high-risk people have a ‘need’ for superstition. It is very common to see sportspeople crossing themselves or touching the grass as they begin a match.

What they believe is uncertain. Is it superstition or religion? What is more certain is that by performing superstitious behaviours, these people can often reduce their feelings of stress and anxiety.

Seafarers, who are never more than one bad storm away from a shipwreck, are notoriously superstitious. For these entirely normal people, their superstitions are a valuable, if not essential way of coping with everyday life.

8. What is the relationship between superstitious beliefs and phobias?

It requires a sharp knife to separate a phobia from a superstition. 

8.1 In their learned Origins

We learn all our phobias and all our superstitions. All involve the association of anxiety with – rationally – neutral objects

It is sometimes argued that phobias are always acquired individually and through experience where – in contrast – superstitions are learned through culture.

As we have seen, many superstitions are learned individually… Donald Campbell, for example, died on Coniston Water with his individual lucky bear. The notion of lucky talismans might be cultural, but the individual forms they take are unique.

And taking the reverse case, many of our phobias have cultural elements. Not everyone who fears spiders has necessarily had an unpleasant experience with a spider. For an infant, the frightening image of his mother screaming the house down while pointing at the spider that he was just about to eat, is quite likely to teach him an important lesson… Although he didn’t know it before, spiders are terrifying and must be avoided. We learn all kinds of phobias through culture.

8.2 Intensity of feeling

One commonly-cited distinction between a phobia and a superstition is the phobia’s disabling intensity… It is argued that a superstition is often characterised by mild anxiety, whereas a phobia usually describes the association of intense fear with something that should be fairly neutral (for example, open spaces, or going over bridges, or spiders). 

But this is very much a question of interpretation. Is it a phobia or a superstition if someone refuses to even get out of bed on Friday 13th

8.3 Specificity of targets

It is sometimes said that superstitious anxieties are often very specific. For example, seeing one magpie brings misfortune, causing anxiety, where seeing two magpies is a good omen.

Phobic fears, in contrast, are broader in scope. They are quantitative (with a phobia, more and larger magpies can only worse). And they are usually generalised to all members of a given category – we fear all spiders, all open spaces, all heights, all birds, and all closed spaces. 

But this distinction contains many contradictions and overlaps… People who have specifically learned to be superstitious about black cats are often superstitiously anxious about encountering all cats of every colour. Better to be safe than sorry. People who have a phobia about spiders are often fairly untroubled by tiny examples.

8.4 External malevolent agencies

Perhaps the most persuasive difference between superstition and phobia is that superstitions require some kind of watchful agent,  making notes and checking that we do not break ‘the rules’.  This does not characterise phobias, where fear is directly related to the presence of the ‘thing’ that makes us frightened. 

However, an intense fear of forests or particular houses can easily fit into both categories. Is fear of ghosts and haunted houses a superstition or a phobia?

And sciencestitions can also give rise to fears that bridge both categories. We have rules and laws from dodgy science that we must obey. Is being terrified about coming closer than 2 metres to unvaccinated people not wearing a mask a phobia – or a sciencestition?

8.5 There are ‘happy’ superstitions that bring good luck – but there are only bad phobias that cause fear

It is sometimes argued that there are ‘happy’ superstitions about things that can bring good fortune, where phobias are always rooted in fear. 

This argument, which sees good fortune and bad fortune as conceptually distinct, misses a central point… Good fortune and bad fortune are relative phenomena. We can fear not having good luck. A gambler blows on the dice as much to avoid bad luck as to bring good luck.

8.6 A conclusion about the relationship between superstitions and phobias

Phobias and superstitions are a product of exactly the same learning processes… Both incorrectly associate anxiety with neutral objects and phenomena, and both are difficult to unlearn when they have been acquired through avoidance conditioning.

Differences between phobias and superstitions are little more than cultural labelling: fear of being without a lucky talisman is a ‘superstition’; fear of spiders is a ‘phobia’.

9. Is superstitious behaviour the same as Obsessive compulsive behaviour and OCDs? 

Not every psychiatrist will agree with me, but it is useful to think of OCD as describing the ‘behavioural wing’ of anxiety – the need to do something in response to anxiety.

Just as superstitious beliefs and anxieties can lead to superstitious behaviours (little mantras or rituals such as saluting the magpie, carrying talismans or touching wood), phobic anxieties can cause the thing we call obsessive-compulsive behaviours (constant hand-washing, for example). The common denominator is that all these actions help us to achieve anxiety reduction

As with phobias, it is the disabling intensity of obsessive compulsive behaviours that is often cited to differentiate them from superstitious behaviours. But is that criterion psychologically meaningful, or just a question of cultural labelling? 

Touching wood occasionally is likely to be identified as a superstitious behaviour; touching it incessantly is likely to be identified as an obsession compulsion. An urge to avoid the cracks on pavements could be regarded as either a superstition or as an obsession-compulsion… it depends how constantly and how life-disruptingly we do it.

10. A conclusion – and the concept of phobistition

In psychological terms, there is little that meaningfully distinguishes a phobia from superstitious anxiety or a superstitious behaviour from an obsessive compulsion. They might collectively be called ‘phobistitions’.

The similarity between the origins of ‘normal’ superstition and phobia/OC is important. It suggests that the practice of many therapists – in treating obsessive compulsions and phobias within a medical framework as ‘mental disorders’ is misleading and therefore unhelpful.

This is particularly important now that some scientists are using brain surgery to treat obsessions and phobias – when these are probably the most obviously learned of all mental difficulties that we face. Brain surgery seems to provide temporary improvement in symptoms that quickly evaporates.

And that Martian… There is no reason to think it could distinguish between a superstition from a phobia. And could it distinguish a between superstition and religious fanaticism? Well, this article is long enough for now, so I’ll come back to that elsewhere!

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