What is a Cult?


bulletSiddha Yoga or other groups may have more or less of the following criteria depending upon the evolution of the cult and to the degree you become involved.


bulletLifton's Criteria for Thought Reform
bulletConditions for Mind Control (Margaret Singer)
bulletMind Control - The BITE Model (Steven Hassan)
bulletAcademic Research into Cults (Jeff Jacobsen)
bulletCult 101 by AFF (opens in new window)


bulletLifton's Criteria for Thought Reform

DR. ROBERT J. LIFTON'S CRITERIA FOR THOUGHT REFORM THOUGHT REFORM: THE PSYCHOLOGY OF TOTALISM CHAPTER 22 (Chapel Hill, 1989) THE FUTURE OF IMMORTALITY CHAPTER 15 (New York 1987) Any ideology -- that is, any set of emotionally-charged convictions about men and his relationship to the natural or supernatural world -- may be carried by its adherents in a totalistic direction. But this is most likely to occur with those ideologies which are most sweeping in their content and most ambitious or messianic in their claim, whether a religious or political organization. And where totalism exists, a religion, or a political movement becomes little more than an exclusive cult. Here you will find a set of criteria, eight psychological themes against which any environment may be judged. In combination, they create an atmosphere which may temporarily energize or exhilarate, but which at the same time pose the gravest of human threats. 


1. MILIEU CONTROL the most basic feature is the control of human communication within and environment if the control is extremely intense, it becomes internalized control -- an attempt to manage an individual's inner communication control over all a person sees, hears, reads, writes (information control) creates conflicts in respect to individual autonomy groups express this in several ways: Group process, isolation from other people, psychological pressure, geographical distance or unavailable transportation, sometimes physical pressure often a sequence of events, such as seminars, lectures, group encounters, which become increasingly intense and increasingly isolated, making it extremely difficult-- both physically and psychologically--for one to leave. sets up a sense of antagonism with the outside world; it's us against them closely connected to the process of individual change (of personality) 

2. MYSTICAL MANIPULATION (Planned spontaneity) extensive personal manipulation seeks to promote specific patterns of behavior and emotion in such a way that it appears to have arisen spontaneously from within the environment, while it actually has been orchestrated totalist leaders claim to be agents chosen by God, history, or some supernatural force, to carry out the mystical imperative the "principles" (God-centered or otherwise) can be put forcibly and claimed exclusively, so that the cult and its beliefs become the only true path to salvation (or enlightenment) the individual then develops the psychology of the pawn, and participates actively in the manipulation of others the leader who becomes the center of the mystical manipulation (or the person in whose name it is done) can be sometimes more real than an abstract god and therefore attractive to cult members legitimizes the deception used to recruit new members and/or raise funds, and the deception used on the "outside world" 

3. THE DEMAND FOR PURITY the world becomes sharply divided into the pure and the impure, the absolutely good (the group/ideology) and the absolutely evil (everything outside the group) one must continually change or conform to the group "norm" tendencies towards guilt and shame are used as emotional levers for the group's controlling and manipulative influences once a person has experienced the totalist polarization of good/evil (black/white thinking), he has great difficulty in regaining a more balanced inner sensitivity to the complexities of human morality the radical separation of pure/impure is both within the environment (the group) and the individual ties in with the process of confession -- one must confess when one is not conforming 

4. CONFESSION cultic confession is carried beyond its ordinary religious, legal and therapeutic expressions to the point of becoming a cult in itself sessions in which one confesses to one's sin are accompanied by patterns of criticism and self-criticism, generally transpiring within small groups with an active and dynamic thrust toward personal change is an act of symbolic self-surrender makes it virtually impossible to attain a reasonable balance between worth and humility a young person confessing to various sins of pre-cultic existence can both believe in those sins and be covering over other ideas and feelings that s/he is either unaware of or reluctant to discuss often a person will confess to lesser sins while holding on to other secrets (often criticisms/questions/doubts about the group/leaders that may cause them not to advance to a leadership position) "the more I accuse myself, the more I have a right to judge you" 

5. SACRED SCIENCE the totalist milieu maintains an aura of sacredness around its basic doctrine or ideology, holding it as an ultimate moral vision for the ordering of human existence questioning or criticizing those basic assumptions is prohibited a reverence is demanded for the ideology/doctrine, the originators of the ideology/doctrine, the present bearers of the ideology/doctrine offers considerable security to young people because it greatly simplifies the world and answers a contemporary need to combine a sacred set of dogmatic principles with a claim to a science embodying the truth about human behavior and human psychology 

6. LOADING THE LANGUAGE the language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliche (thought-stoppers) repetitiously centered on all-encompassing jargon "the language of non-thought" words are given new meanings -- the outside world does not use the words or phrases in the same way -- it becomes a "group" word or phrase 

7. DOCTRINE OVER PERSON every issue in one's life can be reduced to a single set of principles that have an inner coherence to the point that one can claim the experience of truth and feel it the pattern of doctrine over person occurs when there is a conflict between what one feels oneself experiencing and what the doctrine or ideology says one should experience if one questions the beliefs of the group or the leaders of the group, one is made to feel that there is something inherently wrong with them to even question -- it is always "turned around" on them and the questioner/criticizer is questioned rather than the questions answered directly the underlying assumption is that doctrine/ideology is ultimately more valid, true and real than any aspect of actual human character or human experience and one must subject one's experience to that "truth" the experience of contradiction can be immediately associated with guilt one is made to feel that doubts are reflections of one's own evil when doubt arises, conflicts become intense 8. DISPENSING OF EXISTENCE since the group has an absolute or totalist vision of truth, those who are not in the group are bound up in evil, are not enlightened, are not saved, and do not have the right to exist "being verses nothingness" impediments to legitimate being must be pushed away or destroyed one outside the group may always receive their right of existence by joining the group fear manipulation -- if one leaves this group, one leaves God or loses their transformation, for something bad will happen to them the group is the "elite", outsiders are "of the world", "evil", "unenlightened", etc. 
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bulletConditions for Mind Control (Margaret Singer)

CONDITIONS FOR MIND CONTROL DR. MARGARET SINGER (Margaret T. Singer, Ph.D., Emeritus Prof. of Psychology, Univ. of CA, Berkeley) THOUGHT REFORM = LANGUAGE + SOCIAL &amp; PSYCHOLOGICAL INFLUENCE <br> <br> In a thought reform program: the self concept is destabilized the group/leaders attack one's evaluation of self SELF: 2 Elements in one's self-concept Peripheral Sense: adequacy of public &amp; judgmental aspects, social status, role performance, conformity to social norms Central Sense of Self: adequacy of intimate life, confidence in perception of reality, relations w/family, goals, sexual experiences, traumatic life events, religious beliefs, basic consciousness and emotional control When you attack a person's self-concept, aversive emotional arousal is created 6 CONDITIONS THAT NEED TO BE PRESENT IN ORDER TO CONSTITUTE MIND CONTROL: <br> <br> 1. CONTROL OVER TIME Especially thinking time Use techniques to get a person to think about: . the group . beliefs of the group as much of their waking time as possible <br> <br> 2. CREATE A SENSE OF POWERLESSNESS Get people away from normal support systems for a period of time Provide models of behavior (cult members) Use in-group language Use of songs, games, stories the person is unfamiliar with or they are modified so that they're unfamiliar New people tend to want to be like others (acceptance, feeling part of a group) <br> <br> 3. MANIPULATE REWARDS, PUNISHMENTS, EXPERIENCES IN ORDER TO SUPPRESS OLD SOCIAL BEHAVIOR Manipulate: social rewards intellectual rewards REWARDS: support positive self-concept for conformity to new thought system PUNISHMENTS: attack person's self-concept for non-conformity Effects of behavioral modification (reward/punishment): <br> <br> DEPLOYABLE AGENT: <br> <br> a. accept a particular world view <br> b. procedures for peer monitoring w/feedback to group <br> c. psychological, social &amp; material sanctions to influence the target's behavior <br> <br> When there is control of external feedback, the group becomes the only source -- there are no reality checks <br> <br> BEHAVIORS REWARDED: participation, conformity to ideas/behavior, zeal, personal changes <br> <br> BEHAVIORS PUNISHED: criticalness, independent thinking, non-conformity to ideas/behavior <br> <br> PUNISHMENTS: peer/group criticism, withdrawal of support/affection, isolation, negative feedback <br> <br> THE PERSON IS DEPENDENT UPON THE GROUP FOR EXTERNAL VALIDATION OF SOCIAL IDENTITY RESULTS: confusion, disorientation, psychological disturbances Manipulate experience: altered states of consciousness (trance) hypnosis Hypnosis: (see Ericksonian hypnosis) speaking patterns guided imagery pacing of voice to breathing patterns parables, stories with imbedded messages repetition boredom stop paying attention to distractions, focus inwardly to what's going on inside you the use of one's voice to get people's attention focused Chanting, Meditation Teach thought-stopping techniques Work them up emotionally to a negative state: re-experience past painful events recall negative actions/sin in past life Then rescue them from negative emotion by giving them a new way to live <br> <br> 4. MANIPULATE REWARDS, PUNISHMENTS, EXPERIENCES IN ORDER TO ELICIT NEW BEHAVIOR Models will demonstrate new behavior Conformity: dress, language, behavior Using group language will eventually still the thinking mind <br> <br> 5. MUST BE A TIGHTLY CONTROLLED SYSTEM OF LOGIC No complaints from the floor Pyramid shaped operation with leader at the top Top leaders must maintain absolute control/authority Persons in charge must have verbal ways of never losing Anyone who questions is made to think there is something inherently wrong with them to even question Phobia induction: something bad will happen if you leave the group if you leave this group, you're leaving God Guilt manipulation <br> <br> 6. PERSONS BEING THOUGHT REFORMED MUST BE UNAWARE THAT THEY ARE BEING MOVED THROUGH A PROGRAM TO MAKE THEM DEPLOYABLE AGENTS, TO BUY MORE COURSES, SIGN UP FOR THE DURATION, ETC. You can't be thought reformed with full capacity, informed consent You don't know the agenda of the group at the beginning or the full content of the ideology <br> <br> THOUGHT REFORM SYSTEM: Coordinated programs of coercive influence and behavior control Use of pop psychology techniques found in sensitivity training and encounters groups 2nd Generation Thought Reform Systems (attacks on central elements of self): <br> <br> a. enlist recruit's cooperation, offer something they want (personal growth, salvation, etc.) <br> <br> b. obtain psychological dominace by making the target's continuing relations contingent upon continuing membership <br> <br> c. use seduction by developing bonds and encouraging targets to believe the group can provide something <br> <br> d. develop dependency by direct social pressure to influence a decision that the group has special power or knowledge or can solve a problem; the people in the group are made to seem interested in what is best for the target -- then they &quot;up the commitment level&quot; <br> <br> e. shift the target's social and emotional attachments to individuals who have already accepted high commitment and are conforming to the behavior WHILE decreasing the target's outside relationships <br> <br> 6. increase the CHANGES in the target's: income employment personal friends/social life finances sexuality THIS INCREASES THE THREAT TO THE PERSON IF THEY WANT TO LEAVE THREATS: ARE TO THE INDIVIDUAL'S stability of identity emotional well-being <br> <br> 7. the community standards become the ONLY standards available for self-evaluation CULTS AND CULTIC RELATIONSHIPS CULT - the political and power STRUCTURE of a group CULTIC RELATIONSHIP - those relationships in which a person intentionally induces others to become totally or nearly totally dependent on him/her for almost all major life decisions and inculcates in these followers a belief that he has some special talent, gift or knowledge PRIMARY IN OUR DISCUSSION OF CULTS IS THE PRACTICE AND CONDUCT OF THE GROUP, NOT ITS BELIEFS <br> <br> Further references: Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. Robert J. Lifton, M.D., University of N.C., Chapel Hill, 1989 Chapter 22 &quot;Attacks on Peripheral versus Central Elements of Self and the Impact of Thought Reforming Techniques&quot; Richard Ofshe and Margaret T. Singer, The Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 3 #1, Spring/Summer 1986; American Family Foundation, P.O. Box 1232, Gracie Station, New York, NY 10028 (212) 533-0538 &quot;The Utilization of Hypnotic Techniques in Religious Conversion&quot; Jesse S. Miller, The Cultic Studies Journal,Vol. 3 #2, Fall/Winter 1986 Recovery from Cults. ed. Michael Langone, Ph.D., W.W. Norton, 1994 &#26;
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bulletMind Control - The BITE Model (Steven Hassan)



From chapter two of Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves

© 2000 by Steven Hassan - published by Freedom of Mind Press, Somerville MA

Destructive mind control can be understood in terms of four basic components, which form the acronym BITE:

I. Behavior Control
II. Information Control
III. Thought Control
IV. Emotional Control

I. Behavior Control

1. Regulation of individualís physical reality

a.  Where, how and with whom the member lives and associates with
b. What clothes, colors, hairstyles the person wears
c. What food the person eats, drinks, adopts, and rejects
d. How much sleep the person is able to have
e. Financial dependence
f. Little or no time spent on leisure, entertainment, vacations

2. Major time commitment required for indoctrination sessions and group rituals

3. Need to ask permission for major decisions

4. Need to report thoughts, feelings and activities to superiors

5. Rewards and punishments (behavior modification techniques- positive and negative).

5. Individualism discouraged; group think prevails

6. Rigid rules and regulations

7. Need for obedience and dependency

II. Information Control

1. Use of deception

a. Deliberately holding back information
b. Distorting information to make it acceptable
c. Outright lying

2. Access to non-cult sources of information minimized or discouraged

a. Books, articles, newspapers, magazines, TV, radio
b. Critical information
c. Former members
d. Keep members so busy they donít have time to think

3. Compartmentalization of information; Outsider vs. Insider doctrines

a. Information is not freely accessible
b. Information varies at different levels and missions within pyramid
c. Leadership decides who "needs to know" what

4. Spying on other members is encouraged

a. Pairing up with "buddy" system to monitor and control
b. Reporting deviant thoughts, feelings, and actions to leadership

5. Extensive use of cult generated information and propaganda

a. Newsletters, magazines, journals, audio tapes, videotapes, etc.
b. Misquotations, statements taken out of context from non-cult sources

6. Unethical use of confession

a. Information about "sins" used to abolish identity boundaries
b. Past "sins" used to manipulate and control; no forgiveness or absolution

III. Thought Control

1. Need to internalize the groupís doctrine as "Truth"

a. Map = Reality
b. Black and White thinking
c. Good vs. evil
d. Us vs. them (inside vs. outside)

2. Adopt "loaded" language (characterized by "thought-terminating clichťs"). Words are the tools we use to think with. These "special" words constrict rather than expand understanding. They function to reduce complexities of experience into trite, platitudinous "buzz words".

3. Only "good" and "proper" thoughts are encouraged.

4. Thought-stopping techniques (to shut down "reality testing" by stopping "negative" thoughts and allowing only "good" thoughts); rejection of rational analysis, critical thinking, constructive criticism.

a. Denial, rationalization, justification, wishful thinking
b. Chanting
c. Meditating
d. Praying
e. Speaking in "tongues"
f. Singing or humming

5. No critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy seen as legitimate

6. No alternative belief systems viewed as legitimate, good, or useful

IV. Emotional Control

1. Manipulate and narrow the range of a personís feelings.

2. Make the person feel like if there are ever any problems it is always their fault, never the leaderís or the groupís.

3. Excessive use of guilt

a. Identity guilt

1. Who you are (not living up to your potential)
2. Your family
3. Your past
4. Your affiliations
5. Your thoughts, feelings, actions

b. Social guilt
c. Historical guilt

4. Excessive use of fear

a. Fear of thinking independently
b. Fear of the "outside" world
c. Fear of enemies
d. Fear of losing oneís "salvation"
e. Fear of leaving the group or being shunned by group
f. Fear of disapproval

5. Extremes of emotional highs and lows.

6. Ritual and often public confession of "sins".

7. Phobia indoctrination : programming of irrational fears of ever leaving the group or even questioning the leaderís authority. The person under mind control cannot visualize a positive, fulfilled future without being in the group.

a. No happiness or fulfillment "outside"of the group

b. Terrible consequences will take place if you leave: "hell"; "demon possession"; "incurable diseases"; "accidents"; "suicide"; "insanity"; "10,000 reincarnations"; etc.

c. Shunning of leave takers. Fear of being rejected by friends, peers, and family.

d. Never a legitimate reason to leave. From the groupís perspective, people who leave are: "weak"; "undisciplined"; "unspiritual"; "worldly"; "brainwashed by family, counselors"; seduced by money, sex, rock and roll.

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bulletAcademic Research into Cults (Jeff Jacobsen)

A SHORT REVIEW OF ACADEMIC RESEARCH INTO CULTS copyright 1993 by Jeff Jacobsen I. PREDISPOSITIONS OF CULT CONVERSION <br> <br> 1. Tension: A discrepency between how one finds oneself and how one wants to be. <br> 2. Type of Problem-solving Perspective: psychiatric, political, and religious perspectives are available, but most choose the religious. <br> 3. Seekership: Conventional religious institutions seem inadequate, so a person sees himself as a religious seeker. <br> 4. The Turning Point: One feels himself to be at a critical stage in his life, thus enhancing the feeling that an important step or change is in order. <br> 5. Cult Affective Bonds: A friendship or some type of bond with a current cult member must be established for con- version to take place. 84.7% of the cult members in one study were first introduced to their cult by a friend or acquaintance in a group. <br> 6. Extra-Cult Affective Bonds: affiliation with people who have negative opinions of the cult must be weak or at least weaker than the cult bond. <br> 7. Intensive Interaction: this seperates &quot;verbal&quot; converts from &quot;total&quot; converts. The interaction with &quot;verbal&quot; converts is generally to get them to become &quot;total&quot; converts through greater interaction with the &quot;total&quot; converts. ( from Lofland and Stark (1965) American Sociological Review 30:865-875) <br> <br> II. TYPES OF CONVERSION <br> <br> 1. Intellectual: a person studies the organization without any participation in the organization. He is basically a believer by the time he begins to participate. <br> 2. Mystical: St. Paul's conversion is the prototype of this. This conversion comes from a power outside the individual with little or no social pressure involved. <br> 3. Experimental: a person participates in the organization to see if he likes it or it is what he is looking for. <br> 4. Affectional: a relationship with a cult member is the main motivation for this conversion. <br> 5. Revivalist: a profound experience occurs within an emotionally aroused crowd sufficient to cause a conversion. <br> 6. Coercive: the individual is forced either knowingly or not into a conversion. Seven steps are used: <br> <br> a. total control of the person's environment. <br> b. uncertainty- for example, being praised and punished for doing the same thing at different times. <br> c. isolation from the outside world. <br> d. mental and/or physical torture. <br> e. physical debilitation and exhaustion. <br> f. personal humiliation. <br> g. certainty of the individual's guilt. <br> <br> (from Lofland-Skonovd (1981 Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 20(4):373-385) <br> <br> III. PASSIVE VS. ACTIVE CONVERSION <br> <br> The major point of discussion currently in the field of cult research is whether a convert has an active role in his conversion, or whether he is influenced from without toward a conversion. But from part II we can see that both are correct- it just depends on which TYPE of conversion we are talking about. Mystical, revivalist, affectional, and coercive conversions all have large degrees of influence on a mostly passive convert, whereas the intellectual and experimental conversions are mostly active events performed by the convert himself. <br> <br> IV. PARTICIPANT OBSERVATION <br> <br> An important point to keep in mind is that the academician gets his information on cults almost exclusively from inter- views with current and former members of cults. While this is beginning to change today, almost no researcher had direct personal experience within a cult. Second hand information is often open to misinterpretation, and this is quite notice- able in the academic research being done. For example, on article sought to find out whether Hare Krishna members had any psychological harm from involvement with the cult. Un- fortunately, the sample of members chosen was influenced by the Hare Krishna movement itself, which greatly weakens the results. The Hare Krishnas could hide those members who were psychologically unstable, and in fact there is evidence that most cults simply kick out people who develop any mental difficulties. So, while the study found no harm to the sample, it does not prove anything except about those few people studied. Researchers, then, must be willing to either become a participant observer or admit that their evidence cannot confidently explain what happens inside a cult. Even a participant observer has difficulties in that he most likely will not be convincing in trying to show his commitment, since he actually has none. Using ex-members is also problematic because they may try to put a worse light on the group than is actually the case. <br> <br> 8 METHODS OF THOUGHT REFORM * <br> <br> 1. MILIEU (ENVIRONMENTAL) CONTROL. Involves &quot;control of human communication.&quot; a. controls communication from without- news, who you speak with. b. controls what you think about internally (i.e. rejection of doubts, inducing fear when thoughts of doing &quot;wrong&quot; oc- cur). &quot;He is deprived of the combination of external information and inner reflection which anyone requires to test the realities of his environment and to maintain a measure of identity seperate from it. Instead, he is called upon to make an absolute polarization of the real (the prevailing ideology) and the unreal (everything else)&quot; (p.421). <br> <br> 2. MYSTICAL MANIPULATION. Designed to produce &quot;planned spontaneity&quot;. The followers create a mystique around the group and its goals- it is portrayed as an ultimate truth that comes directly from God, or some such claim. The group and its goals are seen as more important than anything else. &quot;any thought or action which questions the higher purpose is considered to be stimulated by a lower purpose&quot; (p.422). <br> <br> 3. DEMAND FOR PURITY. The world is sharply divided between the pure and the impure. Pure things are those which conform to or are included in group policy. All impurity must be eliminated. &quot;the underlying assumption is that absolute purity is attainable, and anything done to anyone in the name of this purity is ultimately moral&quot; (p.423). Of course, no one can actually acheive absolute purity, so shame and guilt result. The group is where you gain &quot;forgiveness&quot; from this guilt. Guilt comes from contact with the impure world, so one withdraws more and more into the group exclusively. <br> <br> 4. CULT OF CONFESSION. Confession is the method used to get rid of impurity. a. you must go to the group for cleansing. b. you must open your mind to the group to get cleansed. c. your mind becomes the property of the group. d. confession becomes a skill after a time. e. one learns how to keep secrets in order to maintain some identity. but this leads to tension and guilt. <br> <br> 5. THE &quot;SACRED SCIENCE&quot;. Group ideals claim absolute scientific precision- there is no doubt that its claims are True. To doubt is to be &quot;unscientific&quot; or crazy. There is no need for a search for truth, and in fact such a search is a straying from the Truth and a denial of it (one can see here why there is little regard for education). <br> <br> 6. LOADING THE LANGUAGE. &quot;The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed&quot; (p.429). a. used to mark membership in the group- you &quot;know the lingo&quot;. b. constricts thought by dismissing problems through cliches. For example, &quot;John is a `lukey'&quot; (meaning a lukewarm christian) answers all necessary questions about why John doesn't pay tithes, even though he prayed fervently to God about his terminally ill daughter and believed that God al- lowed him to use all his resources for a hopeful operation. <br> <br> 7. DOCTRINE OVER PERSON. Personal history becomes reworked in light of group doc- trine. Everyone must fit the doctrinal mode. If some human experience seems to contradict the doctrine an elaborate rationalization will explain the discrepancy and prove that the doctrine is right and the experience wrong. An excellent ex- ample of this comes from 1844. William Miller had convinced thousands that Christ would return on October 22. The believers donned white robes and ascended hills to await His coming. When Christ did not return, Miller admitted he was in error, apologized, and never preached again. But Ellen G. White, a Miller follower, declared that Christ had indeed made a great move- He had gone on that day into the Heavenly library to begin the judicial inquiry into the fate of the dead. From this rationalization sprang the 7th Day Adventist Church. <br> <br> 8. DISPENSING OF EXISTENCE. Outsiders are somehow not wholely people. They are missing some aspect in their life that the group people have. So there is hope for outsiders if they will come to the group, unless they have already come and rejected the message. The group decides who is a real person and who is not. &quot;Ideological totalism... evokes destructive emotions, produces intellectual and psychological constrictions, and deprives men of all that is most subtle and imaginative- under tha false promise of eliminating those very imperfections and ambivalences which help to define the human condition&quot; (p. 436). * from THOUGHT REFORM AND THE PSYCHOLOGY OF TOTALISM, by Robert J. Lifton (New York: W. W. Norton &amp; Co. 1969).&#26;
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