Special Episode: The Science Behind Relationships, Love and Dating

The following is the transcript of this podcast episode.:

Jodi: Welcome to this special episode of the podcast. On all of our episodes up to this one, I’ve had the pleasure of talking with women about their dates and the wonderful, bizarre, heartwarming, funny and expected things that have happened.

On this special episode, we’re shifting gears and instead of talking about the details of a date, we’ll be talking about what may be going on with each of us psychologically and biologically when we go on a date. We’re going to touch on a whole array of topics that have to do with the science behind relationships, love and dating so that you can get more in touch with, and aware of, the reasons you do what you do, and feel what you feel, when you’re on a date, or starting a relationship. We’re not just going to talk about the female side of things. We’re also going to talk a bit about the guy’s perspective. Our guide, and my guest this episode, is Dr. Marisa Cohen.

She’s the author of From First Kiss to Forever: A Scientific Approach to Love.  We’ll be delving into some of the book’s topics during our conversation. Marisa is a relationship researcher and an Associate Professor of Psychology. Her research focuses on first date success and consensual non-monogamy. She is also a First Date Stories contributor. You can find Marisa’s articles on an array of interesting topics at First Date Stories.  

Welcome, Marisa. I’m delighted you’ve come on the podcast to share with us what actual scientific research has uncovered about love and relationships.

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Marisa: Thank you so much for having me.

Jodi: I am so curious. How did you become a relationship researcher?

Marisa: My path to examining relationships is a bit unconventional, but I’ll give you a sense of how I got here. I’m going to start all the way at the beginning just to give you a complete picture. I was always interested in academia and I originally started out as a biology major with an education minor in college. I was planning on pursuing a PhD on microbiology. As much as I love the field, I became more interested as a result of participating in some undergraduate psychology experiments in research with human subjects. I wound up pursuing a PhD in educational psychology, so in a way I was studying relationships but it was relationships between students and their teachers, as well as students and their learning communities.

During this time, in my personal life I was online dating and many of my friends were asking for dating advice as they were pursuing their own relationships as well. I also took a human bonding continuing education course which solidified my passion for the field. I started to realize that I needed to transition, but I wasn’t sure exactly how to do it. So I began with some crossover research between educational psychology, the field that I was in, and relationship science, the field that I was planning on pursuing. My early studies focused on the relationship between a learner’s intrinsic motivation to succeed and how much that individual values, traits related to academics and education in his or her partners. Eventually, I just kept moving on into the relationship science field and that’s where I am today.

So fast forward a little bit. In fall of 2014, I co-founded a relationship science lab and we focused on various facets of relationships. We study what makes relationships survive and thrive. And as you mentioned, we also focused on perceptions of our approach to dating as well as consensual non-monogamy. I often do talks in relationship science and I even wrote a book in the area because I just love explaining ways that we can use data to help us inform our everyday lives to improve not only our romantic relationships but our friendships as well.

Jodi: That’s quite a journey that you were on as you evolved your education and just kind of got pulled forward towards understanding relationships to help people dissect what’s happening with them and not having it just be some mystery. You are trying to provide the truth behind what is happening as we come together.

Marisa: Yeah, to whatever extent possible.

Jodi: To whatever extent possible. So, why don’t we start out with a big topic? Let’s talk about romantic love. That concept that can be so complicated but can also, and really should be, so simple, right? What is love from a scientific perspective? What happens physically and cognitively to someone when she, or he, falls in love?

Marisa: So, love is so complex. There are so many different approaches to understanding it. You can look at it from a philosophical viewpoint. You can look at it from a psychological or a biological viewpoint. I’m going to just try to break it down a bit. When I think of discussing love from a psychological perspective, I immediately start to think of the difference between what we view as infatuation and compassionate love and how this influences our behaviors and our thoughts. For example, in the beginning of a relationship, people are often in the honeymoon phase. That’s when we’re completely infatuated with our partner and we view the world through rose-tinted glasses.

While this is an incredibly wonderful and happy time, it could also be really problematic. For example, we might overlook certain signals that the person is sending us, or red flags, if you will. And if we aren’t building up a really strong base beneath that surface of infatuation and that honeymoon phase, when this period ends, the relationship is going to come to an abrupt halt. If instead we build up a strong base of compassionate love, which is very similar to friendship, then you have a long-lasting and loving relationship. So that’s looking at it from a psychological viewpoint.

Biologically, you have neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, which can activate our rewards center and that’s being produced when we’re in love. When people say that love is like a drug, they’re being truthful here. We’re also producing serotonin, which can elevate our mood. It floods our system when we’re experiencing love. And of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone. It acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain and it plays a huge role in human bonding. It’s often referred to as a “Love Hormone,” “The Bonding Hormone,” or even the “Cuddle Chemical,” which I absolutely love. And it’s secreted in association with uterine contractions during labor, the production of milk from the mother to the child.

It’s often thought to play a role in the initiation of maternal bonding and behavior. In addition, levels of oxytocin rise when we hug or kiss a loved one. Researchers have even shown that oxytocin increases when we play with our dogs. So you’re having a flood of hormones. Biologically we’re changing when we’re in love. Our behaviors are changing. Our thoughts are changing. And that’s just looking at it from two different perspectives. But rather than going on and on, I’ll leave it there for now.

Jodi: That’s so interesting. I’m wondering, since you’ve got the psychological aspects with the hormones and the biological changes happening, if we really do fall in love at first sight? We see these movies where it’s immediate. The characters fall in love at first sight. But does love at first sight happen in the real world?

Marisa: I feel like people want me to say yes to this because, like you’ve said, there’s kind of this romantic movie-like quality to love at first sight. It’s like something you would picture, where someone is just going to come up to you with a bouquet of roses and have one of those flash mob dances and propose to you, or something. The answer is kind of yes and no, because we really need to think about what love is really.

If love involves a deep connection, that just simply can’t be made in an instant. Now it’s possible to become infatuated, or completely enamored with a person at first glance. And there is evidence to suggest that love at first sight does exist if we’re conceptualizing love in this way. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that this is going to translate into a long-lasting and loving relationship. A lot of this has to do with the fact that we as human beings. We’re capable of forming first impressions really quickly. From these first impressions, we can sometimes gauge how we feel about another person in milliseconds. Now this might be an accurate assumption, or it might be inaccurate, but essentially what’s happening with love at first sight. It’s just passionate love. It might feel wonderful. It might seem wonderful. But as I mentioned earlier, if you aren’t building that strong base of compassionate love underneath, when the passion dies down, the relationship is over.

You can’t build a relationship at first sight, because you really need that trust and that commitment and that’s something that takes time. Now, sometimes when you hear love at first sight, just to kind of go off on a little bit of a tangent, people sometimes mention a spark. The term “spark” can be used in a variety of different ways. Sometimes people say that “there’s a spark at the instant we first met.” Essentially this can be love at first sight. But if you’re referring to it as “there was no spark between us,” that kind of means chemistry and connection and there’s so much more than that, like initial beginning.

Jodi: You spoke about how people need to establish this strong basis of compassionate love for their relationship to have a strong footing and to evolve and grow. Many of the women listening to us talk have probably been in a relationship at some point, or maybe they’re coming out of one right now as they’re listening, or they’re healing from a recent breakup. What does the science say about why it’s so hard to move on from breakups?

Marisa: I actually really love Diane Vaughan’s work in this area. She does a lot of research on the process of uncoupling and she kind of views the process of breaking up — and yes, it is a process, it takes time — as an interpersonal process between an initiator and a partner. It’s the initiator who’s the first person to express some sort of displeasure, or an issue with the relationship and that’s the person who really wants out. What essentially is happening here is that the initiator is going through the process of removing him or herself from the relationship and starting to experience a single life from that secure base of still being in the relationship. Well, the partner essentially has no clue. And when the partner is finally clued into the fact that the relationship is over, that person can be taken by surprise.

This makes a healing process much, much more difficult for the partner, because it kind of catches them off guard. So, essentially the initiator can enact preemptive strategies while still in that safety of the current relationship to ease the transition, and the partner really doesn’t have the ability to do so. Other research has shown that there are many factors that can lead to experiencing more pain in the aftermath of a breakup. Some of those can be the amount of commitment that you experience in the relationship, the duration of the relationship comes into play, and the length of time since that relationship ended.

The emotional experience and your healing process can really also depend upon how costly the end of that relationship was for you. In turn, this could be a result of your age or what you’re originally looking for in the relationship. So were you looking to get married, or is this something that was just good for that point in time in your life? If someone was just in it for the short term, of course the breakup is not going to be as difficult. Also if you find out that you have a large pool of potential others to choose from, think about a high school or a college student where you’re surrounded by many single individuals, then that process is also going to be a lot less painful.

And of course, gender differences can come into play. We know a lot from emotion and gender research that women tend to be more emotionally responsive. A lot of this has to do with the fact that women tend to be better at decoding other’s emotions and they also tend to be more emphatic and likely to express this empathy. So the way in which we express our emotions and deal with them can also affect how we process the breakup. So there’s a lot of different factors that really come into play and how we experience it and also why it’s so difficult to move on.

Jodi: With a breakup behind you, it’s time to get out there and date again. So let’s move on to talking about getting back into the dating scene. To do that these days, online dating is going to be an option for every woman to consider, right? It’s so pervasive — online dating and dating apps. But people are really busy today and there’s a lot of shenanigans that goes on on those platforms. I’m going to paraphrase it as shenanigans, okay? There are some who wonder how likely it is that they’re going to meet someone, the right someone, online versus in person. Is there data that shows the likelihood of meeting your future, long-term partner in person versus online?

Marisa: I thought it was interesting how you brought up “shenanigans.” While I wish I could say that these don’t occur on the online app or dating site platforms, they do, which is unfortunate. Because of that, a lot of people tend to be afraid to use online dating sites. And if you think about it, once considered taboo, online dating has become a much more common place practice amongst daters. While many people have a more positive view of online dating, others fail to see the benefits and a lot of it is because of those shenanigans that we do hear about.

Despite the differences in opinion about people who use these platforms, there’s no doubt that usage is on the rise. Recent data has shown that one in ten Americans have used a dating site, or mobile app, and 23% have met their spouse or long-term partner through such sites. Furthermore, 38% of Americans who are single and actively looking for partners have used online dating at one point or another. And 5% of Americans who are currently married, or in a long-term partnership, have met their partners online. This is all data from the Pew Poll.

Jodi: Well, I know it works for you. I know you’re very public about how you met your husband online. I dated online for many, many years. I met men who I went out once with, you know, the one and done. I met men I went out with for a few months. There were a few guys I went out with for more than a year. But actually for me, ultimately I met my husband in person. So, I’m curious about third-party research. Not the research that the dating sites have generated and sponsored, but the research that people like you, who are not influenced by their moneys and interests, have found about the longevity of the relationships that come together through these online dating apps and platforms. Do they last long-term typically? Do you know? Do you have information about that to share?

Marisa: You bring up a really, really great point about research that is sponsored by the dating sites because each dating site will give you tons of statistics to tell you how successful that site is, which I think is very funny. There is some third-party research, but the research is really, really mixed. A lot of the research is looking at the satisfaction that’s derived from these relationships. So for example, there was one study that was done in 2014 by Pew and it showed that people who meet online are less likely to get married But it’s important to note that this particular study focused mostly on same-sex couples who, at the time of this study, could not legally get married, which kind of explains those results.

Jodi: It does. Yes.

Marisa: Right. So it’s a major limitation and as such it makes it difficult to interpret the results in terms of what’s going on in relationships now. Other research paints a very different picture. There’s a study in 2013 by Cacioppo and colleagues, where the researchers found that marriages that began online were less likely to end in divorce and were associated with higher marital satisfaction. So, you see these different studies that paint completely different pictures. So which is it?

This is not coming from any data that I’ve collected. This is just looking at other people’s studies and my general impressions of online dating. I think that, being that the results are mixed, it’s really important to think about the actual process of online dating and how it may be similar to, and/or different from, dating in real life. Now I contend that online dating, it’s not actually changing the satisfaction derived from relationships or their likelihood of success. I think it’s just altering the process of courtship, provided that you don’t create some sort of pen pal relationship with the person who you meet online, and you wind up connecting with him or her in person after a few introductory emails and online communications.

As a result, while that relationship began online, that’s just your access point. Your real relationship is built once you interact face-to-face and you’re learning more about one and another as you date. When we talk about the success, or the longevity of relationships, I think we should focus less on online versus in real life. It’s more about the individual differences of the couples. The way in which they meet isn’t going to make as much of a difference.

Jodi: That makes sense. I guess what you’re saying is that online dating platforms are certainly a way to meet people and that people shouldn’t shy away from them.

Marisa: Yeah, for sure. There are different types of websites that I think can kind of reach everyone’s needs. You have some of the swipe-based sites, like Tinder, and you have sites that focused more on their matching algorithms and the quizzes that they give you. And some sites are way more time consuming, like eHarmony. Depending upon the approach that you’re looking for, you can find a site that suits your needs.

Jodi: There seems to be new apps and sites coming online all the time these days, so you really…

Marisa: Yes.

Jodi: You need to spend time just evaluating what might be a fit for your personality, and who’s on it and how many people are going on that site these days…

Marisa: Oh, for sure. And they meet every single type of lifestyle. I’ve seen new dating sites focused on people who have dogs, people who love music, people who love to farm. Whatever your lifestyle is, there is some way that you can connect with another person. You don’t have to wind up marrying the person you meet, or even having a long-term relationship with a person, for the site to have been a success. You might go on a dating site and just learn a little bit more about what you yourself want in a relationship. And if that’s the case, then your experience with that website or app is a success in and of itself.

Jodi: That is a great point. So, let’s talk about what we want, because women tend to create lists of non-negotiables. These non-negotiables are things we just need that guy to have, their qualities and characteristics, and we’ll only go out with him if he has these characteristics. Otherwise, we’ll move on and look for somebody else. Please share your take on the pros and cons of creating and sticking to these lists.

Marisa: Well, having a list of non-negotiables, it’s good in a way because it actually shows that you’ve given some sort of thought to what you’re looking for in a relationship, which is great, right? You’re going into the process informed of what you want, and hopefully, with what will make you happy. So I guess on the pro side, you know what works for you and this is kind of where that whole self-awareness piece comes in.

A common misconception in relationships is that “opposites attract.” But it’s actually, “birds of a feather flock together.” So when you have those list of non-negotiables going in, with that information you can essentially filter out based upon qualities that you yourself have and that are important to you when finding a mate.

Now, on the opposite side, the cons of having a list of non-negotiables is that you might be focusing so much on that list and checking off certain boxes, that you might be robbing yourself of meeting a genuine person whose values and morals match up with yours and might make a wonderful partner. But they just don’t make the cut when filtering on something more superficial. For example, let’s say you filter out a person based upon their financial background, or their educational background, which, if that’s important to you, fine. But, you might be missing out on seeing some profiles of people who, if you had met them in real life, you’d actually have a strong connection with.

Jodi: Right. You’re doing yourself a disservice then.

Marisa: Right.

Jodi: Because your life could be enriched by that person who you’d meet if you didn’t have the criteria, right?

Marisa: Right. So, I think it’s important to thinking about everything that you would want in a partner, and really think about which are my non-negotiables and which of them am I more likely to not care about as much if I met a really wonderful person.

Jodi: Good advice. With online dating and dating apps, clearly there are so many faces to look at and profiles you can read. What that means is we have so much choice these days. I think choice can be a good thing and choice can be a bad thing too. Talk to us about this choice, this abundance of choice, and how that plays out in the dating world.

Marisa: Yeah. Well, choice can seem really wonderful at the outside, like, “Look at all these potential partners that I can date.” It can also get very, very overwhelming and it can lead to the burnout on the dating sites. You also have this idea of the paradox of choice, which is basically when we have so much choice it makes it even more difficult to come to a final decision. Not only that, but in sifting through that choice or the potential matches that we have, we wind up focusing on more superficial characteristics.

We might be focusing on, let’s say, the color of a person’s hair rather than, “Well, do we really share the same outlook on life?” So having choice can kind of work against us in many ways. If you start to feel that this is the case, perhaps it’s time to either stop using the dating site, not entirely, but maybe take a pause, or maybe focus on one of those slow-dating sites where they wind up curating matches and giving you fewer profiles rather than just swiping through hundreds of profiles in an hour.

Jodi: That’s good advice as well, because it can be overwhelming. And for some women it kind of feels like a job.

Marisa: Yes.

Jodi: It’s like a job.

Marisa: Dating fatigue is a real thing.

Jodi: It’s a real thing? I didn’t know it was a real thing, but you’re the scientist and you say it’s a real thing. That’s great to know. I want to turn to something you’ve written in your book. In your book, you wrote that, I’m going to quote you now, “We base our self-evaluation off of close relationships and that the success of someone close such as a significant other may make us feel threatened.”

I understand this to mean that, if a woman is in a relationship and she experiences more success during the relationship, or even maybe going into the relationship, in her career, for example, than her partner, her partner may lessen his perception of his own self-worth and this can have a detrimental impact on the long-term viability of the relationship. Can you speak to that scientific discovery, first off? And then secondly, how should women factor in this dynamic, this psychological dynamic, into how they decide who to date?

Marisa: Well, this is definitely a real phenomenon, which is unfortunate. This actually comes from Tesser’s Self-Evaluation Maintenance Model. It basically states that we base our self-evaluation off of close relationships, as you had mentioned, and there’s a gender difference that comes into play here. Research has shown that males do report lower self-esteem when their girlfriends score high on tests and this effect isn’t something that they’re always conscious of. They don’t necessarily know that it’s damaging their self-esteem.

Women on the other hand don’t seem to be affected in the same way. Women are more likely to experience something known as “Reflected Glory,” which is when we kind of bask in the success of others. So, women are more likely to show a boost in their own self-esteem when their male partner does well, or succeeds. My partner got a raise or got a promotion-not only do I feel good for him, but I, myself, feel good. This may, in part, be because women are more likely to view themselves as part of their relationship and therefore that’s why they feel that success when one of the members succeeds. This is compared to men who use that success of “the other” as a standard by which he needs to compare himself to. So it’s kind of like the bar was just raised and that’s why it might be damaging to his self-esteem.

Other research has shown that when men rate hypothetical women that they would want to date just based upon a story, or a vignette, they would want to pick someone very, very intelligent. However, when it comes to going on actual dates, they’re more likely to get threatened by that intelligent women and then back down. When we hear this, it’s kind of upsetting and people ask me, “What should I do? Should I hide the fact that I’m the CEO of a company, or that I’ve got this really wonderful job and a lot of success in my personal and professional life?” Absolutely not! Because, if you change who you are for another person and you enter the relationship under these false pretenses, you’re always going to feel afraid to reveal the true you. You’re going to want to find someone and just hold out until you find that person that really values you for who you are.

Jodi: You can’t go into a relationship pretending…

Marisa: No.

Jodi: …that you are someone you’re not because it won’t last, right?

Marisa: Right. You’re always going to have to pretend to keep this ruse up and that’s just not sustainable.

Jodi: Then you’re miserable and that just isn’t the right way to go. It is unfortunate that, well, the findings are as they are and the behavior is as you’ve described, the preference. But I guess it’s just a reality we have to face, and work, with as women.

Marisa: Right. A lot of my personal research finds that in early dating experiences, people tend to go back to very gender stereotypical roles in heterosexual relationships where the man is the provider and the man is the one who initiates the date, and the woman is the one who accepts the dates. And, you know, this is unfortunate. We think times are changing, so why isn’t this changing? And it eventually will for that social and cultural change to start affecting our behaviors. It takes some time and it will get there.

Jodi: What makes you think it will get there?

Marisa: I’m hoping-cautious optimism.

Jodi: Okay.

Marisa: I mean you start to… you see this in these gender stereotypical patterns in heterosexual relationships. But a lot of times people are expressing frustration about them and they appear to slowly be changing. It’s not as quick as we want that change to happen, but it seems like we are drifting away from them a little.

Jodi: We’ll see what the future brings….

Marisa: Yes.

Jodi: …And how your cautious optimism plays out. It’s great that you have that optimism. You’re seeing the data and you’re studying what’s happening. So that’s terrific. Gender signals-attraction and connection clearly-are so important. These signals that we put off, these gender signals, was there anything you uncovered about these signals that surprised you?

Marisa: In one of my early studies, I looked at different behaviors that were happening on dates and what the behaviors signal to the people on the date, because there’s a difference between what you yourself are feeling like, “Oh, this is great, I’d like to go out on a second date,” or, “I really like this person, I’m attracted to them,” and how you feel about how that other person feels about you. Yeah. I know, it’s very confusing. It’s about what you’re perceiving as their interest in you, such as “Is this person going to pursue me?” or “Are they going to ask me out again?”

We kind of just touched on one of those really surprising findings. That was how we do tend to go back to very gender stereotypical roles where, for example, you start to see that men are the ones who want to be in the driver seat. So, women view men offering to pay for them as a signal that he likes her and women also view when men call them right away to schedule a second date as a signal of attraction, which makes sense.

But men don’t want women to be initiators. So men didn’t view it as a positive when a woman would call them to initiate the second date. Instead, they wanted the women to wait for them to initiate that date and then just respond right away. So you see that there’s kind of this gender divide, which we still fall into. That was one thing that was very surprising to me. Another thing that, out of all of the behaviors that I listed–and just to give you some context, some of the behaviors that I had are, “your partner doesn’t return your phone call within a few days” and “your partner doesn’t return your phone call ever,” so I had some very negative things in there-out of all of those behaviors, men didn’t seem to view anything negatively in terms of signaling disinterest on the part of the woman.

I found that kind of shocking and surprising. But I think that is a reflection of what’s going on in the dating world and the process of courtship today. What I mean by that is, so many people are meeting one another online that I think that it’s not that men are missing the signals. Of course, I need to collect further data to verify this. I think that men are adapting a really healthy attitude where in that, if a woman doesn’t call him back, or doesn’t respond to his advances via phone or email, it’s not signaling that she doesn’t like him. But maybe it’s just something else. Maybe she was a few dates ahead with another person and she’s chosen to pursue that individual rather than him. So, they’re just not taking things as personally.

Jodi: I find this fascinating, actually. That’s so interesting. How do you think women should factor what you’ve just shared into their actual dating practices?

Marisa: Now this is the data that I collected, and I present it, it’s data that I personally just take issue with in how it applies to my own dating life. I actually, anecdotally, after I went on the first date with my current husband, I texted him right away and I said, “I had a really great time.” Now according to the study, and from about 300 people that I polled in the study, that would’ve been very bad because in that case, I am being essentially the initiator by having that first follow-up text.

And you know, he still tells me that he just loved that because I broke the molds of what everyone else was doing, where he felt that the pressure was all on him to set up the dates and then pursue a person for another date. He was pleasantly surprised and he said, “Sometimes it’s just great to get that response from another person and know that they too enjoyed the date.” So, it’s important to remember that while you can take information from these studies, we can’t really draw these broad generalizations. And just because this bears out in the data for a group of people, it’s not necessarily how you should choose to live your life. You’ve got to do what’s comfortable for you.

Jodi: Do what’s comfortable for you. Yes. That is probably the right advice for our listeners. The data is helpful, but your life example is a perfect one. You went against the data!

Marisa: Exactly.

Jodi: You did what felt right for you, and you ended up developing a loving and lasting, lifelong commitment-based relationship with your husband.

Marisa: Yeah.

Jodi: So there’s Marisa the Scientist, and Marisa the Practitioner.

Marisa: Exactly! Sometimes they’re at odds. (Laughter)

Jodi: But even so, the information you have shared today has been really interesting. I know it’s going to prove very helpful for our listeners today. I want to thank you so much for joining me on this episode and for sharing all your insights. For our listeners, I want them to know that your book is available through the First Date Stories’ Shop, which we’ve recently launched. It’s a curated collection of our favorite dating and self-care related items that we’ve discovered. Your book is also on your website which everybody should go and visit after listening to this episode because there’s other interesting information there as well. The website’s URL is www.MarisaTCohen.com. They can also find your book on Amazon.

For those of you who want to read more of the articles that Marisa has published on First Date Stories, you can do that by going to her author’s page on our website. Before we sign off, Marisa, I know you do a lot of public speaking and you have recorded some videos as well. You’re very active in your field. If our listeners want to learn more about your discoveries and stay up-to-speed on your research, or hear you speak, in addition to going to First Date Stories and your website, where else can they find you?

Marisa: You can definitely follow me on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter and all of those social links are posted on my website and I would love to hear from all of you.

Jodi: Okay. Thank you again so much. It’s been a treat to have you join me on this episode.

Marisa: Thank you for having me.

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