Athletic Insight - The Online Journal of Sport Psychology

An Exploratory Investigation of Superstition, Personal
Control, Optimism and Pessimism in NCAA Division I
Intercollegiate Student-Athletes

Kevin L. Burke
East Tennessee State University

Daniel R. Czech, Jennifer L. Knight, Lisa A. Scott, A. Barry Joyner,
Steven G. Benton, and H. Keith Roughton

Georgia Southern University

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The usage of superstitious behavior in relation to personal control and optimism and pessimism was examined among 208 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I athletes. Questionnaires were administered to determine if personal control or optimism and pessimism was associated with the use of superstitious behaviors in Division I athletes. Previous research regarding locus of control (LOC) and the use of superstitions by athletes was equivocal. The Superstitious Ritual Questionnaire (Bleak & Frederick, 1998), Life Orientation Test-Revised (Scheier, Carver, & Bridges, 1994), and Belief in Personal Control Scale (Berrenberg, 1987) were the instruments used to assess the variables of interest. Findings supported previous research (Bleak & Frederick, 1998; Todd & Brown, 2001) that LOC does not effect superstitious behavior in Division I athletes. Optimism and Pessimism did not affect athletes’ overall practice of superstitious behaviors. Athletes who had lesser beliefs in God-mediated control were less likely to be optimistic. A lesser belief in God-mediated control emerged as a slight predictor of less belief in the effectiveness of superstitions and therefore, less usage of superstitious behaviors. Individual athletes were found to exhibit a higher internal LOC compared to team athletes. Contrary to previous research, female athletes subscribed to different ritual habits than male athletes (Buhrmann, Brown, & Zaugg, 1982; Gregory & Petrie, 1975).


       Superstition in sport has been defined as “actions which are repetitive, formal, sequential, distinct from technical performance and which the athletes believe to be powerful in controlling luck or other external factors” (Bleak & Frederick, 1998, p.2). Superstitious behaviors are so prevalent they are discussed and reported by the media (Bagnato, 1997; Kuehls, 1994; McCallum, 1988; Roessing, 1992; Wolff & Stone, 1995). “A universal truth about superstition is that superstitious behavior emerges as a result of uncertainty to circumstances that are inherently random or uncontrollable” (Vyse, 1997, p. 201). Superstitious behavior often results in response to uncontrollable reinforcement (Ono, 1987; Rudski, Lischner, & Albert, 1999; Skinner, 1948; Wright, 1962). Superstitious behaviors and rituals in sport are different from preperformance routines. Preperformance routines (PR) are learned, behavioral, and cognitive strategies intentionally used by athletes to facilitate physical performance (Cohn, 1990). Generally speaking, a major difference between superstitions and PR are that athletes control the PR, while athletes often feel controlled by superstitions. Also, superstitions usually offer no logical progression to facilitate skill performance. PR usually have a specific benefit, or provide a warm-up (psychological and/or physical) routine, for the performance of a skill.

       Past research has identified several factors that potentially may influence superstitious behavior including locus of control, level of competition, duration of play, type of sport, Type A personality, athletic identity, personal control, optimism and pessimism (Bleak & Frederick, 1998; Neil, Anderson, & Sheppard, 1981; Todd & Brown, 2003; Van Raalte & Brewer, 1991). Many athletes who subscribe to superstitious rituals believe them to be effective for performance (Lobmeyer & Wasserman, 1986). Frequency and types of superstitious behaviors are documented in several studies (Buhrmann, Brown, & Zaugg, 1982; Fischer, 1997) as well as frequency and type of superstitious behaviors relating to level of play, years of participation, gender and particular sports. Neil et al. (1981) reported the duration of competition in sport increased superstitious behavior in ice hockey players. The types of superstitious rituals vary among track and field athletes, football players, basketball players, and gymnasts (Bleak & Frederick, 1998). Early research indicated a difference between gender and usage of superstitious behavior with women more likely than men to utilize superstitious beliefs and behaviors (Burhmann & Zaugg, 1981; Conklin, 1919; Gregory, 1973). Men and women have been found to differ on the emphasis of “appearance” rituals, with women emphasizing these more (Burhmann et al., 1982). Findings have indicated no significant gender differences in superstitious behaviors in terms of importance, or amount, of overall superstitious behaviors used in sport settings such as basketball (Burhmann, Brown, & Zaugg, 1982) and ice hockey (Neil et al., 1981). An investigation utilizing psychology students performing a golf task also found no significant gender differences in superstitious behaviors (Van Raalte, et al., 1991). Gymnasts have been found to use more superstitious rituals than football players or track athletes (Bleak & Frederick, 1998). Interestingly, in a study of locus of control for individual sport athletes, elite female gymnasts were found to have an external locus of control (Kerr & Goss, 1997). Todd and Brown (2003) also concluded that locus of control did not play a significant factor in Division I track athletes, but did play a significant role in Division III track athletes. Those athletes with an external locus of control were more likely to rely on superstition in the Division III setting. The findings were consistent with the findings of Bleak and Frederick who did not find a relationship between locus of control and overall usage of superstition in Division I athletes. However Bleak and Frederick did find variation in the type of superstitious behavior used by athletes in the different sports represented. While the three teams represented in the study were similar in their emphasis on clothing rituals (i.e., lucky socks), there were distinct differences in other areas. The football team had a stronger emphasis on the usage of prayer rituals. While gymnastic rituals focused on team rituals and pregame food rituals. The track athletes were distinct in the usage of lucky items of clothing and lucky markings on shoes. Interestingly, regular church attendance has been shown to be a predictor of “higher” superstitious behaviors (Burhmann, & Zaugg, 1981; 1983) beyond those related to prayer, such as “wearing socks inside out for luck” (Buhrmann & Zaugg, 1981).

Optimism and Pessimism

       The psychological dimensions of optimism and pessimism have been the topic of a substantial amount of research (Carver & Scheier, 2002a; Scheier & Carver, 2003; Scheier, Matthews, & Owens, 2003). Optimistic individuals are categorized as having positive expectations and perceptions on life. Optimists also believe the future holds desirable outcomes. In contrast, pessimistic individuals tend to represent a negative bias towards life because the future is undesirable (Carver & Scheier, 2002a; Scheier & Carver, 2003).

       Optimism has been linked to both psychological (Scheier & Carver, 1985; Carver & Gaines, 1987; Carver & Scheier, 2002a, Carver & Scheier, 2002b; Scheier, Matthews, & Owens, 2003), and physical (Scheier et al., 1989; Carver & Scheier, 2003) well-being. For example, Carver and Gaines found an inverse relationship between postpartum depression and optimism. More recently, Fournier, Ridder, and Bensing (2003) found the impact of disease-related stressors on optimistic beliefs during a one-year period was decreased when patients reported depressive symptoms. Scheier, Matthews, and Owens found optimistic post-operative coronary heart patients to report lower levels of hostility and depression and achieved recovery goals more quickly than pessimistic coronary heart patients. Gerend, Aiken, and West (2004) found lower perceived susceptibility to particular disease (breast cancer, osteoporosis, and heart disease) in older women who are more optimistic.

       Evidence indicates that optimism enhances motivation, persistence and performance (Carver & Scheier, 2002b; Taylor & Brown, 1988). Czech, Burke, Joyner, and Hardy (2002) found no significant differences among optimistic and pessimistic athletes on win orientation, goal orientation, and competitiveness. However, Seligman, Nolen-Hoksema, Thornton, and Thornton (1990) found that pessimistic swimmers achieved more unexpected poor performances during competition than optimistic swimmers. Results also showed pessimistic swimmers who performed less well than expected on the first trial, performed worse on additional trials. Optimistic swimmers who performed less well than expected, performed significantly better on additional trials.

       Of vital importance is the idea that activities are greatly affected by beliefs about the probable outcomes of those actions (Carver & Scheier, 2002b). This topic has had a long history of relevance in the psychological theories of motivation (Bandura, 1977; Gill, 1986; Kanfer, 1977; Lewin, 1938; Rotter, 1954; Seligman, 1975; Tolman, 1932, 1938; Wortman & Brehm, 1975). Carver and Scheier (2002a) found that people who view desired outcomes as attainable continue to exert efforts at attaining those outcomes, even when doing so is difficult. When outcomes seem sufficiently unattainable, people reduce their efforts and eventually disengage from the pursuit of goals. From this notion, outcome expectancies between two different types of behavior develop: continued striving versus giving up and turning away. The ability to strive for success and persist in the face of failure is associated with many forms of achievement motivation (Gill, 1988).

       Rudski (2004) found optimism to be positively correlated with religiosity, while pessimism was negatively related to religiosity. Pessimism was found to be a predictor of superstitious belief (Rudski, et al., 1999). There was also a positive correlation between optimism and the belief that one has control of stress in one’s life (Fontaine, Manstead, & Wagner, 1993). Athletes who reach higher levels of performance and success are found to have a greater control over their behavior, and more optimistic perceptions of their future (Taylor & Brown, 1998).

Personal Control

       Locus of control (LOC) is the degree to which people report a sense of personal control. Locus of control has been dichotomized as internal or external (Rotter, 1966). An internal LOC believes an event occurs as a product of his/her own behavior. External LOC believes that an event is the product of chance, luck, or the influence of other people. In a related vein, personal control has been defined as an individual’s belief that events and outcomes in one’s life result from one’s own actions (Ross & Mirowsky, 2002). In the workplace, employees who perceive higher levels of control report higher levels of satisfaction, motivation, commitment, and involvement (Spector, 1986). Van Raalte et al. (1991) found the more psychology students believed their actions allowed them to take some control over chance events, the more likely they were to exhibit superstitious behavior. An earlier study found a positive relationship between an external locus of control and belief in self-oriented superstitions (Peterson, 1978). In contrast, Groth-Marnat and Pegden (1998) found in a study of undergraduate students than an internal locus of control was related to stronger beliefs in superstitions. Tobacyk, Nagot and Miller (1988) found that greater personal efficacy control and greater interpersonal control corresponded with less belief in superstition. Also, low belief in self-efficacy in undergraduate students was positively linked with superstitious behaviors (Tobacyk & Shrader, 1991). Rudski (2004) found that pessimism was positively correlated with a belief in superstitions. Optimism has been associated with an internal locus of control and pessimism with an external locus of control (Dember, Martin, Hummer, Howe, & Melton, 1989).

       In the health field, older women with an internal locus of health control view particular health threats as more controllable or preventable (Gerend et al., 2004). The resulting behavior was a lower perception of general susceptibility to disease. In the same study women with an external locus of control believed themselves to have a higher susceptibility to particular diseases because they viewed health risks as less preventable and controllable (Gerend, et al.). With depressed patients (Alloy & Abramson, 1979) there was less likelihood to assume an illusion of control in the absence of a contingency between behavior and a desired outcome than the non-depressed patients.

       Rudski (2001) placed undergraduate students in a competitive environment to measure superstition and illusion of control. When students were placed in a winning condition in a competitive environment they did increase their superstitious belief. Rudski also found a link supporting self-efficacy and increased use of superstition. Participation in athletics was not found to be a factor in superstitious beliefs. In another study, Rudski, Lischner, and Albert (1999) evaluated superstitious rules created by participants when solving a task without instructions and the relationship with locus of control. Locus of control showed no relationship with superstitious rule generation. This supports the findings of Tennen and Sharp (1983) which also suggested that locus of control does not affect illusion of control in a given situation.

       Superstitious behaviors have been used to reduce anxiety, build confidence, and cope with uncertainty (Neil, 1980). Matute (1994) stated that superstitions are utilized to give the illusion of control over reinforcement in an uncontrollable situation. The sport environment may be perceived as uncontrollable and may lead to elevated anxiety for athletes, coaches, and spectators. Superstitious behaviors and rituals are thought to reduce anxiety (Womack, 1979) and create a sense of control in a high-stress, uncertain situation (Matute, 1994). Todd and Brown (2003) found track and field athletes with an external locus of control were more likely to utilize superstitious behaviors. Personal control also has been found to affect perceptions of athletic contests (momentum) by spectators (Smisson, Burke, Joyner, & Munkasy, 2004).

       The purpose of this study was to examine the possible relationships among personal control, optimism and pessimism with superstitious behaviors in sport. Because past literature has been equivocal regarding personal control, optimism and pessimism and belief and use of superstitious behaviors (Groth-Marnat & Pegden, 1998; Peterson, 1978; Todd & Brown, 2003; Van Raalte et al., 1991), and no studies were found that incorporated all of the variables of interest in a single sport study, this investigation hoped to further clarify this relationship. A secondary purpose of this study was to investigate the frequency of use of superstitious behaviors in various sports, and explore potential commonalities among athletes who use superstitious behaviors.



       The participants were 208 NCAA Division I athletes from a southeastern university, consisting of 112 men and 96 women. The athletes were between the ages of 18-22 (M = 20.2 years of age). The study included athletes from team (n = 152) and individual sports (n = 55), encompassing 13 different teams, including: baseball (n = 26); men’s basketball (n = 7); women’s basketball (n = 10); football (n = 51); golf (n = 2); men’s soccer (n = 13); women’s soccer (n = 15); softball (n = 12); swimming and diving ((n = 13); men’s tennis (n = 7); women’s tennis (n = 7); track and field (n = 26); and volleyball (n = 13). There were 61 freshman, 55 sophomores, 51 juniors, and 41 seniors participating in the study. The ethnic breakdown was 136 Caucasian athletes, 56 African-American athletes, 6 Hispanic athletes, 8 classified as other.


       The Superstitious Ritual Questionnaire (SRQ; Bleak & Frederick, 1998) was utilized to measure superstitious beliefs, behavior, and rituals. The questionnaire consisted of 45 questions separated into seven categories of superstitious behavior including clothing and appearance, fetish, pregame, game, team ritual, prayer, and superstition of the coach. The total superstition score is then found by determining whether or not an athlete performs these superstitious behaviors and the degree of which there is an effective outcome. The degree of effectiveness of each ritual was measured using a five-point Likert scale ranging from not at all effective (1) to very effective (5). The sum of the number of rituals used by the participant determined the total superstitious behavior (Bleak & Frederick, 1998). The SRQ (Bleak & Frederick, 1998) was developed based upon the work of Buhrmann and Zaugg (1981) however, the psychometric properties have not been established.

       The Life Orientation Test Revised (LOT-R; Scheier, Carver, & Bridges, 1994) was used to measure optimism and pessimism. The survey consists of 10 coded items, three of which were negative comments (e.g., I hardly ever expect things to go my way), three positive comments (e.g., I’m always optimistic about my future), and four with non-scored items. The students responded based on a five-point Likert scale ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” and scores may range from 6 to 30 for unidimensional version of the scale. The LOT-R may also be scored as bi-dimensional where score for the two subscales (optimism and pessimism) may range from 3-15. The test retest reliability (r = .68 over a four week interval, r = .60 over 12 months, r = .56 over 24 months, and r = .79 over 28 months) and the internal reliability (Cronbach’a alpha = .78) are sufficient for the unidimensional use of LOT-R. Correlations between the LOT-R and related measures were found to not be too strong which provides support for discriminate validity (Czech et al., 2002). The LOT-R has been suggested to be a trait measure of optimism and pessimism (Burke, Joyner, Czech, & Wilson, 2000).

       The Belief in Personal Control Scale (Berrenberg, 1987) was utilized to measure personal control. The BPCS is a 45-item instrument used to measure three dimensions of perceptions of personal control: external control (ExtC), exaggerated control dimensions (ExagC), and God-mediated dimension (GM). ExtC assesses the extent to which an individual believes his or her outcomes are self-produced (internally) or produced by fate or others (externality). ExagC dimension measures an extreme and unrealistic belief in personal control. The God-mediated dimension measures the belief that God can be solicited in the attainment of outcomes. This dimension distinguishes between those who feel control outcomes from God or those who believe they have no control over their outcomes. A higher score of ExtC means more perceptions of internal control, higher scores of ExagC is suggests exaggerated belief in control, and higher GM scores indicate less belief in God as mediator of control. The test has a reliability of .85 (F1 - internal), .88 (F2 - exaggerated), and .97 (F3 - mediator). The BPCS has been found to have excellent construct validity with a range of .85 - .95 (Berrenberg, 1987).


       Permission to perform this study was acquired from the university internal review board. The participants in this investigation were given a brief explanation of the purpose of this study before being given the set of surveys. After the explanation, all participants were asked to read and sign the informed consent form. Administered by the study hall supervisor during the fall semester, each group of athletes completed the inventories during the regularly assigned study hall periods. No coaches were present during the administration of the questionnaires. The inventories were administered in the following order: one-page demographic questionnaire, BPCS, LOT-R, and SRQ. To ensure confidentiality, the questionnaires were locked in a secure room. Although data were collected from 288 athletes, 80 were excluded from the results due to incomplete information.


       Pearson correlation coefficients were obtained among measures of belief in personal control, O/P, and superstitious behavior and effectiveness (See Table 1). A significant positive correlation (p < .05) between an internal locus of control and optimism emerged (.27), while a significant negative correlation between high internal locus of control and lower pessimism (-.36). A significant correlation was also observed between an exaggerated sense of internal control and unidimensional optimism (.21), as well as bi-dimensional optimism (.37). A negative correlation emerged among measures of a God-mediated control and unidimensional optimism (-.17) and bi-dimensional optimism (-.20).

Superstition Table 1

       A small negative correlation emerged between an internal locus of control and belief in clothing and appearance effectiveness (-.15). A correlation between an exaggerated sense of internal control and fetish effectiveness (.14) was observed. An exaggerated sense of internal control was also related to pre-game/meet effectiveness (.14). A negative correlation emerged between a God-mediated locus of control and prayer frequency (-.37) and prayer effectiveness (-.36). There was also a negative correlation with a God-mediated locus of control and overall frequency for all rituals (-.14) and overall effectiveness for all rituals (-.16).

       There was an insignificant relationship between O/P and superstitious behaviors or beliefs, either individually or overall. Also, belief in personal control did not predict overall belief in, or usage of, superstitious rituals.

       T-tests were used to analyze the differences between team (n = 153) and individual (n = 55) athletes in relation to superstitious behaviors, belief in personal control, and O/P (See Table 2). Overall, no significant differences were observed among the athletes in overall usage of superstitious behavior or belief in effectiveness. Individual athletes were observed to possess a greater internal control (p < .05) compared to team athletes. Team athletes had a significantly higher usage of game/meet frequency and game/meet effectiveness than individual athletes. Team athletes also were significantly higher in prayer frequency usage, a belief in prayer effectiveness, and frequency of coach usage of superstitious behaviors than individual athletes. Individual athletes differed significantly from team athletes on “other” frequency and “other” effectiveness items.

Superstition Table 2

      Analysis of differences between Caucasian (n = 136) and African-American (n = 55) athletes also revealed no overall significant differences in usage or belief in effectiveness of superstitious behaviors (See Table 3). African-American athletes were significantly higher in internal control than Caucasian athletes. Caucasian athletes indicated less belief in God-mediated control. African-American athletes possess a significant difference with prayer frequency and prayer effectiveness Caucasian athletes.

Superstition Table 3

       T-tests were used to determine differences among men’s (n = 112) and women’s (n = 96) beliefs and usages of superstitious behaviors showed no overall significant differences (See Table 4). Female athletes possessed a significantly higher internal control (p < .05) than male athletes. Some differences were exhibited in individual superstitious behaviors and belief in the effectiveness. Female athletes were significantly higher in usage of team rituals frequency and belief in team rituals effectiveness. They also were higher in usage of “other” rituals and belief in “other” effectiveness. Male athletes were significantly higher on prayer frequency and prayer effectiveness than female athletes.

Superstition Table 4


      One purpose of this study was to examine the relationship between belief in personal control, and optimism and pessimism on the usage of superstitious behavior in Division I athletes. Differences in superstitious behaviors were also examined for gender, race, and team versus individual sports. Belief in Personal Control and O/P did not seem to be significantly associated with the overall in the usage or belief in effectiveness of superstitious. Although, belief in personal control seemed to play a factor in particular superstitious beliefs subscribed to by the athletes. Other findings supported a relationship among God-mediated control, demographic variables, and ritual usage.

       A relationship was not found between O/P and superstitious behavior. Previous research by Rudski (2004) showed a correlation between pessimism and superstition. Other research suggested a relationship between superstitious patterns of response and a positive belief in task mastery (Rudski, 2001). It is possible that the sport environment functions differently from other contexts in relation to superstitious behavior. A study of undergraduates found that optimism was associated with coping skills (Fontaine, Manstead, & Wagner, 1993). While O/P may influence other factors such as attitude and recovery from poor performance, the findings of the current investigation suggested athletes’ levels of optimism and pessimism did not influence whether or not they employed superstitious behaviors in sport.

      A significant correlation was found between a lesser belief in God-mediated control (indicated by higher scores on the BPCS) and overall usage and belief in effectiveness of superstitious behaviors, meaning that as athletes believed less in mediated control by a God, they utilized less superstitious practices. Rationally, a lesser indicated belief in God-mediated control also indicated less prayer-related rituals. Burhmann and Zaugg (1983) found that superstitious beliefs and practices were directly correlated with church attendance. They also found in a previous study an association (1981) between church attendance and prayer-related rituals. The athletes in this study indicated less of a belief in a “higher being” as a mediator of control (as indicated by higher scores on the BPCS), and used less prayer rituals. This relationship warrants further investigation as the use of ritualistic behavior by athletes in sport and religion could be seen as complimentary or similar practices.

       Male and female athletes differed in ritual usage compared to previous research. Female athletes placed a stronger emphasis on team ritual frequency and team effectiveness, as well as other frequency and other effectiveness. A main difference in comparison to previous research, was the equal emphasis that both genders seemed to place on clothing and appearance rituals. Early research suggested that women used more superstitious behaviors in sport (Buhrmann & Zaugg, 1981; Gregory & Petrie, 1975). More recent findings reported no significant differences in overall usage of superstitious rituals between male and female athletes (Buhrmann, Brown, & Zaugg, 1982; Neil, Anderson, & Sheppard, 1981). Previous research has shown there were differences in specific rituals used by each gender. Socialization theories have been used to explain the focus on appearance and clothing rituals that female athletes emphasize over male athletes in previous research, as well as those related to social function (Buhrmann, Brown, & Zaugg, 1982; Gregory & Petrie, 1975). A possible explanation for the current similarities in appearance and clothing ritual usage is the further socialization of women in the sport environment in the interim 20 years since the previous studies. Also, it is possible men have been socialized through the media and peers to take a stronger interest in their appearances. Male athletes were found to have a significantly greater usage and belief in effectiveness in prayer rituals than female athletes. One explanation could be that 86% of the individual athletes in the study were females (n = 46), or 48% of the female respondents were individual athletes. Team athletes also used more prayer rituals than individual athletes and had a stronger belief in their effectiveness. It may be that a team environment is a stronger predictor of belief and usage of prayer ritual than gender. In many cases, coaches have established a “ritual prayer” before and/or after contests that team athletes may feel compelled to participate in (Murray, Joyner, Burke, Wilson, & Zwald, 2005).

       African-American athletes were significantly higher than Caucasian athletes regarding usage of prayer and belief in prayer effectiveness. Caucasian athletes had a very low sense of God-mediated control, while African-Americans had a significantly higher internal sense of control. This finding contradicts earlier research which found that African-American high school students were lower on measures of internal control than Caucasian high school students (Tashakkori, & Thompson, 1991). The longitudinal study found the same results four and six years later. In other words, the athletes in this study indicated African-American athletes were more likely to engage and believe in prayer as an effective technique than Caucasian athletes, and, felt more in control of their participation than Caucasian athletes. This finding, if continually supported in future studies, may be important information for coaches and sport psychologists to take into consideration when planning team activities, and dealing with expectancies of these athletes.

       It is important to further determine the reasons for athletes’ usage of superstitious rituals and the effects on sport performance. Further research is necessary into the variables that effect the perceptions of effectiveness and usage of superstitious behaviors. It is likely that individual personal beliefs, as well as particular sport environments are stronger predictors of superstitious utilization. Understanding the factors that influence an individual and his/her beliefs regarding superstitions, as well as the reasons for the behavior, can facilitate a professional’s ability to work with that athlete to cope with the uncertainty of the sport context. While uncertainty is often seen as a positive, challenging aspect of sports participation, many athletes’ inability to deal with uncertainty or unpredictability in sports leads to performance and enjoyment goals being unrealized. Because superstitious behavior is so prominent in sports, and often encouraged and engaged in by coaches, teammates, and spectators, it behooves sport scientists to better understand the short and long term effects of, and reasons for participating and believing in these seemingly deceptively, innocuous behaviors. More importantly, further research into how athletes, coaches, and spectators develop superstitious and ritualistic behaviors may prove beneficial to promoting more realistic perceptions of control in sports.


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