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Psychology » "Empathy - An Evidence-based Interdisciplinary Perspective", book edited by Makiko Kondo, ISBN 978-953-51-3454-1, Print ISBN 978-953-51-3453-4, Published: August 23, 2017 under CC BY 3.0 license. © The Author(s).

Chapter 4

Introducing Educational Intervention about Empathy and Intercultural Bias

By Hugo González González
DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.69626

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Introducing Educational Intervention about Empathy and Intercultural Bias

Hugo González González
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Literature about empathy and intergroup bias considers a lot of research from many different approaches. However, there is certain degree of consensus that has been achieved in relation to the determination of the behavioral correlate of the empathy. Recently, its importance connected to the pro-social attitude of people has been emphasized, as well as its role played in social conflicts. So, the empathic response has to do with the ability to comprehend the other person and to try to think as the other person thinks, by means of observing him/her, using verbal and no verbal information or other type of evidences approachable from the memory, what is called, perspective taking. Empathy, understood in that way, would play a central role in the pro-social attitude of people. After introducing the most important pillars of this chapter, which are empathy and pro-social behavior, intercultural empathy, intergroup contact and, finally, “empathy, bias and education,” different kinds of interventions about bias and empathy in education are presented. We will find that it is not only necessary but possible to put through strategies adapted to different ages and circumstances with a common goal: to improve empathy and control bias through education.

Keywords: empathy, education, intercultural, prejudice, role playing

1. Introduction

As far as the empathy is concerned, literature about the topic considers an important diversity in relation to the delimitation of this construct [1, 2]. The empathy has been defined by Hoffman [36] and Strayer and Eisenberg [7] as the affective experience of other person’s feelings. However, examined studies demonstrate that it is related to a construct that is able to concede dissimilar approaches from some perspectives that have analogous and complementary elements which are specially helpful in a research using other perspectives, for instance, from a social, intercultural, psychological or other point of view or considering religion, gender and so on [1, 2, 812].

Despite the great variety of approaches, it has been reached a certain degree of agreement in relation to the determination of some behavioral correlate of the empathy. Lately, its importance related to the pro-social attitude of people and its role played in social conflicts has been emphasized [9, 1319].

In a research about investigations on this topic, Eisenberg [20] conclude that the role of the empathy is key in the moral development, which is an emotional answer that arises from the understanding of the other person’s situation, with the result of experimenting the feelings of another person. Thus, the empathic response has to do with the ability to understand the other person and to put oneself in the other person’s shoes by the utilization of the observation, verbal information or other kind of approachable information from the memory (perspective taking), by covering the affective reaction that takes place when it is shared an emotional condition. This may produce sadness, uneasiness or anguish. Empathy, understood in that form, would play a very important role in the pro-social attitude of a person [20]. Lately, Li et al. [21] have analyzed the investigation about the empathy and other social fields: emotion, mind theory or “mentalizing” and moral judgments. However, they carried it out from a point of view based on the functioning of the neurology and on the relationship that exists between all the parts of our brain. In the investigation, it is clear that the experimentation by using neuro-images played an important part to prove that we utilize our memories and mental associations of past experiences as the pillars to comprehend the emotions and the cognitive conditions of the others.

If we go further by considering the connection existing between empathy and prejudice, social exclusion and intergroup implicit and explicit attitudes [8, 2123], we will understand better the reasoning used to stand up for the research and practice related to the use of empathic strategies in multicultural educational environments [13, 24] as well as the use of different programs of intercultural education with the goal of increasing the empathy [25, 26]. To conclude, the empathy is a crucial factor in the creation of social relationships. Therefore, the empathy is an educational need in our schools and society, which are, nowadays, more and more intercultural.

2. Intercultural empathy

The empathy has been widely studied from different perspectives; however, only when it is investigated from a cultural or ethnic point of view, we find out that this field of investigation is barely researched [2729]. Here, the construct has not been labelled or operationalized in a similar way.

Perhaps the idea of cultural empathy was first utilized and defined by Ridley and Lingle [30]. This construct would go beyond the idea of general empathy, involving understanding and the recognition of the culture that other person can have. These authors affirm that the culture creates differences, which are normally related to values and expectations, so that the empathic response implicates the mutual comprehension concerning these cultural dissimilarities. Thus, it is revealed that the empathy is connected to cultural differences. It means that the level of emotional adjustment and the level of the empathic interest for other person will differ according to the own culture [31]. This also confirms the concept of cultural empathy. Nevertheless, regardless of the potentiality of this type of contextualized empathy, the investigation about it is scanty [32].

Wang et al. [12], who are conscious of the relevance of the cultural and ethnic elements, enlarged the idea of ethnocultural empathy, which is similar to cultural empathy. It is connected to the concepts of cultural competence and cross-cultural empathy too [12, 27, 33]. Wang et al. [12] defined the ethnocultural empathy as the empathy toward people of ethnic, cultural or racial groups that are dissimilar from one’s own. The development of this type of empathy supposes the shortening on discrimination, bigotry and several conflicts, and, at the same time, the comprehension and mutual respect will increase, no matter the ethnic or cultural membership. The development of this ability is much more difficult than the development of the interpersonal empathy, because the perspective of a person conceived as an out-group member has to be assumed. Thus, the other person should be observed in his/her cultural environment to be capable of adopting her/his perspective, and this will be the main distinctive feature of the ethnocultural empathy. In the second place, the ethnocultural empathy implies the self-control of one’s own prejudices to a person who is not part of the same cultural or ethnic group. To conclude, the third outstanding characteristic of this kind of empathic ability is that it is not independent from the previous experience that a person has of the other culture.

So, it is evident that some strategies aimed at enhancing ethnocultural empathy are needed and such strategies must be able to increase perspective taking, to develop self-control over one´s own prejudices and to provide positive experiences about other cultures. Taking this evidence into account, it seems necessary to give priority to the “Intergroup interaction approaches” or “Integrated approaches” over the “Individual approaches.” The individual approach is based on affective and cognitive strategies which have been tested on laboratory studies. It is unclear how long the positive effects of the strategies last. Besides, there is not much knowledge about the extent to which these strategies are effective in situations outside the laboratory [34].

Regarding integrated approaches, they have to do with using both individual and intergroup interaction approaches. It can be useful to work with some tasks alone, at home, when there is no option to work with partners. In this sense, it is possible to find many texts, videos, etc., aimed at improving empathy and perspective taking. But always considering that the intergroup interaction is preferred

2.1. Intergroup contact

Most interventions are not properly evaluated, so the recommendations are limited in terms of transferability; however, in terms of working toward best practice and increasing what we know, it is a useful first step to highlight the evidence based on “what works” to reduce prejudice.

About the kind of intervention, we have already indicated that it is more appropriate the intergroup interaction. According to this, Bargal [35] emphasizes the importance of longer-term interventions:

The change of negative intergroup attitudes, stereotypes and prejudices, and the provision of conflict management skills requires a long and incremental process. From our own significant experience in this process and based on the experience of others, we learned that intergroup interventions demand sacrifices from participants, facilitators, and organization officials and leaders. Social scientists who want to engage in it should abandon scientific models of a short-term, one-shot intervention and evaluation and adopt long-range, action-research designs (p. 57).

Concerning these conditions for positive outcomes when different groups are brought into contact, Allport [36] was the one who indicated the criteria, the most important are:

  • Equal status. The groups must compromise in the same way. The people need to belong to equal backgrounds, and they must possess similar characteristics. Dissimilarities in academic environments, wealth, skills, or experiences should be shortened if they are about to interfere in the perceptions of prestige and rank.

  • Same objectives. Groups should carry out common tasks and share them as a common aim, and it is usually named a superordinate goal, an aim that is achieved if the members of two groups work together by combining their efforts and resources.

  • Personal interaction. This situation needs informal and personal intercommunication with the outgroup members. The constituents of the problematic groups have to mix up with one another. Without this criterion, they cannot really learn about each other and the important cross-group friendships do not take place.

  • Intergroup cooperation. The members of the groups have to work for their common goals without competition. Groups should pursuit common goals by working together.

  • Support of authorities, law or customs. The groups must recognize some authority responsible for the contact and interactions between the groups. They have to stimulate neighborly, useful as well as egalitarian attitudes and denounce in-group–out-group comparisons.

We can also affirm that stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination are clearly related to a lack of empathy which becomes higher when it is focused on a different and stigmatized group; but despite the huge research that comes to confirm these facts, we still need to highlight the necessity to carry out strategies which contemplate these results [3739].

Taking into account some of these studies, we would like to summarize and concentrate our attention in what we consider crucial in the educational field and directly related to empathy, intergroup contact and cooperative learning.

3. Empathy, bias and education

After briefly summarizing the most important pillars of this chapter, we are going to review the different kinds of interventions about bias and empathy in education. From different experimental manipulations to proposals for school syllabus, we will find that it is not only necessary but possible to put through strategies adapted to different ages and circumstances with a common goal: to improve empathy and control bias through education.

The results from a study carried out by Konrath et al. [40], founded on a survey of about 14,000 students, reflect that the average level of “empathic concern,” decayed by 48% between the years 1979 and 2009. There was a sharp decline between 2000 and 2009. The authors of the research argue that the decline can take place because of the spread of a narcissist feeling between the young population, the increasing predominance of the technology and media use in everyday life, and a reduction of the family size, due to the fact that having brothers or sisters can teach some empathy. Besides, other factor is the pressures on young people to succeed academically and professionally. The study also suggests that maybe parents are now more controlling and less warm and responsive, they are not really interested in teaching their sons to think about others’ feelings, less willing to foster their children’s emotional expressiveness, less tolerant toward the dependent behavior, unhappier with the sacrifices that parenting needs, and they are more likely to accept their children’s aggression.

Again, the school is demanded to complete another responsibility that was usually attended at home years ago. On the other hand, empathy can be better developed, practiced and even taught in an environment like the classroom, that is, under professional supervision.

3.1. General framework

Organizing the work attending to the educational aims related to bias, we need aims and contents. The core aim, as we have seen before, is focused on:

  • to enhance ethnocultural empathy:

    • to increase perspective taking

    • to develop self-control over one´s own prejudices

    • to provide positive experiences about other cultures

And these main aims work together with another related content:

  • Cooperative learning

  • Intergroup contact

The next task is to consider the criteria exposed in previous pages and focus on activities. It is important to note that there is no one receipt. We need to consider many variables: background, context, the previous experience of students, previous work with that group and so on. Once you have clarified the aims, contents and criteria, you only need to design, choose or modify the activities to carry out. The online resources are usually intended to work both individually and classroom aims. The most interesting resources to perform these tasks are:


Once a general framework has been stablished, we would like to focus on the preferred task for students, according to my own experience, this is the role playing. The main strength of this strategy is not only its capability for paying attention to all the aims and contents we need to work but also its intrinsic motivation.

3.2. Role playing

Palomo González [41] states that the origin of moral judgment is the “role-taking” or capacity to understand the life from another person’s perspective. Kohlberg [42] reckons that these, together with the cognitive development, are essential elements for the moral development and it is an intermediary between cognitive capacities and the rank acquired in the moral development.

When creating dynamics with the objective of reducing the intergroup bias using procedures as the role playing, it is essential to act with caution. When this strategy is used for the induction of empathy, it makes the endogroup to come closer to the exogroup in an implicit evaluative level, in an indirect way and avoiding the indirect effect.

However, this effect is not shared by all the manipulations and modulating variables, despite using role playing. For example, Alfred et al. [43] realized that, in an activity of role playing done with the objective of avoiding smoking, the participants who acted as if they were smokers incremented their propensity to smoke. This is connected to the theory of the ideomotor action by William James and with the investigation that demonstrated the link between perception and behavior, link that is automatic [44, 45]. Consequently, the formative activities created with the objective of deconstructing the bias, the characteristics observed by the educators in people, whose perspective is going to be adopted, should be assessed in advance. Thus, if one of these features is not socially desirable, it is possible that the participants, mainly, those who are more empathetic, may adopt them as their own, at least temporally.

To establish pedagogically helpful guidelines, three crucial issues must be considered when designing these kinds of strategies of the control of the intergroup bias. Following the stages in the dynamic of the most extended functioning of the role playing, we are going to follow the pedagogical orientations of studies referred during this chapter in the next sections: 1. previous diagnosis and creation of strategies; 2. cognitive conflict and role playing; and 3. final consideration.

3.2.1. Previous diagnosis and creation of strategies

It is important to start gathering the perceptions that the participants in the formative program have about the stereotyped group. It is crucial to do an analysis of the stereotypes that the participants have toward the exogroup, so we can create heterogeneous groups, thanks to this research, and assessing the evaluative tone of the peculiarities attributed to the external group. Besides, it is important to investigate the opinions toward attitudes that are going to be introduced in the activities to increment the empathy. So, the step of moral development in which the group is will be known, and the thematic nucleus that we have to work about will be stablished

According to this idea, Portillo Fernández [46], based on Kohlberg, collected in Table 1 a structure that is useful to evaluate the group and to create interventions founded on the role playing. The phases, proposed by Kohlberg in the moral development that should be taken into account in the initial diagnosis, occur after the zero phase, when everything that the boy or girl wants is regarded as positive because it is desired by them. Once the premoral level has already got through, the development will occur, following Table 1 .

Level 1: Pre-conventional
  • Before 9 years old

  • Self-centered

1. Obedience and punishment orientation
(How can I keep away from punishment?)
2. Self-interest orientation
(What’s in it for me?)
(Paying for a benefit)
Level 2: Conventional
  • Teenagers and some adults

  • Social

3. Interpersonal agreement and conformity
(Social norms)
(The good boy/good girl attitude)
4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation
(Law and order morality)
Level 3: Post-conventional
  • Some adults

  • Moral

5. Social contract orientation
6. Universal ethical principles
(Principled conscience)

Table 1.

Kohlberg’s moral development (adapted from Portillo Fernández [46]).

With this previous diagnosis as a starting point, the aims derived of the detected necessities will be mapped and the correct program to assist these necessities is going to be created. Apart from other specific achievements, it will be important to set up some minimum objectives aimed at:

  • Easing the reduction of stereotypes and prejudices.

  • Developing empathy.

  • Increasing the availability. Thus, it will be facilitated the activation of objectives and socially desirable behaviors (i.e., goals connected to justice, according to the evidence provided [4749].

Bearing in mind the former diagnosis of the individual variables and using a pilot activity,1 which could consider the stages that are in Table 1 , so that it can be based on the use of the hypothetical dilemmas [42, 50], we should distinguish the stage in which the participants are, as well as the levels of the independent critic variables, that is, those that will define how it can affect the interventions. Hence, the grouping of the participants and the basic planning of this diagnosis are accomplished, which is adequate to the proposed aims.

Taking into account these approaches and the diagnosis, following Linde Navas [51], we must consider that, although the levels of moral development by Kohlberg can be useful, the moral dilemmas used are not updated now. So, it would not be a cognitive conflict for the participants. It is the teacher’s task to create dilemmas able to divide the opinion of the group in a meaningful way. This issue is going to be developed in the following section.

Taking into account the initial diagnosis, it is important to emphasize that this phase is crucial. Furthermore, it has a recurring nature, because it should be implemented when an evolution in the group is perceived. Not only because the diagnosis conditions the designs in general (i.e., thematic evolution and the use of techniques), but also due to the important role of the formation and restructuration in the groups.

As far as the problem of the intergroup bias is concerned, it is preferred including several sessions with the objective of knowing the exogroup, because it is possible that the participants of a formative process do not know the exogroup people in deep. First of all, it has to be diagnosed; consequently, it is another cognitive challenge for educators. To conclude, after the initial diagnosis and previous to initiate the role playing activity, the teacher should be capable to answer these questions:

  • What do the participants think they know about the exogroup? And what do they really know?

  • How would they act using their moral scheme? Which stage are they in?

  • Which are their levels in the independent critic variables, especially in empathy?

3.2.2. Cognitive conflicts, role playing

In order to answer the questions of the former section, it is necessary to formulate the scheme of intervention. Therefore, the teacher could carry out some activities, whose effectiveness has been demonstrated. These activities should be used progressively, bearing in mind the stage of each participant. Hence, basic pedagogical principles must be used, as the proximal zone of development. In this case, it can be spread from the cognitive field to the moral and emotional ones. It means that it is always important to know the moral stage of the participants to be capable to guide them step by step, across all the stages of the development.

Using a logical scheme, some activities can be followed to contribute to cut down the bias discovered in the participants of a formative process. The first activity that has the objective of blurring stereotypes may be oriented, specifically, toward to have a better knowledge of a collective, by knowing an exemplary member of this community. If it is not possible to find a relevant example, it will be feasible to choose a person of the exogroup, which can take part in a short chat with the students, so they can possibly deny the stereotypes. What is more, it is useful to watch a program designed to show the social reality avoiding the unfair generalizations (i.e., perception of homogeneity of the exogroup). There are other elements that can be utilized, for instance, international governmental and nongovernmental organizations that have created resources to be used in these types of activities can be found: International Amnesty (, the United Nations, (, the UNESCO (, the European Commission ( and so on.

In relation to this aim and considering this previous activity to determine the role playing, it is helpful to start little by little with the contact between the endogroup and the exogroup. To carry out this activity, we can use an individual work of investigation, for instance, the participants are asked to collect histories of members of the exogroup with the aid of an instrument like the interview.

If a teacher wants to utilize this possibility, and considering the results of the experimental series of previous research [52], It would be necessary the previous analysis of the topic of the investigation that the student is going to carry out. To avoid nondesired effects, it is better not to use thematic nucleus with a confrontation positioning, like “they against us.”

To conclude, and with the aim of finding an answer to the aims in the former chapter, this can be the design:

  • Shortening the stereotypes by means of the knowledge of the exogroup: 1st stage of contact (of the group and in the place of formation: documentation, exemplary member, talk and so on)

  • Development of the empathy using a cooperative work: recognition of some individual characteristics, organization of heterogeneous groups, presenting dilemmas, guided dialogues and second stage of contact (guided, individual and interpersonal: investigation, interviews, shared activities inside and outside classroom)

  • Approach to the exogroup, activations of equal goals using the perspective taking and the role playing: third stage of contact (autonomy, prioritize the contact between members of the exogroup)

The scheme is not a representation of fixed levels, that is, the teacher could mix or utilize them at the same time following some necessities of the group. As far as the last stage and the rules of the role playing is concerned, it must be observed that an activity of role playing can be carry out in different ways. Bearing this premise in mind and if the activity is not carried out accurately, it may be possible to reinforce behaviors as opposed to the behaviors which are planned in the objectives. After that, it is also important to contemplate what the main pillars of a dynamic based on this strategy are when the objective is the lowering of the intergroup bias.

This program must consider several techniques and strategies. The strategies have demonstrated efficacy augmenting the empathy and in the battle against bias:

  • Cooperative learning [53]. The heterogeneity and the positive interdependence are habitual components in the cooperative learning; moreover, when creating strategies focused on the fight against bias, they are quite helpful [34, 54]. The dynamics that have this methodology can be enhanced, thanks to different opinions, and competitiveness will be avoided as well as the atmosphere of the group and the interpersonal relationships is about to be improved.

  • Moral dilemmas of Kohlberg [41, 55]. They can enrich the planning of a structure with crucial elements about the environments or situations to dialogue about. The moral dilemmas of Kohlberg are not only a paradigm of moral development that is indispensable in the creation of stages and in the comprehension of stages of moral maturing, but also it can be an imagined interaction, really helpful in a nonheterogeneous group with respect to race [56].

These strategies can be added to the strategies studied:

  • Contact, in which we can group the activities based on exemplary members, interviews, discussions, roundtable discussions and documentation (readings, documentaries on TV and so on)

  • Classic perspective taking

  • Role playing

The techniques mentioned should not be grasped as exclusive. They have a value that is added to the strategy designed by the teacher. Hence, they must be used in the program because the group can benefit from the combination of all of them.

The next guidelines can be thought as the most relevant of the process of organizing the lines in the second stage of execution:

  • To present the cognitive process: it is more important to work with moral dilemmas than utilize real facts which are proximal to the vital or professional context of the participants. Then, mingling the dilemmas with the proposed aims and the real life of the students, it is possible to motivate and involve them emotionally. Simultaneously, the dialogue and a constructive environment must be encouraged [51].

  • The teacher’s intervention. In the stage of execution, it is essential the introduction of several elements when the interpretation of the participants in role playing activities is in process. Hence, the educative character of this activity can be improved. One option is the establishment of previous guidelines or the intervention if it is necessary. Nevertheless, the teacher should evaluate the interventions of the participants and do the necessary readjustments, particularly when the progress of the dialogue is not the one we expect. Nevertheless, the participants must not be silenced when they estate a sincere opinion, but the teacher is also there and they must pose correct questions to guide the dynamic in a proper way.

  • The election of the issue. The design has to be carried out following the previous diagnosis. If there is a problem related to sexism, for instance, toward the exogroup, the teacher has to take this issue into consideration in the grouping of the students. Besides, the teacher must select an acceptable progression of the interaction, trying to avoid sexism until he/she thinks that the participants are ready to face this dilemma. If the teacher thinks that he or she must intervene, it is important to consider previously the interventions that the participants can do, and be prepared to reorientate the activity when necessary.

  • Evolution of the strategy. When the activities are done with a correct scheme, the lowering of stereotypes, prejudices and the increase of empathy are achieved. Before the execution of the role playing, it is essential to do other diagnosis to reinforce the fact that the collective imaginary has properly improved. Likewise, if it is not recognized a negative assignment in the roles in the members in the initial diagnosis, a dynamic of role playing in which the participants play the role of members of the exogroup can be done. Nevertheless, it is crucial to identify the features that the participants think to be more different from their values scale. Consequently, we should work on this separately.

All in all, the teacher’s role in the dynamics has to do with guiding the election of the topic and creating, with the students, an appropriate context-setting for the moral development. The dilemma should be compelling and stimulating to think about it (see [51, 55]). Besides, apart from establishing the adequate cognitive conflict to the participants, the evolution of the dynamic should be controlled by the teacher, by keeping the harmony between reflection and spontaneity. The reflection is an essential issue, and however, it is normally done when the role playing has finished. Nevertheless, following an educative perspective, it must be contained in the dynamic, by using intermediate guidelines in the interpretation, changes of roles, of context and so on.

3.2.3. Reflection

It is a crucial stage in the role playing, and it is going to be utilized as diagnosis for the following dynamics by conditioning, for instance, in how the participants are grouped. It means that the grouping will be different following the different rhythms of evolution of the participants; then, it is important to work with heterogeneous groups.

The reflections allow the consolidation of the knowledge that has been learnt, to think rationally about what took place in the dynamic, and mainly, a lot of possible nonbiased behaviors will be provided, thanks to the collective elaboration.

However, apart from the empiric restrictions and the restrictions stressed by the former theoretical frame. Possibly, this activity can be brought closer to the cooperative learning that Paluck and Green [34] consider crucial in the battle against bias.

Imitating the first experiments done by Kurt Lewin in 1948 (see [57]), the other partners, as audience, can observe the activity, and they can also take part as a group in this final stage. Besides, the reflection will be more meaningful thanks to the new different points of view and the discussion can be directed toward pro-social behaviors that can be part of the student’s repertory.

Summarizing, the teacher has to guide the students following the proposed questions. The teacher’s attitude must be reflexive. It is also important to take into account some features of the language, actions and forms.

We can consider many interesting readings about the topic, with particular cases and their correspondent reflection (i.e., [58]).

Apart from this, we cannot forget that the key element in this investigation is the empathy, so the most important lesson to be learnt in the process of reducing the intergroup bias is the basic equality of all human beings. Consequently, taking other person`s perspective and feeling, the way she/he feels is an approach that makes you to perceive more similitudes than differences in our beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. It is important to emphasize the significance of the context, which is cultural and circumstantial conditioning; besides, it makes the exogroup and endogroup closer.

All in all, this chapter has to be regarded as part of other readings in which helpful clues can be found to fight intergroup bias. Particularly, the attention must be focused on an intervention of an easily extrapolated dynamic to educative contexts. The contribution that social sciences do to the pedagogical ones should be taken into consideration. The classic perspective taking, the role playing and other techniques, suppose an essential advance concerning the fighting against intergroup bias, now and in the future of the professionals of the education.


1The role playing is essential to know all the levels of moral development. Kohlberg [42] defines the stages according to the way the assumption of a role is understood concerning its place in society. He thinks that the role taking and the cognitive development is a crucial condition to moral development and it is also an intermediary between the cognitive abilities and the level achieved in the moral development [41].


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