Month: March 2009

The Science of Being Human, Pt. 2: But Who Are We, Really?

“The study investigates the relation between people’s personality and the content and style of their writing…” – email from Washington University in St. Louis.

We Judge, and Hopefully Well

Eminem wasn’t the first person to shrug his shoulders in exasperation and say “I am whoever you say I am”.  Humans have a long history of expressing frustration with other people’s perceptions of their character and personality. We warn each other not to judge — a book by its cover, lest you be judged, hastily — or even slightly because, after all,  “who are you to judge?”

Yet it’s imperative that people judge each other, and that we do it proficiently and well if we wish to avoid the type of trouble that comes from failing to accurately assess another person’s character or intentions. The question isn’t why we judge, so much as how. What criteria, besides the obvious ones of intuition and appearance, do we use when forming opinions about another person’s personality and character?

In day-to-day life, we have the opportunity to study one another’s general way of existing in the world. We watch actions and reactions, and ask each other questions in a give-and-take sort of way. Our impressions are usually not based on answers alone, but also on tone and expression.

Popular personality tests like the Big Five O.C.E.A.N test (an acronym for openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism), remove the eyes, ears, and experience from human study, and claim to offer an objective and accurate analysis of personality based on the types of scaled questions discussed in part one.

I wanted to test the accuracy of the Big Five test, not just against my own self-assessment, but against the impressions of my real life friends.  I was also curious what judgments total strangers might form about me based on nothing more than my answers to a series of random questions.  I wondered how much variation would exist between real-life impressions, the judgments of strangers, and test results.  What I found was surprising.

But First, Let Me Tell You Why I Have A Problem With This…

Personality tests like the Big Five were originally devised as a therapeutic resource for psychologists. I have no issue with tests like this being used by psychologists and their clients as part of therapy, where there is face-to-face interaction and the give-and-take of discussion. However, personality tests have worked their way into the mainstream, most harmfully in the field of employment, where some companies weed out applicants based on nothing more than a short Q&A test — which can be highly misleading, if not in many cases wildly inaccurate.

Does a person who enjoys her solitude make a lousy customer service representative? Not necessarily. She may simply cherish being alone at night after a long day of work and mothering.  Will a person who loves museums and art be open to a company’s continuous changes? Maybe not. Perhaps their appreciation for art is based on its traditions rather than its fluidity. Will a person who keeps their desk clean be the most conscientious employee? Or simply the office neat freak, who is more interested in color-coordinated paper clips than in the company’s bottom line?

Of course, many people who take these tests in the course of employment are familiar with what answers are expected, and fill in the blanks accordingly. Those who want a job aren’t likely to tell a prospective employer that they’re  messy, uncomfortable around people, and easily stressed out. Yet,  human resources offices around the country continue to rely on personality tests in order to help inform their hiring decisions.

A well-known coffee shop is one such employer. Their online application process includes a personality test. If you fail the test, your application will not be processed and your name won’t make it to the list of potential hires.  I tested their system by filling out two applications with the information of real people. I answered one personality test truthfully, and one as I imagined a “perfect employee” might answer. The fictional “perfect employee” made the list. I did not.

Real Life Judgments vs. Test Scores

I believe that Washington University’s study would be more accurate if they simply asked writers to rate themselves on the Big Five scale of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. The saying “no one knows you better than you know yourself”  tends to apply when the people in question are generally rational and lucid. I know, for instance, that while I don’t mind talking to a lot of people at a party, I likely wouldn’t accept the invitation in the first place. I also know that while I procrastinate over chores, I’m one of the first people my friends call in an emergency.

The Big Five test I took for the University pegged me as being more neurotic than 63.3% of others, more open to experience than 82.3%, and more extroverted than 63.6% of others. According to the test, 82.7% of other people are more conscientious than I am, and 74.3% are more agreeable.

In other words, according to the Big Five, I’m a highly-strung, open-minded, gregarious person who can’t be counted on. I can’t think of an employer who would want that particular combination in an employee, can you?

Being familiar with my own strong points and shortcomings, I thought it would be interesting to see how others, strangers and friends alike, would rate me on the O.C.E.A.N scale. The friends part was easy — I simply asked three people who know me well to look at the definitions of the Big Five traits and assign me a score from 1-10, with 10 being the highest. Averaged, my friends rated me:

8.0 – for Openness
6.0 – for Conscientiousness
5.3 – for Extroversion
4.7 – for Agreeableness
5.6 – for Neuroticism

My friends tended to agree with the Big Five’s assessment of me as open but not highly agreeable — but they disagreed that I was more extroverted, far more neurotic, or far less conscientious than average.

Having strangers assess my personality was a bit more difficult. I questioned whether I should use the 60 questions from the Big Five test, but then decided no — I wanted to use the type of questions that real people ask in the day-to-day when they’re more interested in getting to know something about another person.

A psychologist would argue that the questions aren’t specific to the Big Five categories, therefore it would be difficult, if not impossible, for lay people to accurately assess O.C.E.A.N. traits from homegrown Q&A’s. My argument is that in real life people form impressions and make judgments not through  pinpointed analysis, but through a much more diffuse and intuitive set of criteria. A question like, “Mayonnaise or Miracle Whip” may not work for the cause of clinical psychology, but in human interactions, answers like “mayonnaise, preferably homemade or organic” tell us something about a person. Some may think the answer indicates a person who is health-conscious; others may think the person is a snob; still others may think this is a person who puts way too much effort into making a sandwich.

It is as often the minutia of another person’s existence that informs real life judgments. The person to whom health is important may assign extra points in conscientiousness to the person who makes their own mayonnaise — while the person who thinks it’s a waste of time to make what can easily be bought may view the mayonnaise maker as more neurotic than most.

The larger question is — on average –  are the resulting judgments made by strangers  based on nothing more than a random series of Q&A’s, markedly different than the results of psychology’s Big Five test? How far off are the results of strangers vs. friends, or a self-assessed score?

Interestingly enough, only one person who was familiar with what I was doing doubted whether they could judge the Big Five traits based on random Q&A’s — and she’s a friend who majored in psychology. None of the five strangers who participated expressed any hesitation or difficulty in assigning O.C.E.A.N. scores based on my answers to 40 Questions Asked by Readers.

Here are the averaged scores assigned to me by strangers, who are not readers of this blog, were not informed that the answers were written by me, and who did not know the reason for this experiment. Their assignment of points is based on their own perceptions of my answers and a provided description of each of the five traits:

7.8 – for Openness
7.4 – for Conscientiousness
6.6 – for Extroversion
5.8 – for Agreeableness
6.0 – for Neuroticism

Looking back on how my friends rated me, I was surprised to find that perfect strangers — based on nothing more than a series of random Q&A’s — rated me similarly in every category. There was a difference of .2 in Openness, 1.4 in Conscientious, 1.3 in Extroversion, 1.1 in Agreeableness, and .4 in Neuroticism.

The University’s Big Five test would seem to agree with friends and strangers alike that I am more Open and Extroverted than average. Friends and strangers, though, both rated me significantly higher than the Big Five would seem to in the categories of Conscientiousness and Agreeableness, and roughly about the same in the category of Neuroticism.

My self-assessed scores (7.5 for Openness, 6.0 for Conscientiousness, 5.5 for Extroversion, 5.0 for Agreeableness and 6.5 for Neuroticism) were highly similar to the scores given to me by friends — so similar that there is not a full one point difference in any category. However, the assessments by strangers also come very close, with the only significant differences being that they gave me 1.4 more points than myself in Conscientiousness and and 1.1 more points in Extroversion.

My Judgment

While personality tests may have their place in psychology, I don’t believe they are accurate enough to use as a tool in studies like the one being conducted by Washington University, nor should they be used in guiding employment decisions.

When a group of perfect strangers can more accurately glean information about another person’s personality through a blind reading of random Q&A’s than a standardized psychological test can, it’s time to reevaluate not just the accuracy of such tests, but how they are being utilized, and to question the conclusions drawn from their use.

While inaccurate theories sprung from the Big Five test on subjects like the personalities of writers may be fairly innocuous, personality testing in other realms, such as employment, are not.

Had I taken Washington University’s test in the course of a job application rather than for a study, I likely would not have been hired by any company looking for conscientious, agreeable, non-moody personalities.  Also, as previously discussed, according to recent theories, (Pt. 1) many geniuses — who are said to be largely introverted and somewhat hostile — would also find themselves unemployed.

While the coffee shop may not want or need a high I.Q. barista, few highly intelligent people start out at the top. Many work dead-end jobs to pay for college or to support themselves while working on other projects. There are also millions of  people who fall in the spectrum between capable and genius. The artist who works in a factory. The banker who’s messy at home but proficient at work. The 21 dealer who spends his weekends meditating.

The ability to perform at a job well often depends much less on a person’s personality than on their basic abilities and desire to earn a living. I can give a pretty good speech, although it’s one of my least favorite things to do. I can — and have — cleaned up after horses, driven a frozen foods truck, soldered diodes to a circuit board, managed an office, bought media, created advertising campaigns, managed million dollar budgets, ghostwritten a book, and delivered mail. I’ve done all of these jobs proficiently, either utilizing parts of my nature and personality, or working around them.

Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to fake a personality test, but the point is that they are misused, likely to be inaccurate, and sorely out of place in human resource offices. They are simply too full of interpretive holes, too black and white, and too narrow in their definitions of what constitutes positive and negative personality traits.

Footnote: I would like to thank Kayce, Catherine, Kimberly, Allison, and Haley for taking me up on my offer to grade a stranger. They did not know who or why, and I appreciate their interest and participation.
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The Science of Being Human, Pt. 1: 40 Questions

After writing, The Invisible Jesus in Psychology, I had an idea I wanted to test. To help me do that, I invited readers to ask me any question they’d like. Nothing was off-limits.  Here are the questions they asked, and my answers.

1. Do you have regrets? What is one? Do you believe that regrets have a valuable place in our life, or do they distract us from moving forward? – Danielle

I do. One of them is marrying at 19. There were years-long consequences to that, even though the marriage did not last long. Yes, I believe regrets are valuable. I think if we never regretted anything, we’d not only lack a conscience, but be more likely to repeat mistakes. I don’t see how having regrets would prevent anyone from moving forward, unless they stemmed from something long-term, such as having children or getting into a certain career, but even then we can only move forward.

2. Have you ever been attacked by cyber-bullies and how did you handle the situation? – Palestar

I have, and I didn’t handle it as well as I should have. I took it much too personally. In retrospect, I should have done more to ignore it and understood that as personal as people get on the internet, they have no way of really knowing you, or you them, on the internet.

3. If you could live your life over, choosing the location, your profession, etc., what would you change and why? – Debbie

I would have started with different parents, never left California, completed my degree, and remained a technical writer unless my literary career took off. In reality, a restless spirit, combined with some incredible hopes and a love for adventure, took me many places, some good, some not. Now that I’m older, I wish I’d managed to be a little fonder of stability in my 20′s and 30′s.

4. And for you: Pizza, steak, Mexican, or Chinese? – Laurie C.

Chinese food, steak, then Mexican food. Pizza way, way far down on the list.

5. If a person could read your tea leaves, and the tea leaves of others accurately without knowing you or them, how would you explain it? – Ann Parker

As a fluke or a set-up, because I don’t believe in such things and have seen too many other similar things, like astrology, seances and psychics, roundly debunked.

6. If you had no choice and could choose, which would you rather lose, your sight or your hearing and why? – Marcie

No doubt, my hearing. You can still “hear” people through their body language, expressions, and writing and you can “hear” things like wind and thunder through sensation…but it’s much harder to see people and things without vision.

7. What is your favorite aphorism? If you were given the choice to learn your date of death would you choose to know? Have you ever seen the movie School of Rock? – Elaine

“Highly developed spirits often encounter resistance from mediocre minds” – Einstein. This became a particular favorite this past election season. And yes definitely to #2, and yes oddly enough to #3 (I’ve seen about five movies in the last six or seven years).

8. If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be and why? – Tammie

Hawaii. It’s beautiful, warm, lush, surrounded by the ocean I love, and there are no slithering things.

9. I am a total foodie…so I need to know…what one comfort food do you turn to when you are blue? – Jeanne

Do I have to be blue? I’m a latte fanatic everyday. Chocolate is something I don’t eat often anymore, but I crave it when my energy is low. As far as a comfort meal, I’d have to go with chicken and dumpling soup.

10. Do you lust after the new Mac Airbook for just it’s beauty and style and wow factor and if so wouldn’t the new super slim Dell be just as cool, or are there other internal differences about the Macs you love? – Susan S.

I had a Mac a number of years ago and remember it as being intuitive, fairly problem free, and easy to remedy when there was problem, which has not been my experience with PC’s. I am frustrated by how long it takes to end a program that has quit working, and the number of times that happens even when the memory is nowhere near capacity. I’m frustrated by the updates that seem to almost always cause something else to quit working, and by Windows built-in preferences for its own substandard other services.

11. Why are you important? – Woodrow

I don’t feel I am in the context of self, or what I presently give to the world at large. When I was raising children whom I was solely responsible for, I felt important in the sense that other lives and futures depended on my own. My children see me as important to their lives even though they are grown and competent, and there may be others who find me important in their lives for other reasons, but I think if death was imminent, I’d be at peace knowing I’ve loved, nurtured, and given to my best capacity.

12. Do you have any true friendships with people who’s opinions regarding religion and politics strongly oppose yours? If you don’t, do you believe it’s possible? – Chris

Yes to religion and no to politics. I have among my friends a Lutheran, two Catholics and one Mormon, but none of them are staunchly, wholly conservative. I think my friends tend to take what’s best or most meaningful for them from their religion and apply it to their personal lives without expectation that others should do or feel the same. I have friends who are anti-abortion, for instance, but who wouldn’t want a law that denied abortion for others. They view religion as personal, not political. I don’t think I could be friends, or want to be, with neo-conservatives, because their beliefs are not just personal, but societal and often global. They want their beliefs, including their personal religious ones, to inform government, law, science and more.

13. What really pisses you off… makes you so mad you could scream…? – Theresa

Purposeful ignorance. Someone who is so intent on holding onto a certain belief, philosophy, or way of being that they absolutely refuse to process or understand any other information.

14. Why do you write? I know what rankles and activates you. What brings you: joy? peace? serenity? Describe your ideal Friday night. – Kate

I write for different reasons. Sometimes because I don’t understand something until I’ve laid out my thoughts and questioned them, sometimes because I’m excited, outraged, or heartbroken and sometimes, oftentimes, because I see or hear something I totally disagree with and I want my perspective put out there as a balance. What brings me joy-peace-serenity isn’t an absolute unless we’re talking about the well-being of my children. Where I’m at now, I take those things wherever and as often as I can find them. My ideal any-night is being “in the zone” and writing something that I think is meaningful and that others will enjoy.

15. My question: We all have defining moments in our lives. Moments that shape us, our ideas, our writing, our outlook. Name one defining moment in your life and how it shaped you. – Corina
& When did you know you were a writer? – Sharon

This is not a lovely answer, but true. It was when my mother choked me into unconsciousness when I was in the 4th grade. It was field day at school – we were given permission to wear shorts  – but my mother wouldn’t hear of it, so I put the shorts on under my dress. She had been violent before, but never that deadly. I realized my own mortality then, and on some level finally understood that my mother’s violent outbursts and hatred had to do with something other than who I was or how I behaved. After that incident, I became less of an inward child and began to write in order to find my voice.

16. Who was your biggest influence and why? – LBJ

For better or worse, my mother. The one who gives us life and then nurtures — or not — is the one who sets the foundation from which all else springs. That’s not to say that we can’t build anything we want from there, but the influence from childhood is lifelong, even if it becomes our life’s work to do everything quite the opposite way.

17. What are the things that have made your heart soar to unfathomable heights never reached before? – Tash

Three things: 1) The birth of my children – more than anything in the world. 2) Making love to someone I really loved – the second most-high experience. 3) An article I wrote that seemed to touch a lot of women, but this last one was kind of a fluke because it was something that was linked to from a celebrity site, and so it was her fans that commented. It made it difficult to know if they liked the piece on its own merits, or because she did. A famous person could start using a grocery bag for a purse, and many people would think that was cool. That doesn’t really make grocery bags cooler than they were before the celebrity started wearing them.

18. All that is left of the great artist is: A painting she has done of the cat and the cat itself. You must save one. Which will it be and why? – Laura

The cat, of course, because it is a living, feeling creature.

19. When are you gonna come for dinner and let me cook for you? Red or White…whats your fav kinda wine? – Loony

If I’m ever in that part of Canada, Shoeless Acres will be my first stop, and I’d love a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon.

20. What is your favourite curse word? – Peggi Jean

Fuck. Hands down.

21. Miracle whip or mayonnaise? – Caron

Mayonnaise, preferably homemade or organic.

22. Why are people [so willing to ] turn over the control of their lives so easily to an unknown force? – Jeff

The world can be frightening, unjust, and unforgiving. I think people seek to give “control” to an unknown force because it not only lessens their fears and anxieties, but also gives them some hope for all that the unknown force usually promises — which is usually centered around blessings, redemption, and peace. Of course, the ultimate control is always an individual’s, but a belief that one will ultimately be rewarded for being good, and others will be punished for being bad, helps many people get through their days.

23. If you had to pick a single word to guide you through the next year, what would it be and why? – Sandi

Change. Obama’s campaign slogan is also mine — I would like to make and see many changes in 2009, none of them easy or easily accessible, but I’m going to push as hard as I can to make this year really count.

24. What’s your ultimate dream/goal/fantasy as a writer–meaning what would your ideal writing life look like? – V-Grrrl

One bestselling book that will buy me a small house in a beautiful place, and the rest of my years spent writing whatever I wanted with no concern about ever needing or wanting to sell it to a publisher. I think JD Salinger did it right. Unfortunately, it’s the rare writer who can now be both published and a hermit.

25. What do you wish people knew or understood about you that they do not? – Julia

That despite everything I have known and seen, I have a deep core of innocence, and am still easily amazed, affected, and moved by even small, simple gestures, words, and situations.

26. How is the you of 5, 10 years hence going to be different to the you of today? – Karen

I likely wouldn’t be much different 5 or 10 years from now, unless one counts having additional experience as a substantial change.

27. Why is it you, and other female writers, such as Annie Proulx and Amy Bloom, start out life as wives and mothers and then change their sexual orientation? – Carol

I can only speak for myself, but I was bisexual as a child, I just didn’t have a name for my attraction to girls. There were no discussions, no role models, no people I knew who were gay. When I was a teen, I went out with boys because that’s what all the girls did. I married when I was still a teen, at 19, and it was very brief. Afterwards, grown up and on my own, I felt freer to explore my feelings and be honest with myself. I realized that while physically I could be attracted to either sex for the short-term, my long-term desires, physical and in every other way, were for women. I would not say I changed, but grew more self-aware and more comfortable with who I was.

28. Do you believe in God? – Suzanne / What defines you as Jewish? – Neil

I suspect, or want to believe, that there was some intelligent force behind the creation of life, but I also believe the science for evolution is well-proven — which is at odds with the Biblical version of God. I have problems with the great leaps of logic apparent in all the the religions of men, because I believe that any force capable of creating life would not be illogical. Outside of a few very minor species, it takes a female and a male to procreate, meaning if there were a God he would have had to have a mother. It is irrational to believe that God would be born alone from the vapors of the Universe, yet a taboo question in religion is “who created God”. I also believe that human beings have the brains that we do so that we can evolve and reach our highest potential — something that organized religion often seems to want to undermine in favor of blind faith, dogma, and tradition. I find comfort in liberal Judaism not as much for the traditions but for the spiritual, emotional, and practical aspects, such as community, service, self and global awareness, progressive beliefs, inclusion, and a strong belief in education.

29. Huge fan of food network so….you’re given zucchini, pineapples, dried dates, maple syrup, and polenta, what would you make having to use all these ingredients? – Steve

I would make a mess! I was curious, though, so I googled your combination, and discovered that I could make a breakfast polenta of sorts, although the zucchini would be a rather odd ingredient.

30. Why is the desk in the room of your own vision great and big and mahogany? – Tre

I have absolutely no idea! I may have seen something like that as a child and been impressed, but if so I don’t remember where or when. Mahogany has always been my favorite color/grain of wood.

31. What is the one piece of advice, over all others, you would give to someone who wants to be a writer? – Lucie

To try to look at the people, situations, and circumstances around them as writer — a recorder of physical, factual, emotional, and contextual detail. I think most writers begin by writing through a self-reflective lens, which helps them explore hidden parts of themselves, and find their own rhythm and voice. The evolution is in being able to look at something through multiple lenses while not losing your individual vision.

32. What do you think is the next step for feminism? Or is this as good as it gets in a patriarchy? – Callie

First, thank you for acknowledging that we still live in a patriarchal society. I’ve been stunned by how many people deny this is true, despite the continuing imbalance of power. We still live in a time when language like “the state’s first female governor…” is spoken with peculiar pride or surprise. I believe feminism, as a self-sustaining concept, was lost in the mire of several other causes it attached itself to in order to gain more supporters, build solidarity, and present itself as a stronger political force. Those other causes, such as ending racism and gaining LGBT rights, have not been as inclusive of, or outspoken about, womens’ rights as the cause of feminism was to theirs. The brightest and most passionate feminist voices seem to have slipped away to the ivory towers of academia, leaving an entire global generation with only a dim knowledge of domestic inequalities, and the horrors that millions of girls and women face around the world. The only thing feminism can do to revive itself, in my opinion, is step back in the fight. Not with more studies, not with more panels — but as they did it in the glory days — by gathering the tribe, screaming into megaphones, expressing their rage at podiums in college auditoriums, picketing in the streets and demanding to be heard. Without that kind of passion, I don’t think feminism will evolve or be revived.

33. With all that we have at our fingertips in the late-20th and 21st century I think we are lucky to live in the time we do, especially for women, but we do have a long way to go. If you could pick a time period (of the past, of course) to have lived, when would it be and why? – Shelley

I would have liked to have been born fifteen or twenty years earlier so that I could have been there when so many of the people I admire were at the peak of their expression. To hear Adrienne Rich or Gloria Steinem in person? Listen to the beat poets? To see Janis Joplin in concert or Joan Baez at a coffee shop? I would have loved that. I also would have loved to have lived in Berkeley or San Francisco then, and to have contributed something to that spectacular mix.

33. If you could produce a TV show, what would be the premise? Do you feel truly accepted? If you won the lottery, what would be the first thing you would buy for yourself? – Pat (was funny and asked 17 questions, I answered three)

1) I would like to see the return of a network Phil Donahue type show, or Oprah before she got the feel-good “discover your spirit” format. Serious issues that used to be given focused air time aren’t getting but a fraction of that now and when they do, they pile on the guests until the stories are diluted. 2) No. 3) A small, cozy house near the ocean.

34. How would your writing and life be different if the internet and blogging had never been invented? Would your writing be altered or take a different path? – Lisa

Given my minor publication history, and my lack of effort or interest in submitting work during the last few years, I can reasonably guess that without the internet my writing would be less public. I also think I would not have written on as many topical things subjects, such as current events and politics.

35. If you could have one super power what would it be? if you had one last thing to say to the world, what would it be? – Kris D.

The ability to be invisible because the possibilities in that are nearly endless. As for the last thing I’d say to the world, it would probably be a repeat of one of the first things I ever said, Why?

36. Favourite character on Happy Days? – T. Fraser

None! I really didn’t like anything about that show.

37. Do you fear death? – Nikki

No, only any pain that might lead up to death.

38. Do you possess enough rage to take a human life? – Doris

No, but I think if I needed to defend my life or the life of someone else, I wouldn’t hesitate.

39. What is your Meyers-Briggs type if you know it? – Melissa

The last time I took the test, which was about 1998, I was an INTP.

40. When you are feeling lost, and down, and depressed, and you don’t know what to do, and you can’t write, and it feels like everything is wrong everywhere in every dark depressing corner of your head … what do you read? What author do you pull off your shelf, knowing that it’s going to lift your soul? What can you read, over and over again, and just know that it’s going to inspire you, or at the very least make you laugh a little and realise that things aren’t that bad? – Tamara

It’s not a book I reach for, but cards and letters that people have given me over the years, including my daughter, who has written me beautiful notes since she could hold a pen.  I’ve kept every card and letter that’s ever moved me, and when I need an infusion of sun or a way to revive my spirit, I open that box.

_ _ _

Part Two: What impressions might my answers give a group of strangers? How much might those impressions differ from the results of the personality test recently discussed on this site? Stay tuned! I also asked readers questions, and got some fascinating answers!

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