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The seeming irrationality of a well-tuned emotional system (qz.com)
168 points by ALee 37 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 64 comments

I like the "The marriage of sense and reason" section.

There are so many "wrong-on-the-internet" folks who believe they're being rational, but in fact are merely cherry-picking whatever bits of reality (they use the word "facts") they understand, formulating their response only on that basis and ignoring everything else that isn't easy to observe, measure or reason about.

Being rational or objective is a very tall order. We are never _actually_ prepared to do that in real-life scenarios. It is only remotely feasible in the most stripped-down, simplified set-ups.

My fave too.

I once read 3 pages of a self help book I received as a present.

It said, essentially, emotions happen for a reason. When you have a difficult emotion, go back to the root thought or observation that caused the emotion, and you’ll learn something important about yourself or your world.

Stopped reading because I wanted internalize that first. Never finished the book...

Being rational is separate from being objective. Please do not mix these terms to confuse people.

Typical way to attempt rationality is to follow a well defined algorithm to make a decision, with well defined inputs. Even if it is a simple as "sum these assigned numbers and pick highest option" it is more rational than the alternative.

You can quantify and tune your "gut" or estimation skills the same way as with any other. Remember and learn from both successes and mistakes, exercise the skill.

Most people learn only from representative instances which is actually irrational and a known human logic hole - representativeness heuristic. This means their gut feeling is relatively mistuned this making for bad decisions.

Asking just one simple question - how meaningful was it - is very effective to avoid the pitfall...

Emotions have more context than one would wish and not all of it obvious. This is what makes using this as decision input hard.

Similarly, quantification is separate from being rational.

In your simple example "sum these assigned numbers and pick the highest option," how did you assign those numbers? In most real life scenarios, qualities are difficult to quantify. If you start from questionable quantifications, as the saying goes, "garbage in, garbage out."

Often the rational thing to do is to acknowledge the nigh-impossibility of quantification (let alone combining those quantifications; what if the qualities interact in nonlinear ways?).

One thing I thought about recently is just how 'theory of mind' works. When you're trying to figure out someone else's motives, often times logic and reason just get in the way. Emotional processing uses the limbic system and is much 'faster' than cognitive thought. You definitely don't want to over-rely on knee-jerk emotional responses, but you don't want to completely throw out the hundreds of thousands of years of primate social evolution in a vain effort to be smarter.

Game theory is extraordinarily helpful for understanding what's going on, IMHO.

First off, not every capability is positive value to have. If you can irreversibly give someone a million dollars from your phone, people have a pretty big incentive to stick a gun in your face and make you do that. "It's physically impossible to do that" is an extremely useful negotiation stance; the winning strategy in a game of chicken is to make sure your opponent knows you threw the steering wheel out the car window.

Your emotional system is a really powerful decision-making engine that is almost completely immune to reason. It's extraordinarily hard to use logical reasoning to convince someone to not be sad that their dog died. This is a feature, not a bug. Anger is a much more relevant emotion for this - someone with a hair trigger on their temper has figured out that wielding that implicit threat serves their interest.

For all of that theory crafting you forget the person holding you at gunpoint is emotional as well and would just shoot you for having ruined their chance to get money. What use are you to them at all now?

Outside of extreme irrationality, this is difficult to imagine: murder is a much bigger crime than theft, and a much, much bigger crime than threatening someone (but ultimately doing nothing).

The detterance from simply being shot is that theres nothing to gain, and doing so increases your risk substantially.

Now, if there was little risk, such as you're in a shithole that the cops have gave up on anyways, or you're a known and hated gang member that no one will particularly miss, then its another story. But this why an eye-for-an-eye is an almost necessary strategy in lawless areas: the threat of your kin means that killing just you doesn't end the story. In lawful lands, the police play that role.

Of course, some will just ignore the risk and shoot you anyways, but thats just how it goes. After they take your money, they could shoot you too. Hell, if they're really stupid they might even shoot you before.

If they're going to ignore the risk associated with the act, regardless of how risky it is, then there's not much you can do about it. Except shoot them first, I guess.

That's a different situation that trades off against it. Being able to pay extortionists helps when you randomly encounter vindictive extortionists. It hurts when extortionists do research to figure out who to target.

It's probably not a bad idea to have like $40 in your wallet.

"the winning strategy in a game of chicken is to make sure your opponent knows you threw the steering wheel out the car window."

Unless your opponent also knows "the winning strategy."

This is an interesting article in the sense that it is impossible to comment on it without making the point of the article even stronger.

I like to make up terms on the spot for interesting phenomena I see, the term I came up for for this one is a "rational ratchet". I see it a lot particularly in this space of combining reason with intuition. No matter which direction you push in, you can only apply torque in one direction.

I specifically look for this sort of thing when I meditate.

"For example, this would suggest that if an event that makes you “angry” occurs multiple times in succession without actually harming you in a way that the feeling of “anger” predicted, and you don’t aggressively hold on to that label, by the tenth time you experience this event, your initial response would have slowly changed from the feeling of “anger” toward something more representative of the situation."

I don't agree with this universally. Case in point: road rage. A person could get cut off 100x and still feel anger. That's because emotions arent just a predictive system about an event. They are also about related ideas. In this case perhaps our driver feels like people take advantage of him. As long as that belief is there he may get angry every time he is cut off.

I would guess that driving is an inherently stressing activity, where people have internalized the knowledge that any mistake can kill them (like nearly no other activity they do nowadays), and thus are prone to getting angry even if they happen to escape most of the time.

When the author talks about not aggressively holding onto labels he is basically talking about meditation.

In my experience, emotions generate discursive thought. Meditation is a process of dropping that discursive thought and feeling the emotions directly. This leads to clear insights on your world.

Headline doesn't match the content; while the article is more nuanced, it still seems to put too much blind faith in our evolved emotional systems.

> On the other hand, given that our emotional system—that gives us information points through a sense or a judgment—has been refined by the battery of evolution for much, much longer than the thinking mind, we know that it absorbs more of the nuances of reality before it comes to a conclusion.

That doesn't follow at all; if anything the opposite is true, our emotional system is quicker to discard nuance (because in the ancestral environment it was more important to make an approximate decision quickly, whereas in the modern world the opposite is true).

> In fact, Barrett’s model even suggests that cognition and emotion are not distinct at all. > the seeming irrationality of a well-tuned emotional system, within the right context, can fill in gaps that reason misses.

It's not about irrationality being an advantage or "filling in gaps". It's about the speed of our emotional system making it useful despite the irrationality. It's well worth making the best possible use of the cognitive tools we have, including our emotional system, but that doesn't mean the flaws of those tools cease to be flaws.

He says "seeming irrationality". Meaning something that is judged irrational by our logical system, which has limited capacity thus limited information.

He says that, if you account for certain biases, the much higher capacity emotional system can be a useful input feature for the final decision.

In summary, don't trust the input of your instincts blindly, it is biased. However, flawed as it may be, it is probably based on much more information than your logical decision, so you should not discard it completely either. Try to account for biases, better yet, train your emotional system for less biased decisions.

> He says "seeming irrationality". Meaning something that is judged irrational by our logical system, which has limited capacity thus limited information.

But this fails to acknowledge that very often the reason our emotional system seems irrational is because it is irrational.

> He says that, if you account for certain biases, the much higher capacity emotional system can be a useful input feature for the final decision.

> In summary, don't trust the input of your instincts blindly, it is biased. However, flawed as it may be, it is probably based on much more information than your logical decision, so you should not discard it completely either. Try to account for biases, better yet, train your emotional system for less biased decisions.

That's a very generous reading of the article, and a much better takeaway than anything I got from the article itself. There is value in our emotional systems, but the biases of that system are very real and warrant more attention and caution than the article pays them.

The article makes the case that our "emotional systems" can be understood as an effective way of internalizing and responding to our experiences in a complex world.

Maybe this is obvious but I think equally important is the emotional interplay between people, and the dynamics of that larger emotional system. Emotions are like a protocol that humans use to communicate their mental states to each other. If emotions were just about understanding the world, there would be no reason for humans to express them visibly & audibly.

A little bit of occasional anger can effectively communicate that someone has crossed a line. Laughter is positive feedback. etc. etc.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Predictably Irrational. It's a book about experiments in behavioural economics and relevant anecdotes. I'd recommend it to anyone, it's easy to read and highly informative.

Finally, someone is speaking about this.

If one accepts that one is an emotional animal, and that over-suppression of emotional irrationality can lead to mental illness and non-adaptive stress responses, then the rational thing to do is to let yourself be irrational. Escape the local minima.

Are we discussing "rationality" without having defined that term? I would guess that's probably an example of irrationality.

As I see it, people mostly use "rationality" to refer to a set of theories, such as mathematics, which are useful tools that can help people make decisions in the real world. However, people still have to decide when and how to use those tools. Deciding which tools to use and how is another thing that theories, such as mathematics, might help people with, but, again, people have to decide when and how to use those tools in deciding which tools to use. To avoid an infinite regression, most decisions need to be made unconsciously: at some point people just do what feels right.

If you've discovered some theory that seems really useful and not as well known as it deserves to be, tell us about it: that sounds interesting. If you've got some vague waffle about the usefulness of theory/rationality in general, then I'm not so interested because I don't even see any entertainment in that, let alone practical use.

Let's not forget the obvious connection between emotions and rationality - rationalizing. This is post-hoc reasoning, and it's often incorrect when there's emotional conflict, people diverge paths intellectually, and establish intellectual arguments to deal with the consequences of conflict.

This often is unpredictable, circular, and can cause people to develop belief systems that are contradictory to their character, as well as make choices that otherwise go against intuition, feelings - all the things that make us human and individual - the things that we choose to pursue because those are the things we know make life worth living.

Making a choice that opposes your base nature because you've developed a belief system that tells you 'this is the way things are now, so work with this, not that' - that can be very chaotic, effectively shoving you in a bind where you must both rediscover/reinvent knowledge from scratch, while accumulating information you paradoxically accept as truthish garbage.

We go with what we know because having some stability and structure, even if it's not perfect, is better than having none in perpetuity.

Rationalizations are an important aspect.

I will now explain how to make a more accurate analysis in social situations utilizing this knowledge.

You need emotion, but you also need to understand the emotion. Problem is that your limbic system can't talk. Therefore, we resort to rationalizations. But most of the time, the rationalization is highly inaccurate. Why? Because our unconscious side has a lot of information about negative things about us and we try to avoid it because it doesn't help us feel good (this emotion exists solely so that mental health can be preserved and cognitive dissonance gets reduced).


You are angry that your husband is late. Possible explanation: You are angry because he's always acting selfish and doesn't respect you.

Other explanation that is probably more accurate but contains negative aspects that the consciousness hides (drive attention away from) to reduce cognitive dissonance: There is a deep fear to get rejected. Maybe there are experiences in the past where trusted people just left you. This deeply rooted fear triggers anger as a reaction because your unconscious side sees a threat (indirect increase of likelihood of death through social rejection).

- - -

How to utilize this? Analyze your emotions and try to ask: "What useful information does it contain?" and "What are the root causes for this emotion, what is the incentive system behind it?". The hardest part is that you have to know about your deepest insecurities, deficits, negative experiences and fears ("I'm objectively not very attractive", "My mother never showed me her love in unconditional ways", ...) and regulate your emotions (instead of acting out that anger, you analyze it on a meta-level and extract information from it for a more accurate analysis). This requires extreme self-reflection and years of struggling. When one finally masters this, he's considered enlightened which basically means that he's able to not only analyze his own behavior and emotions, but can also use this knowledge to act accordingly.

This is a great thought. For those who haven't read Crucial Conversations, I really advise you do. They hit on a point in that book around how we understand our feelings in moments of conflict and how we often avoid seeing the other as a thinking party:

- What is my story? - What am I pretending not to know about my role in the problem? - Why would a reasonable, rational and decent person do this? - What should I do right now to move toward what I really want?

Crucial Conversations genuinely changed my life, and I'm the kind of person that was praised for my communication skills.

Thanks for the book recommendation. I've invested a lot of time studying psychology and how the mind works to build a framework to increase my understanding of human behavior and consciousness. It's always nice to see books that enhance this journey.

edit: to give something back. Please see [1]. A psychologist tries to build a coherent mental framework that contains most of the current knowledge in psychology. There are some theories (like BIT) which are not particularly controversial, but very helpful to understand the human mind.

[1]: https://unifiedtheoryofpsychology.wordpress.com/

random thought but I wish maybe ML and bio sensors in say a smartwatch could recognize when I'm getting angry and buzz me so I can be mindful of it and apply those kinds of lessons. usually I don't notice in the moment.

To me, the concept of "rationality" pertains to the decision making process rather than specific flavors of deductive rules or metrics. Rationality is how open you are to understanding the critiques of your decision (both from others, and self-reflection), many of which are necessarily going to come from paradigms that you are not thinking in.

For example, someone who is in the mindset you describe (we've all been there at some point in our lives), but yet rejects the message (explicit or implicit) that his reasoning framework carries inbuilt assumptions, is actually very irrational.

My understanding of rationality, in the sense commonly used by economists, for example, is that the rational entity has a collection of knowledge, in the sense of "justified true beliefs", and the entity believes all logical consequences of those beliefs.

There are many problems with that definition of rationality, hence "behavioral economics". The surprise is that behavioral economics took so long to develop.

I usually interpret it as simply having good reasons, as in "rational drug design."

I agree, people never seem to have a clear definition of rationality; usually they mean empiricism or just generally agreeing with majority opinion.

So many people argue that mathematicians sometimes go nuts because of a failure of rationality, but to me it seems to be exactly a failure of this unconscious-intuition, which undergirds rationality.

You want an internet discussion to start with definitions of terms. That expectation/desire is probably also an example of irrationality.

Not everything is a formal discussion, even when the topic is rationality.

My feeling is that your comment is incorrect /s

"Rationality" should be pretty obvious ... in accordance to logic. And logic has a very rigorous definition.

> "people mostly use "rationality" to refer to a set of theories, such as mathematics"

Your thinking is flawed, probably by having wrong ideas about what mathematics is. Mathematics is logic, a fact obscured by the math we end up learning all the way up to high school, which does not capture the essence of math. Speaking of which, add the Curry–Howard correspondence in the mix and the plot thickens ;-)


Rigorous definitions of logic—the various systems of formal logic—do not fully define reason. They are more like particular schemes that formalize and idealize some aspects of reasoning.

Those systems are derived from reasoning, using reasoning, in accordance with reason, but they are not reasoning itself, unless you want to claim that the process of inventing or refining formal logics is itself unreasonable.

It's impossible to fully define a foundational concept like rationality. This concept has been used as an example of an "essentially contested concept" whose "proper use… inevitably involves endless disputes."

Mathematics is partially logic. Logic alone can not construct all of mathematics, so far. But constructive mathematics, I get the sensation that HN computer-science-logician-mathematicians have a tendency towards disapproval of such a thing.

Honestly I wonder sometimes...

The plot is already quite thick, in my extremely humble opinion.

This can't be true by definition. Being maximally rational means behaving optimally. If your behavior doesn't provide a good cost-benefit ratio, what it wan't rational to begin with.

One big issue I see with people acting "rationally" is they don't take into account all factors, like the time it takes to analyse your options vs just going with your gut.

The title is pretty in-line with what article has to say, and it actually elaborates on what you wrote. I think it's not that big of a deal when a bit of meaning fell through the cracks when whole thing was summarized in one sentence.

Are you commenting the headline or the article?

I don't agree with you on this completely, even though I'm very pragmatic and usually very rational myself. Sometimes it's better to consider the emotional effects your decision has, rather than just the logical reasons to pick A or B. I learned that the company lives and dies with their employees so sometimes making the rational decision can cost you a lot, even though, most people would agree with you about it being the right decision.

> Sometimes it's better to consider the emotional effects your decision has, rather than just the logical reasons to pick A or B. I learned that the company lives and dies with their employees so sometimes making the rational decision can cost you a lot, even though, most people would agree with you about it being the right decision.

You talk about eschewing "just the logical reasons", and then describe a perfectly logical decision making process. I'm confused.

Do you believe that logical decisions can only involve quantitative factors?

How is it rational to dismiss any emotional effects of your decisions? Especially if you value your employees (and if you don't value your employees you are probably not thinking rationally either).

I can't help but downvote your comment: it really seems as if you only read the headline and not the article itself.

"Maximally rational" is impossible, physically, computationally and biologically. Your second paragraph describes the effects of that, and the second sentence of your first paragraph describes the consequences: attempting to be maximally rational is often not the best strategy.

More like, "It's not going to do you any favors, because you've already done them all yourself."

I'm well-grounded in science and the the rationalist worldview. Imagine my wonder and curiosity when I went for a Reiki "initiation" and I could feel the "energy"!

I've worked with electricity, I understand that, if I feel something, a force is involved in the sense of Physics. I wasn't hallucinating, nor was there a Van de Graff generator concealed behind a screen. I'm more-or-less a Rational Materialist, so I immediately began to try to find the physics behind the "Chi" or "Ki" phenomenon. Fortunately, there was a well-stocked metaphysical library in my neighborhood at the time, (a physical library of books on all metaphysical subjects.) I began to spend hours a day there, poring over the books trying to find a rail on which to lodge my foot.

I discovered that "Chi" has been discovered and re-discovered several times in the West by many people, beginning with Mesmer[1], and including a Baron Carl von Reichenbach (who called it "the Odic force")[2], one William Walker Atkinson (who called it "Vril")[3], he was contemporaneous with the founder of Reiki, Mikao Usui[4], and Wilhelm Reich (who called it "Orgone")[5].

That's not a complete list. Some investigators were more scientific than others, to put it mildly. But it's fair to say that this phenomenon has been known to and investigated by Westerners continuously for about three centuries, yet it has somehow never fully broken into consensus reality despite having been granted the benefit of the Scientific Method in at least a few cases.

I failed to find anyone who had developed any sort of mathematics or engineering around it. It's possible that it has something to do with EM. (I did find a lot of magic. There are more and stranger religions in our world than you can possibly imagine. I did discover that there is a sort of formula or algorithm in common to all prayer, magic, ritual, new age magical thinking wish-fulfillment, etc. Every single cult, religion, lodge, mystery school, etc. has the same basic structure to its magic regardless of the trappings or outer organization. But that's a tangent.)

My point is, "chi energy" is real, and it is the medium of emotions. Whatever emotions are they happen in this "chi field." You have experienced this yourself your whole life: the ineffable part of experiencing an emotion, the part that isn't proprioceptive feedback from your muscles and glands, is your subjective experience of a phenomenon that has a real physical existence. Your emotions extend out from your body for a meter or two. (The literature speaks of the "Emotional Body", and "aura".[6])

My meta-point is, we should do science to this. This is a body of knowledge clogged with nonsense and bullshit, and dogged by skepticism and apathy, "and yet it moves"[7]. I did experiments, other people felt it, it's real, whatever it is. (And in the case of Reiki it has the capacity to engender healing, which is pretty important and should also be scientifically investigated. But that's separate from the fact that we should investigate "Chi" in general.) If we want to understand emotions we have to study this "energy".

[1] 1734 – 1815 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franz_Mesmer#Animal_magnetism

[2] 1788 – 1869 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odic_force

[3] 1862 – 1932 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Walker_Atkinson

[4] 1865 – 1926 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikao_Usui

[5] 1897 – 1957 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilhelm_Reich

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aura_(paranormal)

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/And_yet_it_moves

Wouldn't "well-tuned" in this case mean "an emotional system which improves reasoning where logical thinking fails". And in that case isn't the title of the article a tautology?

I think most would agree that a "good" emotional system can be an aid to reason. The reason many think we shouldn't trust emotions is because most systems are "bad" (as in, it acts counter to capacity to reason).

OK, we've updated the title from “A well-tuned emotional system can fill in gaps that reason misses”.

beat me to the tautology post! well done.


I don't think it's productive to read a piece and your first thought/contribution to be "Oh good this is gonna piss off / show those other people."

Please don't do this kind of thing. It's rude and offers no insight.


Hey I'm kind of a libertarian and I haven't been diagnosed, and I like TFA. Keep searching for your "perfect piece"!

If someone wanted to connect with others and have a good time, rationality is the number one party buzzkill. I’d trade all rationality in perpetuity for being able to connect with people without even needing to think about it... social skills are far more vital to well-being than almost anything else besides industrious productivity. Worse, these skills are in abject crisis with infinite distractions, negative social polarization/crybullies/humorouslessness/long-tail civilization decline and a disposable, social-dilettance mentality that only allows for surface, fake relationships that go to die on Facebook. You also can’t have love with Vulcan analysis... it’s incompatible with mutual-affinity.

Rationality also keeps you from getting taken for a ride by failing for every last scam in the book. Productivity doesn't do you any good and probably not society getting siphoned. And that is before getting roped into doing harm to others intentionally or otherwise.

Personally I disagree with the mutual affinity incompatibility. If rationality is getting in the way it is for a reason - if you both like rowing and musical theater there is nothing to object to but if they are also say a serial killer to give a deliberately extreme example....

I wouldn't say trade all rationality, but trade some of it in some circumstances. This is especially valid in the hacker news community, where most likely we spend our time in the part of the mind that works with reason.

If you want to try seeing the other side and start marrying the two sides, you should try acting classes. Words, video, lack the dimension to explain to you how that feels on your body.

That's a rational attitude to have once you're in an advanced civilized country and you can go to an emergency room and have adequate medication, you can eat (and more) by working 6 hs in front a computer, etc.

Rationality is the way-out of bad times (war, famine, plagues, economic depression), and a party buzzkill during good times (1st world today).

Can I suggest that the whole "Lean startup" process is an example of dangerous hyper-reason? You're A/Bing your test subjects, you're responding purely to data and a dogmatic following of the technique results in you never asking how your users/test subjects _feel_ but only how they behave. Thus we end up with software like Facebook that arguably makes a lot of people sad while being unable to stop using it.

The mind is meant to be a servant to the body, not the other way around.

A life lived disconnected from the body results in depression, illness and ultimately, one devoid of humanity and instead enslaved to systems and institutions.

Darth Vader represents the ultimate disconnection of mind from body.

And, our collective and individual trauma makes it difficult to remain in our bodies.

The trick is not to suppress or numb out the emotional information we receive.

Rather, we are being called to feel it fully, heal our bodies and traumas, so that we can be in deep attunement with our body and life itself.

The mind is but a plaything of the body. There's more and more evidence that most decision-making takes place in parts of our brain we don't control, and our conscious mind absurdly takes credit for decisions that were considered and completed before we are even aware a decision was taking place. As if our consciousness is a kid in the passenger seat of a car with one of those fake toy steering wheels attached to the dashboard in front of them, imagining that their actions are steering the car while our subconscious is really doing the deciding from the driver's seat.


Our bodies keep the higher mind around for some useful forms of complex problem-solving, but for day-to-day life the body simply tricks you into thinking you're in control. It's incredible how much of an hallucinatory experience it is to be human.

This post is so full of platitudes I do not even know how to start. It is in "not even wrong" category as used by recruiting into cults.

1. Depression has many causes and this thing is probably not one. If it is, show evidence.

2. Darth Vader did what he did because of reach emotional decision, after emotional manipulation. Your argument is extremely invalid. Plus he's a fantasy literary character.

3. What does "remain in your body" mean anyway?

4. Is there any evidence that mind - body dualism is real and not just a concept?

5. Emotional responses are still of mind, just a faster less controlled system of it, influenced by internal chemistry too just like the rest of it.

6. How do you define "fully healed" or what the trauma means?

1.) I’d recommend starting with the book The Body Keeps Score, if you are interested in the role of trauma & depression.

2. I’m really just paraphrasing Joe Campbell here. If you want to see his take on mythology, what it represents, and how Lucas used the Hero’s journey to craft Star Wars, I’d recommend the current Netflix special on Joe Campbell.

3. People tend to dissociate and disconnect from their felt body experience. There is a fairly established body of work on “embodiment” and somatic based therapies.

4. We have our conscious logical brain and we have our emotional brain. Our emotions are mapped to physical sensations in our body. That is what I mean here.

5. I don’t disagree with this.

6. I would say fully healed would be releasing the traumas. One way might say that you demylinate that pathways that trigger the fight or flight response in similar contexts and form new pathways that create a more accurate model of the world as well as increased capacity for self regulation.

What do you mean ‘is meant to’ by what or by whom?

Not meant to, but evolved to. The brain evolved to increase odds of proliferation of the underlying biological platform.

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