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How to Make a Big Decision (nytimes.com)
350 points by dsr12 9 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 91 comments

"In July 1838, Charles Darwin, then 29, sat down to make a decision that would alter the course of his life [...] Should he get married?"

Incidentally, Kierkegaard kinda tried to answer this question 5 years later in Either/Or. A couple of related snippets:

"I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both" [0]

And a more long-winded version:

"Marry, and you will regret it; don’t marry, you will also regret it; marry or don’t marry, you will regret it either way. Laugh at the world’s foolishness, you will regret it; weep over it, you will regret that too; laugh at the world’s foolishness or weep over it, you will regret both. Believe a woman, you will regret it; believe her not, you will also regret it… Hang yourself, you will regret it; do not hang yourself, and you will regret that too; hang yourself or don’t hang yourself, you’ll regret it either way; whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the essence of all philosophy" [1]

[0] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/28780-i-see-it-all-perfectl...


That's an excellent quote, thank you.

Having said that, my take on that quote is that it seems a bit of a cop out - a way of absolving oneself of the consequences of ones actions.

You may well regret both, but perhaps you will also enjoy one, or you will regret one less, or regret one more, or one has ramifications which due to your (hypothetical) selfish nature you may regret but are better for society, etc etc etc.

Or is it meant to be more of a call to action as opposed to inaction? Make decisions, because you are damned regardless, so at least add your own breath to the winds of fate?

Most of us end up constructing a narrative where whatever choices we made were the right ones, unless they go so disastrously wrong that we can't fool ourselves. So why agonize so much?

I think that's true, but only part of the time, and very dependent on context.

Many, if not most people also experience periods where narrative is negative, and where we conclude that the choices we made were all the wrong ones. And quite likely most of us live with a combination of the two, depending on what area of life this 'narrative' occupies, depending on how much our self-respect or self-hatred is tied up with these areas, etc.

The core problem, I think, is not primarily that we construct all sorts of highly subjective, distorted, self-serving or self-harming narratives, but that we get too attached to them and desire these narratives to be consistent.

On the other hand I've met people (few of them though) who don't seem to have this desire to construct and maintain narratives, and while they do generally seem to live happier lives, some of them are perhaps a bit too lacking in introspection/narration and suffer from that.

Kierkegaard was the original "emo" nihilist.

"Adding your own breth to the winds of fate" is adding 0 to 0.

Kierkegaard is usually considered the original existentialist.


I have Either/Or standing on my bookshelf - need to push it forward in my list of upcoming books to read.

And given your name it could seem that we both share the same origin as Kierkegaard :)

The Freakonomics guys did a paper on this. Basically, their conclusion was just do it, make the big change.

Their experiment was based on coin flips and self-reported happiness, but basically those who made the big change after the coin told them to reported being substantially happier, and if you dive into the data, you'll see that those that went with the biggest decisions (quit a job, get married) saw a double digit improvement in happiness.

Paper is here: http://www.nber.org/papers/w22487

Two personal anecdotes related to this.

I've made what seem to be four major career decisions in my life. Aged 14 at school I was in tears because I couldn't do one of the O levels I desperately wanted, the school pretty much forced me onto this new Computer Studies course they'd just started running. As a direct result it grabbed me and I worked in the games industry for a good few years.

In my late 20s a friend offered me a role earning a lot more money wearing a suit in the IT department of an insurance company. A very tough choice as I loved the industry but after a couple of weeks of heart wrenching I took it; absolutely no regrets 25 years later.

Now at work unless I can decide using experience or hard facts I'll either choose not to decide or do a coin toss. It infuriates some people but if I can't sensibly analyse it any more and my crystal ball isn't working that day then random is far better than wasting time thinking about it.

One other thing to help make a quick decision is to toss a coin and whilst it's in the air think how you want it to land and then go with that. The limited time forces you to choose what is generally the route you subconsciously want.

My advice to friends who are chewing on some major decision is always to tell them to flip a coin. It's the perfect way to shut off their brain, which isn't getting them anywhere (or they would have decided already!), and get them to go with their gut. The important thing isn't to go with the result of the flip, but use it to help reveal your preference in a decision you either can't analyze or where the predicted outcomes are more or less equivalent, but different.

I find that tossing the coin reveals the answer, as I typically start rooting for one side the second it goes up in the air.

> Basically, their conclusion was just do it, make the big change.

Either just do it, or just don't do it. Don't sit on the fence. None of life's decisions (save maybe jumping off a bridge) are anywhere near as irreversible as they seem when we're facing them, no matter what we choose, and the worst thing is to remain paralyzed and let both opportunities pass you by.

>None of life's decisions (save maybe jumping off a bridge) are anywhere near as irreversible

and making children

Is that really your takeaway from the paper? It depends on what the change is. Look more closely at the sixth column of Table 3 in your linked paper. If the question is "Should I get engaged?" or "Should I have kids?", the facts are in, and the answer is no. You can't just say a blanket statement that all change is to the good.

With standard errors much larger than the estimate, I.e. indistinguishable from zero.

More importantly, asking someone if "having a child" was a good choice 2months and 6months after they decide, isn't measuring anything about having a child, which generally takes at lease 9 months of advance preparation.

It takes years to measure the quality of a parenthood or a marriage.

That's a fair point. But I don't think you can use this paper as evidence to make a big change when the issue is marriage or kids, as jedberg did.

Is this just confirming that status quo bias exists?

It is confirming that status quo bias exists, which is an important fact. Good science is neer "just" anything.

I know people here aren't big on religion, but just as a perspective (no worse than Jeff Bezos I guess): In Islam there is a certain prayer you are supposed to say before making a big decision. You ask God's guidance for it, that you'll do what's good for you in this life and the next, and so on.

The funny thing is that when you do that, you almost always make up your mind immediately. It's like deep down you already know what the right thing is, and the act of explcitly stating the 'business requirements' (doing the morally right thing, for the long term good) just makes it obvious - no divine intervention needed! I'm pretty sure it's just a clever mental hack, but it does work.

But this is exactly the fallacy described in the article where you only really explore your own biased solution. The article gives an alternative way of exploring more potential solutions instead of going for the one thing that feels right at the moment.

I follow a prayer-like process for some life choices. Heart <> Gut <> Mind (colloquial terms). The article advocates ways for the mind to check the gut. But perhaps the person commenting is saying there's a direct way to get a good answer.

In a state of contemplation for instance, fears and self-centered cravings have less of an influence over decision making. The mind might be great at identifying Kahneman-style cognitive biases (or in the case of the article, imagining failure conditions), but a deep, silent awareness can help inoculate the biggest biases of all: fear & craving.

No, it's not quite. The parent is talking about making the final decision, which is complementary to the process of researching solutions.

But it's still subject to the biases associated with gut feel -- primacy, recency, selectionl; that can be countered with the article's "shut up and calculate".

Just for completeness sake, The Prophet Muhammad(pbuh) did told his companions to discuss the matter with those who have knowledge and expertise in it before performing the prayer and making the decision.

It's funny how these tricks really do work, where you can skip the deliberation and go right to the decision you've already subconsciously made.

Another similar one is to flip a coin and see if you're disappointed in the outcome or not (or alternatively, think about which coin outcome you're hoping for before you look at the result).

There's also another variant of coin-flipping: if you're agonizing over choice between option A and option B, it means that their costs and benefits roughly cancel out - so you're wasting time deliberating, and may as well toss a coin and be done with it.

Kind of like Frost's "The Road Not Taken." Many think it's about how he made a bold decision that "made all the difference," but it's really about how it didn't matter which road he took.

Though as for that the passing there / Had worn them really about the same

That's not what the poem is saying.

The poem is saying two things:

1. The line you quoted: Even though one of the paths looks special, in fact both are well-trodden paths. The walker is making a decision on imaginary evidence. The poem is mocking the poor decision-making process and retroactive rationalization.

2. (granted, not in the text, but in the context). The poem is about Frost's friend Thomas having trouble deciding deciding whether to volunteer to fight in WWI. Thomas died in the war.

"The road [supposedly] not taken" did make all the difference, but in a negative way. The walker should have used the rigorous method the article proposes.


Appreciate the correction. I dislike poetry that is not self-contained (and Frost in general), but I guess that would have been common knowledge at the time. I do like Thomas's 'Adlestrop.' It's unfortunate, and probably unsurprising, that Frost meant it in that way, because it cheapens it, but it is what it is.

>The walker should have used the rigorous method the article proposes.

Curious how you'd justify this statement with the text.

I never would have interpreted the poem that way...even given the supposed study we've given it back in the day...i should dig up some poetry and reread, you know, when i find the time.

Yes the coin thing is really good. If you want to flip again, then you know what option you prefer.

I have written a bit about this matter, from the point of view of using I-Ching as your "decision support tool"... https://www.pa-mar.net/Lifestyle/I-Ching.html

Thanks. I find it funny that some people who consider themselves rational and open minded are very easily discarding methods like this as superstition without hearing out what you actually have to say. I believe Tarot cards are a somewhat similar way of gaining understanding of your own preferences.

In my opinion yes, any kind of oracle that gives you ambiguous answers is more or less equivalent: I Ching for me is convenient because it gives a relatively compact result (while doing tarot reading requires you to pore over a dozen or so cards and all their relationships, which to me risks to muddle things up).

I always give myself five minutes in which I can flip the coin as many times as I like, but at the end of that I have to go with the face that's showing. It's pretty interesting - I find myself hesitating when it's showing one face more and more. I'm sure part of it is just reinforcing an initial bias once I notice my own hesitation, but magnifying an existing bias is after all the point of the exercise.

>If you want to flip again, then you know what option you prefer.


Of course if you see A coming originally and don't want to flip again, then we know that you're OK with A.

But if you do want to flip again, then you just know that you don't prefer A -- you can't deduce from that that you want B.

You can still:

(a) prefer B (b) dislike both

I see this judging Magic: the Gathering a lot. Players will sit there staring at their hand, mulling over various options, all of them bad. And they hesitate to make a play because once they make a play, bad stuff happens. They're constantly trying to convince themselves there's another "good" option if they just stare at their cards long enough.

Nope. All your choices are bad. Make a play.

I think this is a great point generally. People are frequently forced into making one of a number of bad choices. Human circumstance almost always gives us that problem. It is in those situations where “trying to be strategic” really holds us up. Sometimes, things suck in the short run and have no long term value either. I think acknowledging this is why some people can make snap judgements in that situation while others sit in denial.

I have occasionally imagined flipping a coin, on the ground that when the coin is in the air I will know how I'd wish it to fall.

That sounds a lot like affirming your knowledge of the most likely scenario in your mind. Whereas the article proposes a framework for considering other possibilities which I can imagine being very useful. If there's one thing I regret about decisions I've made in the past it's that I didn't consider enough potential alternatives.

>"The funny thing is that when you do that, you almost always make up your mind immediately."

The one adage I heard that's very similar: Decide to base your decision on a simple coin-flip. Throw it, and cover it so you don't see what side it landed on. You'll know very quickly which option you're hoping to see under that hand.

And if your decision was a failure you accept it as God's will. If you succeed you accept it as God's blessing. It is hard to imagine if there was an actual decision making and postmortem in play.

I've watched my wife waffle for ages on decisions she'd clearly already made in her heart of hearts so many times I think you may be on to something.

This is an interesting story, but it's also odd that it doesn't mention any of the standard work on decision making (e.g. Savage), no multiattribute decision making/multiattribute utility theory and all the variations thereof such as lexicographic decision making, nontransitive preferences, generalized additive decomposition, and other nonstandard models of decision making (like e.g. in Fishburn's seminal work or Schmeidler's work).

There is consensus in the decision making literature that the direct scoring method described at the end of the article is flawed for measurement theoretic reasons, and a vast range of elaborate preference elicitation methods have been developed. There is also work in philosophy on value structure that is partly relevant, though not yet at the level of economic modelling.

In a nutshell, the article is interesting but sound decision making is much harder and more complicated than the author portrays it. I just wanted to mention this for people who aren't aware of it, there is a vast literature in this area.

Edit: Although I prefer pseudonymity I've decided to give it up on this opportunity for some shameless self-promotion. If you're working in nontraditional decision making or the ethics of risk, please check out our conference:


We've just recently extended the deadline until 16.9.2018.

I just wanted to say j strange is my favourite novel, read it at least 10 times!

You mean the novelist(?) Ian J. Strange? Which novel?

The novel is "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell"

This deserves the king of making decisions: https://waitbutwhy.com/2016/09/marriage-decision.html

Interesting WaitButWhy, but in my opinion, the real big decision is about children, not marriage. The difference of responsibility is light years apart. Marriage can be undone.

Kids and money are the biggest reasons for divorce. Get on the same page about both while you're dating. If someone can't handle an open conversation, they won't make a good partner.

Could you elaborate on the open conversation?

Probably means an open and honest conversation. Question vis-a-vi: Do you want kids? If we can't have kids without IVF do we do it? If IVF with our own gametes fails do we use donors? What if we cannot afford it? Do we adopt? Will you be an equally contributing parent? How will we raise them? Religion? Vaccines? Education.. All those things... It's a lot to parse. Expectations of parenthood.

Wow, this is a great site. I was reading the post about careers[1] and it's reflect strongly how I felt when I first came out of college and why I was so miserable (and slightly still am...).

[1] https://waitbutwhy.com/2018/04/picking-career.html

This was great, thanks for sharing!

Alan Watts:

“You do not know where your decisions come from. They pop up like hiccups. And people have a great deal of anxiety about making decisions. Did I think this over long enough? Did I take enough data into consideration? And if you think it through, you find you never could take enough data into consideration. The data for a decision for any given situation is infinite. So what you do is, you go through the motions of thinking out what you will do about this.

Worriers are people who think of all the variables beyond their control, and what might happen.

Choice is the act of hesitation that we make before making a decision. It is a mental wobble. And so we are always in a dither of doubt as to whether we are behaving the right way, or doing the right thing, and so on and so forth…and lack a certain kind of self-confidence. And if you see you lack self-confidence, you will make mistakes through sheer fumbling. If you do have self-confidence you may get away with doing entirely the wrong thing.

You have to regard yourself as a cloud, in the flesh. Because you see, clouds never make mistakes. Did you ever see a cloud that is misshapen? Did you ever see a badly designed wave? No, they always do the right thing. But if you would treat yourself for a while as a cloud or wave, and realize you can’t make a mistake, whatever you do, cause even if you do something that seems to be totally disastrous, it will all come out in the wash somehow or other.

Then through this capacity, you will develop a kind of confidence, and through confidence, you will be able to trust your own intuition. But this is the middle way, of knowing it has nothing to do with your decision to do this or not, whether you decide you can’t make a mistake or whether you don’t decide it, it is true anyway, that you are like cloud and water. And through that realization, without overcompensating in the other direction, you will come to the point of where you begin to be on good terms with your own being and to be able to trust your own brain.”

Ahhh, thanks for that.

I'm currently doing YC Start Up School with a company set out to help solve the problems mentioned in the article and other related ones, for work teams.

Besides making it easy for every invited member to submit and compare alternatives, it allows teams focus discussions by structuring decisions in a visual, clear way (weighted pros & cons, multiple weighted decision criteria, etc.), contrast opinions of different contributors and manage a configurable the process to drive engagement.

I hadn't heard of the concept of "premortems" but the decision structures are flexible so any decision could be configured to support them (either one "premortem" per alternative or one per alternative/participant pair).

If anyone is interested in a demo of Resolutt, please let me know.

+1 for Resolutt, we are trying it at Bitnami and though it is still early days it is very promising (https://resolutt.com/)

I came to conclusion that the smaller the obvious difference between the two options, the less the choice matters.

The actual decision can matter a lot, but if you don't know, then it, unfortunately, depends on luck.

We tend to worry about the future, so we tend to think about decisions by the way they will affect us in the future. But the truth is you can have all four options, including obviously correct decisions that lead to small or no difference in outcome, as well as very unclear decisions that lead to big difference in outcome.

I think you should just focus on the decision itself, make sure you have all the information, and if the two options come very close to each other, just make the call, regardless how big the influence of the decision on your life is going to be.

For all big decisions I always end up using Socratic questioning. It never fails. It's like a pros / cons list but on steroids.

I wrote about it once in the context of using it to potentially learn a new technology, but it applies to everything.

You can check that out at https://nickjanetakis.com/blog/would-socrates-use-docker-tod...

Jeff Bezos "Regret Minimization Framework" [1]

A regret minimization framework "I wanted to project myself forward to age 80 and say, 'Okay, now I'm looking back on my life. I want to have minimized the number of regrets I have,'" explains Bezos. "I knew that when I was 80 I was not going to regret having tried this. I was not going to regret trying to participate in this thing called the Internet that I thought was going to be a really big deal. I knew that if I failed I wouldn't regret that, but I knew the one thing I might regret is not ever having tried. I knew that that would haunt me every day, and so, when I thought about it that way it was an incredibly easy decision."

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwG_qR6XmDQ

This approach is highly flawed because you optimize for the age of 80 where your body and mind are heavily limited. Being happy at 80 isn’t something I’d optimize for. Being happy along the way even if you’d regret it later seems to be more reasonable. Best of course happy along the way and happy later.

It seems reckless to get your life advice from the richest person in the world without taking survivorship bias into account[1]


Not sure that is applicable here. His advice is basically to minimize potential regret. A variation of "better to try and fail than never try at all".

...from someone who tried and succeeded.

Good for him that he won't have any regrets about treating the workers in his company like shit

My decision making process touches upon some of the points brought up in the article. I often speak about how I grew up poor without many options available to me (well, options that led to me being alive) so once I started my career suddenly my options exploded. Now I had many difficult decisions to make.

My decision making process always involves multiple alternatives and backup plans. What if I got laid off from my job shortly after starting, what if I suffer from some medical issue later down the line, what if a better opportunity comes along etc.

This process helps assess whatever weaknesses a decision might have and also helps calm my ever-present sense of economic dread. It's much easier to make a big decision when you have multiple backups if life throws a few curveballs at you.

And as it turns out when I got laid off earlier this year being prepared made it a lot easier to deal with. I almost never make a major decision without considering multiple possible outcomes; outside of the one I had to make to start my career.

One other thing to keep in perspective is that since you grew up poor, you know how to live and handle it if it were to happen again. That should give confidence. Still I think having a savings buffer helps immensely.

For me there is also a meta-decision - should I actually be making a decision about this now?

For example the marriage decision is easy - there are probably less than 5 points in everyone's life where that decision is even entertained. Because there are only a few times when you are not married and dating someone who might be the one.

However the divorce decision is ... well a lot more frequent because you are always married and will then over a 50 year period find pints where The Big Decision is in your mind.

A default go for it is not always the right thing

Same for leaving your job, selling your house, etc

You might be better off yes - but you could find yourself making the same decision 3 months later

There are a couple of related topics:

1) Complex decision making in stressful situations. When you are under stress, you won't be thinking properly or have time to weigh all the pros and cons. However, you can plan ahead and consider what you would do under particular circumstances. Having a plan means you can act, right away.

2) Avoiding taking premature decisions. This helps you avoid the stress and distractions that come with deciding things that are not immediately relevant and frees you up to focus on more urgent things. Deal with it when you need to and when you have all relevant facts but no sooner.

Cool article. I've been giving this a lot of thought lately.

Another exercise that I do is, for each option, I ask "What's the worst that can happen, and what will I do when it does?"

It turns out, a lot of times, the worst is not that bad, and correcting it is simple, should it arise. Often, the choice is simply not that important and each alternative is OK. This makes is much easier to make the choice.

I think it's important to make a distinction between "decision parameters" - factors relative to _this_ particular decision - and what I call "decision hyperparameters" - factors which are relevant to all decision-making.

For example, you can be evaluating the purchase of a new car, but if you have slept poorly or haven't eaten recently, you may not be in the best state to make a wise decision.

We often check the parameters for each decision, but not as often hyperparameters (how much time do I have to make this decision? how reversable is it? how am I feeling? how much domain knowledge do I have?). I think a concrete checklist for major decisions is quite useful - we abstract up from the decision and ensure that our _decision-making process_ is sound.

For the interested, I wrote about this here: https://alexpetralia.github.io/2017/11/27/NL-2017-11-27.html

In the past year I have worked on a side project web application that provides a tool for managing and calculating a multi-factor value assessment for major decisions. The twist is that it collects the assessments of each decision option against the decision factors from whatever advisers or stakeholders you the decision master invite to participate. During collection of the assessments each person is also invited to indicate how confident they are about each assessment and to add a qualitative comment as well.

In particular I have thought of corporation using this as a way to gather input from all the persons that interview a candidate for a job.

Anyone on this thread interested in seeing a demo?

Yes! Link please

It is still rough around the edges but I will see if I can get it deployed in the next week or so. I will let you know when it is up.

> Over the years, Professor Nutt and other researchers have demonstrated a strong correlation between the number of alternatives deliberated and the ultimate success of the decision itself. In one of his studies, Professor Nutt found that participants who considered only one alternative ultimately judged their decision a failure more than 50 percent of the time, while decisions that involved contemplating at least two alternatives were felt to be successes two-thirds of the time.

I'm sure something gets lost in journalistic summary, but isn't there an alternative explanation for this? If you're contemplating a choice, and there are many things that seem plausible, it's because there are many acceptable outcomes. So it's not because you've thought about a lot of choices that you make a good choice, but that if something is going to go well, chances are there's many ways for it to go well?

> The upshot is clear: If you find yourself mapping a “whether or not” question, looking at a simple fork in the road, you’re almost always better off turning it into a “which one” question that gives you more available paths.

I like this idea.

Unfortunately that appears to be my natural inclination and now I'm facing a list of more than 50 or so "available paths". This can be equally as daunting as having no options and frankly it has led to decision paralysis.

Some might then say, "well, narrow down the list to 3-5 options". Well, how does one go about doing that? Am I to perform the pre-mortem and value analysis on all 50 of these potential options? Randomly select a few to discard (since having so many options suggests perhaps that all have enough benefits to be viable?), or maybe run some kind of "tournament" where I play off each option against one another, loser is discarded and we continue on until there is a winner?

I appreciate the article and will take some of its lessons into account but I'd love to hear what the author of the piece would think about my situation.

I generally just start down my favorite path and then use the additional data to decide if I should switch paths or make that 51st path that I didn't think about when I had less data to go off of. Being flexible has generally worked in my favor.

One Founding Fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin, also used the pro/con technique [1]. This topic also seems to touch upon game theory. The Optimal Stopping problem comes to mind. [2]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Franklin#Decision-mak... [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Optimal_stopping

When I can’t decide I tell myself I will leave it to a coin flip and commit to that outcome. As soon as I see what side the coin landed on I know exactly what I wanted. This usually works anyway.

"The upshot is clear: If you find yourself mapping a “whether or not” question, looking at a simple fork in the road, you’re almost always better off turning it into a “which one” question that gives you more available paths."

#ThingsEnderWigginKnew For those who never read "Ender's Game", the main character must play an unwinnable game where he is given 2 choices where both decisions end in death. He manages to find a hidden third option (killing the Giant) that allows him to continue playing.

My process is evaluating the pros and cons of "which one" rather than "whether or not". While this piece is an opinion, it is nice to get some validation.

Relevant: http://andrewoneverything.com/post/43840346900/we-will-alway...

I don’t think there will ever be a way to make a “big decision” with thorough analysis that will make you certain you made the right choice. There are too many variables to ever know for sure the “right” choice

A good book on the topic of relationships is ”Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay: A Step-by-Step Guide to Help You Decide Whether to Stay In or Get Out of Your Relationship”.

The book replaces the balance-scale approach (pros-versus-cons) with a series of diagnostic questions ordered so the most obvious issues come first. If at any point the answer is against the relationship, there is no need for further diagnosis, the decision has been made.

One method I sometimes use to work out whether I have an underlying feeling about a two-way decision is to get a coin, assign heads/tail, then toss it. On seeing the outcome, observe to see if I feel disappointed. This seems to be a good way to discover whether I had a preference that I hadn't realised I had.

That seems like a process of whatifevery that is going to lead to a "cling to nurse for fear of something worse" outcome the majority of the time.

I prefer Branson's approach: "Screw it, let's do it".

Some tv show had a good quote the other day.. "There's two constants in life, buyers remorse and sellers regret..." This was in the context of a house I believe.

If we knew which decisions to make, life would be far too scripted and easy. This was an interesting read.

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