It is all about inequality, isn’t it? A Critique of Rawls’s Theory of Justice

John Rawls, the James Bryant Conant University Professor Emeritus, whose 1971 book, "A Theory of Justice" argued persuasively for a political philosophy based on equality and individual rights, died Sunday (Nov 24) at the age of 81. Rawls is considered by many to be the most important political philosopher of the second half of the 20th century and a powerful advocate of the liberal perspective. File photo from March 1990. Staff Photo Jane Reed/Harvard University News Office

John Rawls (left) and Immanuel Kant (right)


Inequality appears on the global stage as the evil of our time. There is hardly a single researcher or scholar who does not agree on the correlations between inequality and unjust, deeply dysfunctional societies, such as studies by Richard Wilkinson and Thomas Piketty investigateFor example, inherited wealth is a distributive problem of justice as much as inherited poverty is. Many nations struggle with the fact that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer while middle classes erode. But what is the real concern? John Rawls defined his famous ‘difference principle’ by the following terms: ‘Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: (a) They are to be attached to positions and offices open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and (b), they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.’ (Rawls, ‘A Theory of Justice’, 1971 and ‘Political Liberalism’, 1993)

‘The Comfortably Poor’: A thought-experiment to question Rawls’s assumptions

I am proposing a thought-experiment titled The Comfortably Poor’. Imagine a society where the wealthy have decided to comply with Rawls’ difference principle: They contribute a considerable amount of their wealth to the less fortunate of society and the money is spent, as intended, to balance opportunity and wealth. Most poor are alleviated in the process and they advance from being poor to being comfortably poor. They eventually enjoy the same rights to vote, the same access to education and to the job-market as everybody else, but lack the motivation, perhaps due to prior conditioning, as well as the drive and enthusiasm to advance much further. Many of the less well-off have decided to stay happily content this way, they are comfortably poor.

We may, to add a variation, even invite social mobility into the equation, such as wealthy people who decide to be rather comfortably poor than to be mind-boggling rich, or poor people who decide they’d rather be well-off. Even when satisfying the two conditions of the difference principle, society would still be trapped in a self-stabilizing inequality equilibrium. Perhaps this is all that Rawls had hoped to achieve, to avoid injustice in the form of poverty and diminished opportunities to the less fortunate.

Society, in this thought-experiment, would turn into an Aldous Huxley-like ‘Brave New World’ where justice has been served, nobody can complain to have their rights shortchanged, but the social arrangement cements de facto a hierarchical society where the difference principle has been instrumentalized by one class happily relying on another for the mutual benefit of a stable political system. (To those readers who wonder – this example is partially a parody of Thailand, where I currently reside, and where the poor are rather content since the basics of life are taken care of).

Identifying the driving forces behind justice

Before objecting to this idea on Rawls’ behalf, or giving a plethora of empirical reasons to why the example may not apply, we may consider the following: Isn’t what we are really concerned about not inequality per se, but indignity? From a Kantian perspective, what we are really concerned with are undignified living conditions that prevent people from exercising reason, and as such deprive them of freedom and autonomy. Aristotle and Kant may have both agreed that it is the active participation, the democratic practice, to make public use of one’s ability to reason, that truly empowers the less fortunate.

One could ask now where the obligation derives for the wealthy to support the less well-off. In a Kantian model it would be the original social contract which, like for Rawls, is a hypothetical and not empirical assumption. But the underlying motivation is to empower people, in the widest sense, as rational agents, not for the sake of equality but for their own. The motivation to care for the less fortunate in a Kantian model derives from achieving dignity, freedom and autonomy for all persons in general. From here not only fair redistribution, but the motive for redistribution, which is social empowerment, can be concluded. To base a theory of justice on the individual and collective faculty to reason, as well as the motivation to collectively enter into a social contract in order to escape the tyranny of a state of nature (Locke),  appears to be a more defensible position rather than to postulate an imaginary veil of ignorance.

From a phenomenological perspective we may ask why should we agree to the assumption of Rawls’ ‘original position‘, the veil of ignorance, as an imaginary construct since it bears no relation to any person’s real experience? And why would we assume that people comply with the condition of equality after the veil is lifted?


The Google Classroom: How it works, what it is and what it isn’t

Above: The clean GUI of the Google classroom. Besides standard themes, the header can be customized, as shown here. Students can also invite themselves via a Class Code. 

Some background

The first e-learning platform I ever encountered was the Open Source projectMoodle’, which had been used for the University of Oxford’s undergraduate and professional training courses. However, when we tried to install and use Moodle for my college, we found it to be somehow cumbersome to install and difficult to administrate, a trade-off for its massive customizability. Moodle as a free, Open-Source product provides a highly flexible and useful e-learning platform, but requires an intense learning curve for administrators and lecturers alike. It reminded me in this regard of the Open-Source OS Linux.


Above: Moodle is a free, fully-developed and highly customizable e-learning platform (click to enlarge)

My second brush with online platforms was during my Master studies with the Blackboard Virtual Classroom, employed by the University of Liverpool in combination with Laureate Lens, developed by Laureate Education. Both packages are fused into a coherent and polished high-end GUI. It is one of the best solutions I have seen so far, but Blackboard requires a sizable financial commitment which not every school is ready to make. The same is true for Adobe Connect Learning, a well-developed live platform that I was introduced to during my  e-tutoring training with Oxford University. When I heard about the Google Classroom I got excited. What I was looking for was a workable out-of-the-box virtual classroom, something more tangible and less time-consuming than Moodle.

What it is – In a Nutshell

The Google Classroom is an online platform that allows educators to post assignments, questions and teaching materials online, while students can submit their work in digital form and discuss their projects. The main interface between teachers and students is a stream of posted messages. Teachers can easily check which assignments have been handed in and they can correct papers using Google documents.

Getting Started within the Google World

The reason why the Google classroom is relatively easy to set up is simple: the classroom runs externally on Google servers, works via Gmail Login and is using Google Apps. It is googely all the way, so a familiarization with the basics of Google Apps is definitely a prerequisite. Students cannot use their own emails at this stage to interact with the classroom as all operations run via a customized, central URL at ‘’, which needs to be registered at a reasonable 10 Euro fee for the annual domain registration.

The Google Classroom is not a freely available application since only verified education providers qualify. Once the classroom is set up, a Google support manager is assigned to one’s case, which I found to be a great service and saving considerable time when ironing out teething problems.

Screenshot above: Creating classes and navigating between them is fairly intuitive. On the left we see the navigation bar that allows jumping to any other class quickly

Benefits and Stumbling Blocks

Student Registration and Benefits: Although advertised as being easy to apply via three different methods, is still a fair bit tricky and buggy. To start, students need to be registered as active users via the Administrator Panel, and also need to be listed as Contacts and/or registered via Google Groups. The latter I found useful since groups can be set up that match classes, making student invitations to classes easier. On my wish list would be a one-stop registration process as the current process can become tedious when student numbers become larger. Benefits for the lecturer are to be able to manage students via a centralized platform, keeping track of students’ assignments and fairly efficient grading. Students find their learning materials in a single place and they can communicate with colleagues about their ongoing projects via various communication channels. To me the biggest benefit is improved student-lecturer communication. There is, important to mention, of course no advertising in the virtual classroom. Attractive to digital natives is that student can log into the classroom via mobile apps to check for lecturers’ feedback, posting of new assignments and reminders of deadlines.

Functionality: The GUI looks polished and uncluttered and Google’s designers have done a great job in keeping things simple. The Google classroom looks beautiful. It offers the easy creation of courses, registration of students, posting of announcements and assignments, facilitation of streamed conversations and grading. Data and archived classrooms are stored on Google Drive. For close to no money, this is a considerable package.

Yet, there are some functions that I am dearly missing. In the ‘stream’ where students and lecturers post their messages it is e.g., not possible to attach documents, such as in MS-Word format, in reply to an initial post. For example, students who post an essay cannot get a corrected copy from their lecturer in the same thread, which is awkward. Only the first post allows for attachments, so the lecturer has to start a new thread to post the corrected version, which gets messy when serving an entire class. Future integration to plagiarism checkers such as Turnitin or writing support platforms such as Grammarly would be directions to extend audiences.

Above: (a) Any file-type, including video, can be posted in the stream as attachments to initial posts, (b) typical invitation list of students: the two students on top (light blue) have not logged in yet which is clearly indicated, (c) the home page gives a clear overview of all classes.

Announcements to the Class and Wish-List for Improvements: Lecturers can create and post announcements and questions easily within the stream. Eventually, like in a Facebook post, any important, overarching notification drifts further and further away as the stream grows and progresses. What I’d like to see in the future are permanent announcements that are not part of the stream and that can be set aside, such as general course-information, a detailed overview of the subject, a navigation guide for beginners or any recent notice to the entire class. The current ‘About’ tab (‘About the class’)is not sufficient and visible enough to signal students.

Fixing the three basic issues mentioned above (1. Easier student registration, 2. Enabling attachments to subsequent posts and 3. Offering permanent notifications to a class) would be on top of my wish list. I hope someone at Google is listening.

Online corrections of students’ academic assignments have the great advantage that they can be carried out far more detailed as compared to paper- assignments, especially when using review-comment functions. Detailed feedback to students is a huge argument for e-learning and also for Google’s classroom in this context. Google Classroom is using Google Documents for the commenting on and returning of students’ assignments. Note that when you save Google Documents as MS Word format, annotations and comments are translated adequately and they appear exactly as in an original MS Word review (see below). Advantages of the Google Documents application is that it allows for collaborative multi-user access to a single document and automatic cloud-backup. Disadvantage of the Google Document application is that it only works in a browser and online, Google Documents is not working offline. Editing options are not yet as refined as in MS Word. Consequentially, users may switch back and forth between formats.


Catering to Digital Natives: It took little time for my students to become friends with the Google classroom applications  for mobile phones (for Android and iOS) that allow for immediate classroom access. The applications support the behavioral pattern of digital natives – quick access via mobile phones is a tremendous motivation for students to participate more regularly. Students can check quickly when assignments are due; they have instant access to learning materials and can communicate effortlessly with fellow students about their projects – Google Hangouts (supporting messaging, voice-calls and multi-user video conferencing) included.

Google grading

Above: Student submission page – the lecturer knows exactly how many assignments have been turned in and by whom, allowing for the returning of and commenting on students’ work.

Conclusion: A convenient and useful tool in addition to existing face-to-face classrooms, but no stand-alone e-learning platform

I am using the Google classroom currently as a complementary tool to face-to-face, ‘analogue’ classrooms. The Google classroom is not a stand-alone e-learning platform. Users who know Moodle or Blackboard  and who have become accustomed to setting up classes in orderly weekly cycles, the segmented posting of learning resources and a differentiated streaming service (inclusive of a message editor) may find these missing features a deal-breaker to employ the Google classroom. The Google classroom is definitely sophisticated enough to be used as a supporting learning tool. It is also user-friendly enough to be employed by most lecturers without demanding a steep learning curve. Latest features are publicized by Google.

Besides, we should not forget that the more we conduct classes online, the more our e-tutoring skills need to keep up with technology. Staff training is required. The tricky question for Google is to decide which age-group the Google classroom should serve as the product matures. One size does not fit all. On undergraduate level, the Google classroom seems ideal, especially for blended learning. On graduate level that requires tools for more self-directed learners and subsequently more advanced functionality (the ‘constructivist classroom‘ as guiding philosophy here), the Google classroom will definitely require more development and diversification. A last issue is privacy and liability issues in case of data loss. Institutions of Higher Learning may want to be in full charge of their data and therefore host platforms on their own servers.

Given that students have become accustomed to working online, the Google classroom provides a powerful support for face-to-face classes. For very little investment, the Google classroom is an ideal partner for blended learning and flipped classrooms. Reading the fine-print in Googles introduction pages, Google has never promised a fully working e-learning platform. Given modern teaching environments, the actual question for educators is how much more tedious and uncoordinated course-management gets by not going partially digital. School and college managers also need to take into account that administrating an online classroom requires additional time and work from staff, it is not a shiny new tool that comes entirely for free.

Strengths and Limitations of Behaviorism for Human Learning

The Evidence from Research on Behavioral Theories

Pavlov’s work on classical conditioning (Pavlov, 1927) and Skinner’s concept of operant conditioning (Skinner, 1953) have provided the blueprints for evidence-based applications in behaviorism. Behaviorism has since proven effective, for example in the diagnosis of patients with mental disorders by operationalizing the acquisition of new behavior (Barrett & Lindsley, 1962), improving item-recall for dementia patients (Dixon et al., 2011) or for conditioning students in military and technical education (Gökmenoğlu & Kiraz, 2010).

In combination with cognitive therapy, behavior modification helps autistic children with the acquisition of life-skills (Virues-Ortega et al., 2013). Behaviorism has proven its efficacy in contexts that require the performance of convergent and highly context-dependent tasks. (Photograph: B.F.Skinner/ rat in a Skinner Box.)

Strengths and Weaknesses

A central strength of behaviorism is that results can be reliably reproduced experimentally such as in a Skinner box or similar apparatus. This evident advantage translates into several distinct counter-arguments. Firstly, behaviorism does not acknowledge active human agency, this is conscious self-awareness (Chalmers, 1996) which is typically mediated via language. Key properties of human agency are intentionality, forethought and self-reactiveness (Bandura, 2006, p. 164-165), all of which play no role in behaviorism.

Secondly, a behaviorist perspective can  not explain how people make procedural decisions or negotiate between various types of potential rewards and goals. Most of human behavior is not based on conditioned, convergent reflexes on a single task, but correlates to preceding mental processes that are divergent and collaborative in nature (Funke, 2014; Eseryel et al., 2013; Hung, 2013). Besides, divergent thinking is related to developing interpersonal trust (Selaro et al., 2014). The Theory of Planned Behavior (Ajzen 1991, 2002) could be regarded as the anti-thesis to behaviorism since it postulates attitudes, norms, a person’s perceived behavioral control and intentions as precursors to behavior, rather than specific environmental stimuli.

Since reflexes are strictly defined as physiological interactions, behaviorism cannot explain individual differences in human learning, variations in learning- styles and the influence of personality on learning (Rosander, 2013; Kamarulzaman, 2014). The neurological functionality of reflexes is constrained to given brain organization (Goffaux et al., 2014) and neurotransmitter processes (Striepens et al., 2014) and excludes higher brain functions invoking mental processes (Degen, 2014). Behavioral studies and therapies in clinical settings also run into ethical problems on how to obtain legal consent for behavior modification, such as for patients with mental disorders and neurological impairments (Digdon et al., 2014).

On the Validity of Animal Studies

One of the distinguishing differences between humans and animals is the use of language. Using an Information Theory approach, Reznikova (2006) concludes that animals produce no syntax and provide little evidence for the learning and modification of signals (Reznikowa, 2006, p. 9), a notion shared by Seyfarth and Cheney (2009) who state that learned, flexible vocal production is relatively rare. A predictable, communicative system is absent in the animal world (Seyfarth & Cheney, 2009, p. 97-98) while signals are limited to specific contexts such as greetings, infant distress or predator alarm (Marler & Tenaza, 1977; Snowdon, 1986).

Human language development, by contrast, is tied to the development of Theory of Mind (ToM) skills (Miller, 2006). Language acquisition by reinforcement (Skinner, 1957) can neither sufficiently account for the semantic and pragmatic dimensions of coordinated human speech, nor for the meta-contextual quality of its acts (Chomsky, 1983; Searle, 1969). By ignoring cognitive development (Skinner, 1950), behaviorism deprives itself of fully understanding the role of behavior such as e.g., children’s joint attention, engaging in imitation and play-behavior, not only as precursors to language but for the parallel development of mental abilities (Charman et al., 2000).

Animal studies can be compromised by animals being exposed to uncontrolled pain and stress variables (Rollin, 2006, p.293; see also Watanabe, 2007). An anthropomorphized interpretation can furthermore lead to biased reporting. For example Martin Seligman’s behavioral dog experiment (Seligman, 1975) follows such anthropomorphism. Seligman found that when animals were given electrical shocks that they were not able to prevent (and subsequently surrendered in apathy) they tended to react similarly inactive in situations where they could have avoided punishment. Seligman concluded that the same was true for humans who suffer from depression in the form of ‘learned helplessness’. However, the experiment could likewise be interpreted that the animals were simply conditioned to accept new thresholds for enduring pain, that they had been traumatized or both. Besides, drawing inferences from animal reactions for human mind states and motivation seems far-fetched and impossible to prove. Some years later Seligman distanced himself from his original research findings (Abramson et al., 1978).


Behaviorism has valid, but limited applications. In clinical psychology behaviorist theory is typically complemented with cognitive theory to produce more efficient results (Feltham & Horton, 2006). In modern military education, issues such as professional ethics and mindfulness require cognitive skills and training (Major, 2014; Starr-Glass, 2013); the same applies to training in sports (Samson, 2014; Huntley & Kentzer, 2013). Behaviorism remains highly relevant in animal conditioning. It has however, with the advent of neurological imaging technology and the scientific measurement of cognitive processes (DeSouza et al., 2012; Kühn et al., 2014) ceased as a leading theory of learning. Few people know that Pavlov not only experimented on dogs, but also on children and that Skinner envisioned operant conditioning on societal scale, approaches that have become unacceptable in contemporary scientific ethics. Behaviorism does have its applications, but they must be seen in the context of human agency.


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Digdon, N., Powell, R. A., & Harris, B. (2014). LITTLE ALBERT’S ALLEGED NEUROLOGICAL IMPAIRMENT.  Watson, Rayner, and Historical Revision. History Of Psychology, doi:10.1037/a0037325

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Emotional Intelligence: Pop-psychology Without Evidence

Frank UnderwoodWhat compelling evidence exists for Emotional Intelligence (EI)?

The concept of emotional intelligence was heavily popularized by the publications of psychologist-journalist Daniel Goleman. Goleman claims for example that EI accounts for 80% of work performance and life success and is directly linked to career progression (Goleman, 1995, 1998). However, we may include counterfactual experience. Corruption scandals all over the world appear to confirm that de facto the least empathetic, most anti-social Machiavellian strategists and sociopaths rank among the most successful public leaders. Kevin Spacey, aka Frank Underwood, in the recent political thriller ‘House of Cards’ (picture above) would be a good example for a very different type of EI, the public script of advocating instrumentalized and  non-empathetic EI (Fincher et al., 2013).

Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer define emotional intelligence “as the subset of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions” (Salovey, & Mayer,1990, p.190). The ambiguity of the term has led to critique counter-arguing that emotions and intelligence are unrelated and EI is therefore an invalid concept (Locke, 2005). Evidence relating to EI can be separated into empirical evidence, of which there is little due to lack of rigorous research, and circumstantial, of which there is plenty.

Conceptually, no agreed definition of EI has been concluded. Zeidner, Roberts and Matthews point out that “(…) it is presently unclear whether EI is cognitive or noncognitive; whether it refers to explicit or implicit knowledge of emotion; and whether it refers to a basic aptitude or to some adaptation to a specific social and cultural milieu.” (Zeidner et al., 2008, p. 67). Unaddressed remains also the question if EI entails, beyond perception and use, an overarching concept of meta-emotional regulation competence.

A methodological weakness of EI research is the lack of standardized assessment of socio-emotional skills (Garner, 2010, p.307) and the inadequacy of EI measures, such as ECI, EQ-i, MEIS and MSCEIT V.2, due to missing peer-reviews, strong correlation with personality measures, lack of predictive validity beyond general mental ability and low inter-relation of different EI measures. Latter questions if EI-scales actually address the same construct (Conte, 2005, p.434-437). Van Rooy and Viswesvran (2004) e.g., note significant correlations of ability-based EI measures to Big-Five personality traits ranging between .23 and .80, suggesting low discriminant validity.

Emotions and Learning: Circumstantial Evidence 

Emotions matter in learning. Positive affect supports learning by arousing focus, leading to attention and engagement, creating extended thought-action repertoires while broadening experiences and coping strategies. Negative emotionality narrows thoughts and behaviors (Reschly, Huebner, Appleton & Antaramian, 2008) while achievement emotions support motivation to learn (Pekrun, Frenzel, Goetz & Perry, 2007).

Such ‘constructive emotions’ scaffold cognition and social interaction by facilitating learning processes pre-cognitively. To this extent emotions may not be directly ‘intelligent’, but they motivate and facilitate cognition – to respond to Locke’s (2005) argument that emotions and intelligence don’t relate – by developing emotion knowledge and emotion regulation, e.g. between teachers and students (Garner, 2010, p.312-315).

A recent meta-analysis by Durlack, Weissberg, Taylor and Schellinger (2011) concludes significant effect of social-emotional learning (SEL) programs at schools, which include outcomes of emotion recognition, stress-management, empathy, problem-solving, decision-making skills and diminished anti-social behavior. Reported are improved school attitudes and performance (Zins, Weissberg, Wang, & Walberg, 2004; Zidner et al., 2009, p.241) and better learning management under stress (Elliot & Dweck, 2005). The effects of positive emotionality are not surprising, given that learning is inherently socially-based, which still begs the question how structured, pro-social emotions specifically work.

Conclusion: EI as a Concept

Most advocates of EI agree that we cannot have EI without empathy, which is a highly complex construct by itself (Coplan & Goldie, 2011). Is EI an idea that should be broken down into more comprehensive and manageable constructs? Currently EI seems to account for everything under the sun, e.g., EI equals emotional literacy + empathy + problem-solving + pro-social behavior + stress management + emotional control + decision-making skills + democratic outlook on society + (n). This uncoordinated approach explains the unreliable measurement of current conceptualizations of IE. Unaddressed remain likewise the construction of socially distributed intelligence (Emery, Clayton & Frith, 2008), scaffold by a process-based emotional adaptation to new environments (Zeidner et al., 2008, p.68). Emotional Intelligence is an intuitive idea of pop-psychology which does not hold up to scientific scrutiny.  As much as we agree that emotions matter on all levels of life, current concepts of EI unfortunately provide no reliable conceptual framework to yield greater insights on the constructive role of emotions for social life.



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Elliot, A. J., & Dweck, C. S. (Eds.). (2005). Handbook of competence and motivation. New York: Guilford.

Emery, N., Clayton, N., & Frith, C. D. (2008). Social intelligence : from brain to culture / edited by Nathan Emery, Nicola Clayton and Chris Frith. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2008.

Fincher, D., Spacey, K., Roth, E., Donen, J., Brunetti, D., Davies, A., Dobbs, Melfi, J., Willimon, B. (Executive Producers). (2013). House of Cards [Television series]. United States: Netflix.

Garner, P. W. (2010). Emotional Competence and its Influences on Teaching and Learning. Educational Psychology Review, (3). 297.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New York: Bantam.

Goleman, D. (1998). Working with emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam.

Locke, E. A. (2005). Why emotional intelligence is an invalid concept. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 26(4), 425–431.

Pekrun, R., Frenzel, A. C., Goetz, T., & Perry, R. (2007). The Control-Value Theory of achievement emotions: An integrative approach to emotions in education. In Schutz, P. A., & Pekrun, R. (Eds.). Emotion in education, Amsterdam, Netherlands: Elsevier Academic Press.

Reschly, A. L., Huebner, E., Appleton, J. J., & Antaramian, S. (2008). Engagement as flourishing: The contribution of positive emotions and coping to adolescents’ engagement at school and with learning. Psychology In The Schools, 45(5), 419-431. doi:10.1002/pits.20306

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Van Rooy, D. L., & Viswesvaran, C. (2004). Emotional intelligence: A meta-analytic investigation of predictive validity and nomological net. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 65, 71-95.

Zeidner, M., Matthews, G., & Roberts, R. D. (2009). What we know about emotional intelligence [electronic book] : how it affects learning, work, relationships, and our mental health / Moshe Zeidner, Gerald Matthews, and Richard D. Roberts. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, c2009.

Zeidner, M., Roberts, R., & Matthews, G. (2008). The science of emotional intelligence: Current consensus and controversies. European Psychologist, 13(1), 64-78. doi:10.1027/1016-9040.13.1.64

Zins, J. E., Weissberg, R. P., Wang, M. C., & Walberg, H.J. (Eds.). (2004). Building academic success on social and emotional learning: What does the research say? New York: Teachers College Press.

Troubled Schools: Theory, Evidence-based Interventions and Assessment

BulliedLet’s take a school with a teenage population that is troubled by poor examination performance, high levels of truancy and high incidents of bullying. Which would be reasonable options to improve students’ emotion regulation and social functioning?

1. Adolescent Psychology

The goals of an educational psychologist addressing such a scenario include the implementation of programs aiming to improve the emotion regulation and social functioning of students and to prevent future development of mental disorders.

Adolescence is characterized by a limited emotion-regulation strategy repertoire, entailing negative emotionality, unstable peer- and romantic relationships and increased conflicts with parents, typically leading to heightened sadness, anger, and rumination (Zimmermann & Iwanski, 2014, p. 181-182). Dischordance between experience, arousal and expression leads to a polarized internalization and externalization of problems (Lanteigne, Flynn, Eastabrook, & Hollenstein, 2014, p.30).

The accumulations of stressful life events such as abuse, parental divorce, experience of violence or unstable residency, which are more typical for adolescents from lower SES background, are strong predictors for socio-emotional maladjustment (Appleyard, Egeland & van Dulmen, 2005). Promoting coping strategies such as, e.g., cognitive-emotional reappraisal is thus helpful for this volatile population as an antecedent focused strategy (Flouri & Mavroveli, 2013, p.364). This is complemented by strategies developing emotional engagement, entailing awareness, acceptance and perception of the manageability of emotions (Lougheed & Hollenstein, 2012, p.706).

2. Evidence-based Initiatives and their Assessment

Evidence-based initiatives are offered by a number of recognized program agencies endorsed by the APA and Society of School Psychology (Macklem, 2011, p.22-23). Usually such initiatives are designed as three tier interventions, which are integrated into the regular curriculum. Tier 1 involves all students and offers social and emotional learning (SEL) programs, inclusive of teacher- and parent-training (CASEL, 2014). Tier 2 is designed for selected students who show some risk factors, such as displaying defiance, opposition, impulsivity or aggression. Tier 2 interventions focus on anger management, social-problem solving, developing friendships, following school rules and they are delivered in group format (Macklem, p.26). Tier 3 interventions address students with symptoms related to mental disorders and include e.g., identifying situational cues that trigger negative emotions or changing negative rumination to coping and constructive self-talk (Albano & Kandall, 2002).

Interventions for chronic truancy should be woven into tiers 2 or 3, since individual- and group level interventions appear to be most effective. Besides, such interventions involve external parties such as social- and community workers or law enforcement officers that do not concern all students (Ford & Flaherty, 2010, p.196). Despite absence of evidence-based studies (Maynard, Mccrea, Pigott & Kelly, 2013), initial absenteeism should be addressed on tier 1 for emotionally-based truancy and truancy due to school-climate addressing all students (Derochers, 2013). Bullying and cyber-bullying can be addressed at tier1 to create a secure and non-discriminative social climate for all students (Shariff, 2009, p.128) and on tiers 2 and 3 to remediate bullies and to empower victims, backed by anti-bullying school policies and committees (Lund, Blake, Ewing & Banks, 2012).

A three-tier system has the advantage that it encompasses the entire student population while offering individual-specific levels of care. Formative intervention assessment is conducted via self-reports for measuring symptom reduction and use of strategies, efficacy of on-task behaviors, academic performance, classroom participation, incidents of angry outbursts, improved memory and increased social interaction of students with depressed mood and reduction of disruptive behavior. For measuring intervention efficacy, data is collected from students, parents and teachers pre-, inter- and near end of programs (Macklem, p.57).

3. Implementation Challenges

Less experienced teachers tend to contextualize programs to a point where evidence-based data collection is compromised. Tier 1 programs need to be culturally appropriate and relevant to students’ life-situation to motivate them to attend. For tier 2, inaccurate screening by untrained staff can confuse ordinary students with those who are at risk (Macklem, p.40-43). Parents involvement can be stimulated by communicating schools as places of security and respect (Goldkind & Farmer, 2013), by improving parent-school communication or changing parents’ mindset about fixed versus malleable abilities of their children (Hornby & Lafaele, 2011).

4. The Role of Culture

Culture-specific emotion regulation strategies can lead to increased anxiety and acculturation-stress for immigrant adolescents, leading to excessive worrying and concentration difficulties (Macklem, p.96). Tahmouresi and colleagues note that ‘development of emotion regulation in non-Western countries is related to empathy, interpersonal adjustment and norm assimilation. In western cultures, however, development of emotion regulation is associated with self-expression and autonomy’ (Tahmouresi, Bender, Schmitz, Baleshzar & Tuschen-Caffier, 2014, p.57).

In Iranian culture it is e.g., more difficult for children to express themselves as they are expected to show respect for social orders and norms. Cultural emotion regulation schemata differ in attributing expectations behind success and failure and bifurcate up-or down-regulating of related affect (Tsai, & Lau, 2013, p.417; Miyamoto & Ma, 2011), a sensitivity which needs to be considered when dealing with immigrant adolescents or teaching in foreign cultures.

In case you are a school administrator or educational psychologist, here is a list of  frequently referenced program agencies you may find useful

SAMSA: National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices.

Promising Practices Network.

CASEL: Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (SEL programs).

CSPV: Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development at Penn State,
the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence.

USDOE: The United States Department of Education’s Exemplary and Promising Safe,
Disciplined, and Drug-Free Schools Programs 2001 (USDOE) (US).

CSMHA: Center for School Mental Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine
(Recognized Evidence-based Programs Implemented by Expanded. School Mental Health

Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, University
of Colorado at Boulder.

OJJDP: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, US Department of Justice.

The California Evidence-based Clearinghouse.



Albano, A. M., & Kendall, P. C. (2002). Cognitive behavioral therapy for children and adolescents with anxiety disorders: Clinical research advances. International Review of Psychiatry,14(2), 129–134.

Appleyard, K., Egeland, B., & van Dulmen, M. H. M. (2005). When more is not better: The role of cumulative risk in child behavior outcomes. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 46, 235–245.

Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL). (2014). Program Descriptions. Retrieved from

De Leersnyder, J., Boiger, M., & Mesquita, B. (2013). Cultural regulation of emotion: Individual, relational, and structural sources. Frontiers In Psychology, 4

Desrochers, J. E. (2013). Evidence-Based Practices in School Refusal and Truancy – An Interview with the Author. Communique (0164775X), 42(4), 15-16.

Flouri, E., & Mavroveli, S. (2013). Adverse Life Events and Emotional and Behavioural Problems in Adolescence: The Role of Coping and Emotion Regulation. Stress & Health: Journal Of The International Society For The Investigation Of Stress, 29(5), 360-368.

Goldkind, L., & Farmer, G. (2013). The Enduring Influence of School Size and School Climate on Parents’ Engagement in the School Community. School Community Journal, 23(1), 223-244.

Hornby, G. & Lafaele, R. (2011). Barriers to parental involvement in education: an explanatory model. Educational Review, February 2011, 63(1):37-52. DOI: 10.1080/00131911.2010.488049

Lanteigne, D. M., Flynn, J. J., Eastabrook, J. M., & Hollenstein, T. (2014). Discordant patterns among emotional experience, arousal, and expression in adolescence: Relations with emotion regulation and internalizing problems. Canadian Journal Of Behavioural Science / Revue Canadienne Des Sciences Du Comportement, 46(1), 29-39. doi:10.1037/a0029968

Lougheed, J. P., & Hollenstein, T. (2012). A Limited Repertoire of Emotion Regulation Strategies is Associated with Internalizing Problems in Adolescence. Social Development, 21(4), 704-721. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9507.2012.00663.x

Lund, E. M., Blake, J. J., Ewing, H. K., & Banks, C. S. (2012). School Counselors’ and School Psychologists’ Bullying Prevention and Intervention Strategies: A Look into Real-World Practices. Journal Of School Violence, 11(3), 246-265.

Macklem, G. L. (2011). Evidence-based school mental health services [electronic book] : affect education, emotion regulation training, and cognitive behavioral therapy / Gayle L. Macklem. New York : Springer, c2011.

Maynard, B. R., Mccrea, K., Pigott, T. D., & Kelly, M. S. (2013). Indicated Truancy Interventions for Chronic Truant Students: A Campbell Systematic Review. Research On Social Work Practice, 23(1), 5-21. doi:10.1177/1049731512457207

Miyamoto, Y., & Ma, X. (2011). Dampening or savoring positive emotions: A dialectical cultural script guides emotion regulation. Emotion, 11(6), 1346-1357. doi:10.1037/a0025135

Schuppert, H., Giesen-Bloo, J., van Gemert, T., Wiersema, H., Minderaa, R., Emmelkamp, P., & Nauta, M. (2009). Effectiveness of an emotion regulation group training for adolescents – a randomized controlled pilot study. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 16(6), 467-478. doi:10.1002/cpp.637

Shariff, S. (2009). Confronting cyber-bullying [electronic book] : what schools need to know to control misconduct and avoid legal consequences / Shaheen Shariff. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Sutphen, R. D., Ford, J. P., & Flaherty, C. (2010). Truancy interventions: A review of the research literature. Research On Social Work Practice, 20(2), 161-171. doi:10.1177/1049731509347861

Tahmouresi, N., Bender, C., Schmitz, J., Baleshzar, A., & Tuschen-Caffier, B. (2014). Similarities and Differences in Emotion Regulation and Psychopathology in Iranian and German School-children: A Cross-cultural Study. International Journal Of Preventive Medicine, 5(1), 52-60.

Tsai, W. W., & Lau, A. S. (2013). Cultural differences in emotion regulation during self-reflection on negative personal experiences. Cognition And Emotion, 27(3), 416-429. doi:10.1080/02699931.2012.715080

Zimmermann, P., & Iwanski, A. (2014). Emotion regulation from early adolescence to emerging adulthood and middle adulthood Age differences, gender differences, and emotion-specific developmental variations. International Journal Of Behavioral Development, 38(2), 182-194.

Cognitive Approaches in High-Performance Sport Psychology



Cognitive theories of the 70s were predominantly based on an information-processing approach (Lachman, Lachman & Butterfieled, 1979), or more simply put ‘minds are bundles of computations.’ (Edelman, 2008, p.181).

This view has changed fundamentally over the past decades. The current embodiment approach to cognition proposes a direct link between thinking and skilled action which is critical to sports performance (Moran, 2012). Executive functions are vital for novices to learn novel skill-sets under the oppositional presence of habitual responses as well as for experts, such as Olympic athletes, to facilitate goal-directed actions under distraction (Jacobson & Mattheus, 2014). In terms of cognitive computation, athletes aim to develop skilled movements by accomplishing their goals at the lowest possible cost. Coaches help athletes to develop long-term cognitive strategies preventing athletes from ‘falling into local maxima for immediate rewards (…) and thereby allow the athlete to attain the global maxima with maximum future rewards.’ (Yarrow, Brown & Krakauer, 2009, p.587).

Novice Athletes

Novices start with developing a ‘growth mindset’ which focuses on effort, rather than on talent (Dweck, 1986, 2009). A growth mindset assumes that intelligence is malleable and focuses on learning, which entails the importance of feedback and learning from mistakes. This is also know as Incremental Theory. Using mental strategies during training assists novices to control body-movements and to anticipate the movements of others in team-sports. It is e.g., physically impossible to visually track a tennis ball travelling at approximately 200 km/h, this is why good players learn how to pick up cues and patterns from the body movements of their opponents, to anticipate action long before a ball is served.

Practicing their own body language improves perceived confidence, e.g., a confident body posture helps avoiding anxiety and to focus on the task at hand (Symes, 2014). Breathing and visualization exercises demonstrate how intrinsically body-control and working-memory functionality is intertwined, in this case the interaction between the short-term memory’s visuo-spatial sketch pad (Baddeley, 2010) and the brain’s respiratory control center responding to voluntary motor-control (NIH, 2014).

Practicing mental imagery assists motor cognition (Moran, 2009, p.421) since imagined movements share neural processes equivalent to physical actions (Borst, Ganis, Thompson & Kosslyn, 2012). For novices, guided discovery and explicit instruction have proven effective training methods under pre- and post training performance measurements, with guided discovery proving less vulnerable and more robust under anxiety provoking conditions (Williams, Ford, Eccles & Ward, 2010, p. 438).

Expert Athletes

Skilled athletes have already developed higher encoded, complex maps and internalized structural relations than novices, which allow them making more relevant evaluations while simultaneously reducing disruptive mental workload (Williams et al., p.333; Nuri, Shadmehr, Ghotbi & Attarbashi Moghadam, 2013). Aim of top athletes is to achieve flow, immersive top performance, and to avoid choking, this is impaired performance by distraction from unnecessary thinking, cognitive worry or anxiety (Winter, MacPherson & Collins, 2014; Vickers & Williams, 2007). Flow is described as an automated state in the here-and-now and it depends on inhibiting conscious thoughts (Moran, 2012). Athletes that re-focus on conscious motor control or self-monitoring (Collins, 2014, p.103) start to ‘choke’. Working memory is in such case occupied by far slower conscious control and subsequently deteriorates performance; ‘paralysis through analysis‘. Skill acquisition for athletes typically passes through cognitive, associative and autonomous-automated stages (Vickers & Williams, 2007), whereby declarative knowledge is transferred to procedural knowledge via memory storing processes (Gallego, González, Calvo, Del Barco & Del Villar Alvarez, 2010).

Winters and colleagues (2013) argue for a fourth state ‘beyond automaticity’, allowing for a continuing implicit self-diagnosing awareness which enables an athlete to correct errors and adjust situational performance levels instantaneously. In terms of a highly goal- and persistence based mindset Sideridis and Kaplan (2011) propose that mastery-oriented learners persist significantly longer than performance-oriented learners, although latter rebound faster after experiences of failure. Their findings are consistent with the notion of not falling into local maxima (Yarrow, et al., 2009).

Performance evaluation of athletes is usually conducted by pre-post training comparisons, separate skill- and game performance analysis, e.g., by reviewing video recordings or during training debriefings, and testing the level of strategic knowledge of a player (Gallego et al., 2010, p.471). Self-reports inform the coach about the robustness of an athlete’s mindset, anxiety management and how the athlete deals with failure or injuries. Evaluation is likewise facilitated by exchanging experiences with other athletes (Symes, 2014, p.87).

In closing, sport psychologists draw on a great variety of frameworks such as Gestalt, humanistic or cognitive-behavioral. Besides performance- and mastery-orientation, an athlete’s self-awareness and personal growth as well as long-term psychological health deserves equal attention.



Baddeley, A. D. (2010). Primer: Working memory. Current Biology, 20(4), 136–140.

Borst, G., Ganis, G., Thompson, W., & Kosslyn, S. (2012). Representations in mental imagery and working memory: Evidence from different types of visual masks. Memory And Cognition, 40(2), 204-217. doi:10.3758/s13421-011-0143-7

Dweck, C. S. (2009). MINDSETS: Developing Talent Through a Growth Mindset. Olympic Coach, 21(1), 4-7.

Dweck, C. S. (1986). Motivational processes affecting learning. American Psychologist, 41(10), 1040-1048. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.41.10.1040

Edelman, S. (2008). On the nature of minds, or: truth and consequences. Journal Of Experimental & Theoretical Artificial Intelligence, 20(3), 181-196. doi:10.1080/09528130802319086

Gallego, D., González, L., Calvo, T., Del Barco, B., & Del Villar Alvarez, F. (2010). Expertise development in sport: contributions under cognitive psychology perspective. Journal Of Human Sport & Exercise, 5(3), 462-475.

Jacobson, J., & Matthaeus, L. (2014). Athletics and executive functioning: How athletic participation and sport type correlate with cognitive performance. Psychology Of Sport & Exercise, 15(5), 521-527.

Lachman, R., Lachman, J. L. & Butterfield, E. C. (1979), Cognitive Psychology and Information Processing: An Introduction, Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Moran, A. (2012). Thinking in Action: Some Insights from Cognitive Sport Psychology. Thinking Skills And Creativity, 7(2), 85-92.

Moran, A. (2009). Cognitive psychology in sport: Progress and prospects. Psychology Of Sport & Exercise, 10(4), 420-426.

Nuri, L., Shadmehr, A., Ghotbi, N., & Attarbashi Moghadam, B. (2013). Reaction time and anticipatory skill of athletes in open and closed skill-dominated sport. European Journal Of Sport Science, 13(5), 431-436.

National Institutes of Health (2014). What Controls Your Breathing? Retrieved from:

Sideridis, G. D., & Kaplan, A. (2011). Achievement goals and persistence across tasks: The roles of failure and success. Journal Of Experimental Education, 79(4), 429–451.

Symes, R. (2014). From cricket to cage fighting: A week in the life of a sport psychologist. Sport & Exercise Psychology Review, 10(1), 78-90.

Vickers, J. N., & Williams, A. (2007). Performing Under Pressure: The Effects of Physiological Arousal, Cognitive Anxiety, and Gaze Control in Biathlon. Journal Of Motor Behavior, 39(5), 381-394.

Williams, A., Ford, P. R., Eccles, D. W., & Ward, P. (2011). Perceptual-cognitive expertise in sport and its acquisition: Implications for applied cognitive psychology. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25(3), 432-442. doi:10.1002/acp.1710

Winter, S., MacPherson, A. C., & Collins, D. (2014). “To think, or not to think, that is the question”. Sport, Exercise, And Performance Psychology, 3(2), 102-115. doi:10.1037/spy0000007

Yarrow, K., Brown, P., & Krakauer, J. W. (2009). Inside the brain of an elite athlete: the neural processes that support high achievement in sports. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10(8), 585-596. doi:10.1038/nrn2672

Domestic Violence against Women in Thailand

DWDomestic Violence: A Brief Description

Based on an international landmark study by the World-Health Organization (WHO, 2006; Garcia-Moreno et al., 2006), domestic violence in Thailand ranks high in the categories of sexual violence and combined sexual and physical violence, with higher prevalence in rural areas (Garcia-Moreno et al., p. 1265). A survey by Mahidol University’s National Institute for Child and Family Development in 2012 reported a sharp increase in domestic abuse encompassing 30.8 % of all Thai households. Divorce-rates in Thailand increased correspondingly from 10.8 percent in 2009 to 33 percent in 2012 (DW, 2013).

Best-fit Theories

Socio-cultural norms and upbringing appear to serve as priming factors predisposing to future domestic violence. Thai men are encouraged from adolescence to go out and ‘have fun’, (Thai: ‘bai tiao’) which includes visitations of commercial sex workers and drinking with peers, maladaptive behavioral patterns supportive of poor self-control that usually continue into adulthood. Young women are obliged to stay at home and take care of the family. Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1983, 2001) at first glance fits this process best. Men learn to socially disconnect from family responsibility while women are dehumanized to primarily facilitate men’s sexual needs. Thai wives who follow such gender traditionalism and who are economically dependent on their husbands are at significantly greater risk of domestic violence (Xiaohe & Sirisunyaluck, 2011). Frustration-aggression (Berkowitz, 1969) and subsequent anger develops when the lower socio-economic status of Thai men, combined with lower education, leads to stress or failure in fulfilling their role for family and marriage (Hoffman et. al, 1994; Gelles, 1974). The frustration is based on the cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957) of dominant males experiencing self-esteem threat, low prestige, low status, inadequacy (Gelles & Straus, 1988) and relative deprivation (Myers & Twenge, 2013, p.360-362). Triggers and cues for violence are typically verbal confrontations by women voicing out their unhappiness and men demanding role compliance (Hoffman, p.141).

Facilitating factors are wide-spread alcoholism to unleash aggression (Assanangkornchai et al., 2010; Srisurapanont et al., 2011; Myers & Twenge, p.358), infidelity, gambling and financial debt (The Nation, 2013) as well as societal trends such as the reduction of of three-generation families to nuclear families (Hoffman, p.143). Thai TV-shows frequently demonstrate the beating and slapping of women as socially acceptable behavior, desensitizing audiences (Myers & Twenge, p.377) fitting with script theory as a subset of social learning theory (Anderson & Bushman, 2002, p.31). Thai children exposed to domestic violence likewise internalize domestic conflict as available violent scripts (Kerley et al., 2002). Such internalized schemata tend to play out later in life such as, for example, in high school (Sherer & Sherer, 2014).

A Real-Life Scenario

The problem of domestic violence shall be illustrated with a real-life story to model a typical context before discussing theory. Journalists of the German ‘Deutsche Welle’ interviewed Jaded Chouwilai, director of the Thai human rights group ‘Women and Men Progressive Movement Foundation’, who recollects the following case:

‘A woman named Suphaksorn turned to Jaded’s Foundation for support after being abused by her former boyfriend. She told DW that her ex-boyfriend got married to another woman and when she wanted to end their relationship, the guy became aggressive. “He brought a gun to my office and threatened to kill me if I didn’t behave normally,” Suphaksorn said. “After that, things turn abusive – he would smack me and bang my head against the wall, against the bed. He also tried to stab me,” she added.’ (DW, 2013)

Thai men are brought up with a cognitive belief, in form of a belief of entitlement, that they can have relationships with multiple women but women are supposed to stay faithful to the same man and under no circumstances can have relationships with other men. If such violation of the belief occurs, even hypothetically, extreme jealousy and rage is unleashed. Needless to say that such belief is bound to fail when meeting social reality.

In terms of Festinger’s Theory of Cognitive Dissonance  (1957) his version of the ‘Belief Disconfirmation Paradigm’ (Festinger, 1956) would be most adequate to frame the implications of such a belief, this is when people are confronted with external information opposing their most salient beliefs. The man’s girlfriend protesting (questioning his belief) while he has already married another woman is such information creating non-congruence threatening belief disconfirmation. In this case the threat of belief disconfirmation is justified by acts of violence, equally based on the belief of absolute entitlement (‘I am allowed to punish any women for their wrongdoing’).

Men’s frustration and subsequent anger of not being able to provide well for his wife and children, especially in impoverished rural areas, could be interpreted by frustration-aggression hypothesis (Berkowitz, 1969) as a variation of cognitive dissonance theory. The self-belief of being a strong partner and husband is challenged by social reality, disrupting cognitive contingency (Festinger, 1957) and causing tension which is released by aggressive and violent behavior. According to Festinger, cognitive dissonance is most powerful when it involves self-image. The interpretation fits with findings of Schumacher et al. (2004), linking behavioral- and attitude change from typical- to violent behavior when paired with verbal conflict and jealousy (Schumacher & Slep, 2004). A more specific hypothesis has been suggested by Koolen and colleagues (2012). The authors write that “Overall, the findings suggest that proactive aggression is predicted by egocentric and disagreeable tendencies, whereas reactive aggression is predicted by poor self-regulation and the misattribution of blame to others.” (Koolen et al., 2012, p. 786). This means that proactive aggression appears more based on personality traits while reactive aggression is more grounded on poor self-regulation.

This differentiation helps to suggest different types of interventions. For addressing poor self-control interventions based on reality therapy, problem-solving and multi-modal frameworks , especially in community settings, have proven to be the most promising approaches (McGuire, 2008, p.2588). The reduction of cognitive dissonance by women avoiding, trivializing and downplaying the seriousness of their partner’s violent acts (Zaitman, 1999) to restore cognitive harmony would be a further example (‘No marriage is perfect’, ‘He did not mean this intentionally’, ‘We still can still make this work’, ‘Maybe it is my fault’ etc.). On a social level the public justification of intimate partner violence could be interpreted in a similar light (Waltermaurer, 2012).


As demonstrated, not a single theory fully explains the interplay of multiple processes leading to aggression and domestic violence against women, supporting the general aggression model (GAM) proposed by Anderson and Bushman (2002). According to GAM, inputs are dominant social roles of men (person variable) into a situation where traditional gender role expectations cannot be met. Routes are affect and arousal due to poor-self control with little cognitive moderating effect. Outcomes are subsequently impulsive actions that serve as a template for future violent social encounters and habitual behavioral cycles (Anderson & Bushman, p.34). Legal provisions cement the freedom of perpetrators from legal prosecution (ChiangmaiNews, 2013), supporting aggression as institutionalized oppression (Romanow, 2012).



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