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23 Signs You’re Secretly a Narcissist Masquerading as a Sensitive Introvert

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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If I see one more listicle about introversion, I’m going to cry.

It started out with the fairly reasonable “31 Unmistakable Signs That You’re An Introvert.” Sure, many of the items on the list offered an exaggerated version of introversion, but there were some real gems that had a large grain of truth. Like this one:

But then this happened:

22 Signs Your Dog’s An Introvert

"He often wears headphones with no music playing, in the hopes no one will try and talk to him."

You’d think that’d be enough for a lifetime of listicles. But no…  they kept coming, mixing together many different traits under the general umbrella “introversion.” For instance, some lists include shyness-reated behaviors, but it’s well documented that shyness is not the same thing as introversion. Shyness is more related to being anxious and neurotic. There are plenty of introverts who prefer alone time but really aren’t anxious or shy when interacting with other people.

Another common misconception perpetuated by these listicles is that introversion and sensory processing sensitivity are the same thing. From “23 Signs You’re Secretly An Introvert“:

“While extroverts tend to get bored easily when they don’t have enough to do, introverts have the opposite problem — they get easily distracted and overwhelmed in environments with an excess of stimulation.”

Actually, sensory processing sensitivity is not the same thing as introversion. There are plenty of socially introverted folks who can deal with loud sounds and bright lights, even though they may get emotionally drained from too many superficial social interactions. Vice versa, there are plenty of socially extraverted individuals who get overstimulated by sensory input. A number of studies support that idea that sensory processing sensitivity is much more strongly linked to anxiety (neuroticism) and openness to experience than introversion.

But when I saw this listicle, I just about flipped my lid:

7 Signs Kanye West Is Secretly An Introvert

Really? Let’s clarify something here: Narcissism is definitely not the same thing as introversion.

Have you ever met someone who constantly tells you how “sensitive” and “introverted” they are, but all you actually see is selfishness and egocentricity? I’m sure you have, because these people exist in spades.

When most people think of narcissism, they think of the public face of narcissism: extraversion, aggression, self-assuredness, grandiosity, vanity, and the need to be admired by others (see “How to Spot a Narcissist“). But as far back as 1938, Harvard psychologist Henry Murray noticed another breed of narcissist among his undergraduates: the covert narcissist. While the “overt” narcissists tended to be aggressive, self-aggrandizing, exploitative, and have extreme delusions of grandeur and a need for attention, “covert” narcissists were more prone to feelings of neglect or belittlement, hypersensitivity, anxiety, and delusions of persecution.

In the 90s, psychologist Paul Wink analyzed a variety of narcissism scales and confirmed that there are indeed two distinct faces of narcissism, which they labeled “Grandiosity-Exhibitonism” and “Vulnerability-Sensitivity”. He found that both shades of narcissism shared a common core of conceit, arrogance, and the tendency to give in to one’s own needs and disregard others. But that’s where the similarities ended.

While Grandiosity-Exhibitionism was associated with extraversion, aggressiveness, self-assuredness, and the need to be admired by others, Vulnerability-Sensitivity was associated with introversion, hypersensitivity, defensiveness, anxiety, and vulnerability. Further research by Jonathan Cheek and Jennifer Odessa Grimes at Wellesley College found a moderate correlation between covert narcissism and the Highly Sensitive Person Scale developed by Elaine Aron.

In other words, while introversion, sensitivity, and narcissism are all partially separate traits, hypersensitive covert narcissists are more likely to report that they are introverted and sensitive.

Are You a Covert Narcissist?

By this point, you’re probably wondering if you’re secretly a hypersensitive covert narcissist masquerading as a sensitive introvert. Without further ado, here are 23 items that will allow you to gain greater insight into your personality. In a recent study conducted on a group of 420 undergraduates, Jonathan Cheek and colleagues found that higher scorers on this “Maladaptive Covert Narcissism Scale” tended to also score higher on tests of entitlement, shame, and neuroticism, and tended to display lower levels of self esteem, extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. In contrast, maladaptive overt narcissism wasn’t related to shame, self esteem, or neuroticism, even though overt narcissists reported feeling just as entitled as covert narcissists. It seems if you have to be a narcissist, it’s better to be an overt narcissist than a covert narcissist!

So here’s the test. Be honest with yourself!

Maladaptive Covert Narcissism Scale (MCNS)*

Please answer the following questions by deciding to what extent each item is characteristic of your feelings and behavior. Fill in the blank next to each item by choosing a number from this scale:

1 = very uncharacteristic or untrue, strongly disagree

2 = uncharacteristic

3 = neutral

4 = characteristic

5 = very characteristic or true, strongly agree

  1. ___ I can become entirely absorbed in thinking about my personal affairs, my health, my cares or my relations to others.
  2. ___ My feelings are easily hurt by ridicule or the slighting remarks of others.
  3. ___ When I enter a room I often become self-conscious and feel that the eyes of others are upon me.
  4. ___ I dislike sharing the credit of an achievement with others.
  5. ___ I feel that I have enough on my hand without worrying about other people’s troubles.
  6. ___ I feel that I am temperamentally different from most people.
  7. ___ I often interpret the remarks of others in a personal way.
  8. ___ I easily become wrapped up in my own interests and forget the existence of others.
  9. ___ I dislike being with a group unless I know that I am appreciated by at least one of those present.
  10. ___ I am secretly “put out” or annoyed when other people come to me with their troubles, asking me for their time and sympathy.
  11. ___ I am jealous of good-looking people.
  12. ___ I tend to feel humiliated when criticized.
  13. ___ I wonder why other people aren’t more appreciative of my good qualities.
  14. ___ I tend to see other people as being either great or terrible.
  15. ___ I sometimes have fantasies about being violent without knowing why.
  16. ___ I am especially sensitive to success and failure.
  17. ___ I have problems that nobody else seems to understand.
  18. ___ I try to avoid rejection at all costs.
  19. ___ My secret thoughts, feelings, and actions would horrify some of my friends.
  20. ___ I tend to become involved in relationships in which I alternately adore and despise the other person.
  21. ___ Even when I am in a group of friends, I often feel very alone and uneasy.
  22. ___ I resent others who have what I lack.
  23. ___ Defeat or disappointment usually shame or anger me, but I try not to show it.

Done? Now add together all the numbers to come up with a total score.

How’d you do?

If you thought on some each of these, “Oh dear lord, that’s sooooo me,” don’t panic. As I mentioned, there’s some overlap between this scale and other tests that measure introversion and sensitivity. In a recent study conducted on college students, the average score on this scale was in the mid-upper 60s. So if your score hovered around that range, you’re about average in covert narcissism. If your score was below 40, you scored very low in covert narcissism.

If, however, your score was 82 and above, you scored high in covert narcissism. And if your score was above 97, well, you might want to own yourself as a card-carrying covert narcissist, instead of constantly telling people to stop criticizing you because your sensitive, introverted soul can’t handle it.

Now, do genuinely introverted people exist? Absolutely. Are there genuinely sensitive people? For sure. There are even many individuals who are both sensitive and introverted.

But the latest research suggests that there is also a large selfish segment of the population who say they are introverted and sensitive when they really just can’t stand it that everyone doesn’t recognize their brilliance.

With that said, whoever bans the word “listicle” from the English lexicon is genuinely brilliant, regardless of their shade of narcissism.

© 2013 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

* The first 10 items of this scale are taken from the original Hypersensitive Narcissism Scale. The rest of the items were added to create a more reliable and valid scale. This new and improved 23-item scale was recently presented at the 2013 Association for Research in Personality conference by Jonathan Cheek, Holly Hendin, and Paul Wink.

Note: Even though Kanye West sings songs such as “I Am A God,” I admit it’s possible that he is actually the reverse of the focus of my article: a sensitive introvert masquerading as a narcissist. I don’t know him personally.

image credit of Kanye West:

Scott Barry Kaufman About the Author: Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Follow on Twitter @sbkaufman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Comments 23 Comments

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  1. 1. seekmocha 11:51 am 08/26/2013

    I’ve run into a number of unimportant people who constantly obsess over the intricate plots and conspiracies of the many other people who are “out to get them.” I’ve wondered why these individuals think they are so important that anybody else would put so much time and energy into “keeping them down.” It would seem that for many people, “covert narcissist” goes hand-in-hand with mild paranoia.

    Link to this
  2. 2. suitti 11:55 am 08/26/2013

    I’m a card carrying introvert. Well, it’s true that the card is a business card i got from someone i don’t know who was trying to sell me something. Yeah, it doesn’t say anything about introversion on it. Well, maybe it does. I really don’t know what it says. I just kept it to shut the guy up. Really annoying.

    Link to this
  3. 3. groovylocks 1:24 pm 08/26/2013

    You can be an introvert and a narcissist. You can be an extrovert and be a narcissist too.

    This article is pretty necessary but it shouldn’t fail to mention all that stuff i just mentioned. We’re not looking for a line in the sand. Narcissism transcends personalities. Introverts nor extroverts are immune to having a sociopath or two wandering around among the ranks.

    And may i just add that in order to be anything BUT covert with regards to one’s narcissism would probably require that person to let go of his narcissistic tendencies.

    Still entertaining though. Nicely written :)

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  4. 4. DrPaj 1:47 pm 08/26/2013

    Great rant, I’m in agreement.
    -Is there a “listicle” of ridiculously well-educated authourities who spout their expertise in well-regarded online scientific periodicals without using spell-check or excellent grammar?
    -I know where I would fall in your categorizations….I know, absolutely, that this article was written for ME, as you’ve offended the sensibilities of my dog, Binky, who listens to REAL music on his headphones and would insist that the pug is being stupid about it; if you have the music ON, you can’t hear anybody who might just go ahead and start talking to you anyway.

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  5. 5. jonhuie 3:13 pm 08/26/2013

    1. Those 23 items define the fundamental nature of being human. Of course, some people overcome their innate natures better than others, and many people simply deny their feelings.

    2. Those 23 items are completely independent of whether one is extroverted or introverted.

    Link to this
  6. 6. 3rd Party Science 5:54 pm 08/26/2013

    Interesting article. I can’t say I was impressed with how the material was presented. I agree with the above comment, about how narcissism transcends personalities. I actually wrote a response to this article, if anyone is interested, you can find it here:

    Link to this
  7. 7. pebakke 8:41 pm 08/26/2013

    Kanye West IS an introvert narcissist. Not sure why that is so hard to grasp when you cover all the other dualities that are possible.

    Link to this
  8. 8. cowsharky 11:37 pm 08/26/2013

    Question: how does having a mental illness such as depression affect this rating? I score high on certain questions that tie into self-hating cognitive distortions (for example, with question 3 I answered very characteristic because I feel like when I enter a room people are looking at the fat, ugly person who just came in). Basically, if it confirms my low opinion of myself, I believe it. In a way I guess thinking you’re the worst is a variation on narcissism, but I don’t know if it qualifies as such officially. My overall score is 74, for what it’s worth.

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  9. 9. Miriam Gordon 12:47 am 08/27/2013

    Scott, I’m just really curious as to what prompted you to write about this. It’s really interesting but all these monikers can get really confusing. I’m glad to see that Elaine Aron’s work is starting to make it’s way into mainstream science. Thanks.

    Link to this
  10. 10. sbrezenoff 9:40 am 08/27/2013

    If an article with a list is a listicle, then an article with a test is a . . .

    Link to this
  11. 11. mammaholt 10:52 am 08/27/2013

    The first line of this article says it all for me.

    Although, I do think that the true introvert has a whole new world open to them in the form of social media enabling them to vent all those “things I wish I could say but can’t.”

    And vent, and vent, and vent, perhaps propelling them into the “bigger and better” stereotype of covert narcissist.

    Link to this
  12. 12. YouCannotBeSerious 2:05 pm 08/27/2013

    Seekmocha writes:
    “I’ve run into a number of unimportant people who constantly obsess over the intricate plots and conspiracies of the many other people who are “out to get them.” I’ve wondered why these individuals think they are so important that anybody else would put so much time and energy into “keeping them down.” It would seem that for many people, “covert narcissist” goes hand-in-hand with mild paranoia.”

    You’re assuming that the persons who might hatch plots or conspiracies are operating within a rational mind-state, and have as basis for their actions a “sane,” psychological status, or “normal,” world-view.

    For an example of mass social conspiracy in which groups of people who belonged to secret societies did in fact seek to target specific individuals, please refer to the history of the Nazi party, it’s secret society and occult belief structure, and the Ku Klux Klan.

    Link to this
  13. 13. Paul Caporino 2:41 pm 08/27/2013

    I’m too much of a narcissist to answer any questions – too busy looking in the – God, I’m gorgeous.

    Link to this
  14. 14. gmperkins 8:25 pm 08/27/2013

    I feel we could all use more self-introspection but I am doubtful that these tests are a reasonable means towards that end. Short cuts do not lead to wisdom.

    Link to this
  15. 15. Sofie 8:50 pm 08/28/2013

    Strange article…

    I really doubt if it is correct that the anxious person (who is afraid of being looked at, who feels not at ease in a group, who feels he is special because he thinks he’s not normal, who thinks that others will exclude him, if they find out how terrible he is,…), who ruminates a lot and who feels inferior & maybe is seriously depressed, gets a label of narcissist. If I fill in the list as I think such person should answer the questions, I think I can say that I get a high score (almost or totally a covert narcissist).

    So I looked for some other research and I found an interesting review of 2010 (full text):
    I think this article describes the problem with the concept ‘covert narcissism’, just like I feel it. First, the concept is not empirical based, there is no scientific base for it.
    Second, only a person who has overt AND covert characteristics of vulnerability (= covert narcissism) AND who has overt and covert characteristics of grandiosity, can be seen as an narcissistic personality (disorder). So someone with only the covert vulnerability traits isn’t narcissistic, UNLESS he has also overt signs of it AND he has overt and covert signs of grandiosity. That’s also what the clinic learned us. And that’s also what I remember of my theretical lessons of narcissism: these people are really vulnerable, and as a coping strategy, they use grandiosity. If they can’t hold the grandiosity, they get depressed, they feel themselves very vulnerable, because now they are confronted on a very peinful way about how ‘weak’ they are.
    Further, it’s also important to know that there is healthy narcissism, but it’s not clear when the healthy narcissism stops (what’s the cut-off?).
    He states a lot more in the article, that is interesting to read, so if you have the time & if you can understand the text, I advise you to read it.

    So for depressed people like Cowsharky, I think it’s important to know that there is also criticism on the concept of ‘covert narcissism’. And that at least some researchers state that ‘covert narcissism’ alone is not one (new) form of narcissism. It has nothing to do with narcissism, unless you also have also other signs of it.

    Link to this
  16. 16. NarcissismInfo 2:01 am 08/30/2013

    Here is an “out of a closet” Narcissist (often behaving as an introvert) trying to make sense of the “disorder” and recovery. Laughing may be the best medicine, but…

    Link to this
  17. 17. cheek 4:19 pm 08/30/2013

    Sofie commented 8/28/2013 ” … I think it’s important to know that there is also criticism on the concept of ‘covert narcissism’. And that at least some researchers state that ‘covert narcissism’ alone is not one (new) form of narcissism. It has nothing to do with narcissism, unless you also have also other signs of it.”

    Her comment is based on a review chapter by Professor Pincus [2010 (full text): ]. My comment is:
    I agree that the chapter Pathological Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder by Aaron L. Pincus and Mark R. Lukowitsky (2010; for which a full text web pdf link was provided) is a worthwhile scholarly reading on this topic. Professor Pincus is an articulate doubter of the usefulness of the covert – overt distinction in the treatment of patients with narcissistic personality disorder. Of course his scholarly review of the narcissism literature, summarized in his “Table 1: Phenotypic labels for pathological narcissism reflecting grandiosity and vulnerability,” makes it clear that many others among psychoanalysts, psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, and personality psychology researchers have found aspects of the overt – covert distinction to be useful. It is certainly not correct to say that “there is no scientific base for” covert narcissism — just as it would also be incorrect to say that no reputable experts doubt the usefulness of the covert – overt narcissism distinction.

    Concerning the Maladaptive Covert Narcissism Scale, a reliable and valid scale assessing personality tendencies in the normal range of individual differences is not intended to be a clinical diagnostic method. See for example, Miller, J. D., Hoffman, B. J., Gaughan, E. T., Gentile, B., Maples, J., & Campbell, W. (2011). Grandiose and vulnerable narcissism: A nomological network of analysis. Journal of Personality, 79, 1013-1042.
    Or some more of the 100+ publications that cite in GOOGLE Scholar, PSYCInfo, or other databases the original scale construction article: Hendin, H. M., & Cheek, J. M. (1997). Assessing hypersensitive narcissism: A reexamination of Murray’s Narcism Scale. Journal of Research in Personality, 31, 588-599.

    Concerning different views of narcissism among psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, see for example Gabbard, G. O. (1989). Two subtypes of narcissistic personality disorder. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 53, 527-532; Levine, A. B., & Faust, J. (2013). A Psychodynamic Approach to the Diagnosis and Treatment of Closet Narcissism. Clinical Case Studies, 12(3), 199-212. [ ] Those authors draw upon this book: Masterson, J. F. (1993). The emerging self: A developmental self and object relations approach to the treatment of the closet narcissistic disorder of the self. New York, NY: Brunner/Mazel. [ ]. Note that they use the term “closet narcissism” for covert (hypersensitive, vulnerable) narcissism. In addition, a potentially useful article to discuss with a treatment professional might be Gabbard, Glenn O. (2009). Transference and Countertransference: Developments in the Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Psychiatric Annals 39(3):129-136. One paperback aimed at nonspecialist readers is by Alexander Lowen, Narcissism: Denial of the True Self [ ].

    I agree with the Comment that the concept of ‘healthy’ ‘normal’ ‘adaptive’ narcissism is interesting and worthy of further study.

    I have also conducted research on the relation between hypersensitive/covert/closet narcissism and the normal range of individual differences in shyness (non-clinical social anxiety). Only a relatively small minority of shy people scored notably high on the hypersensitive narcissism scale for covert narcissism. It is also true that shy people tend to score low on overt narcissism scales. Moreover, hypersensitive covert narcissism shows no relation to non-anxious social introversion. Therefore it seems appropriate to think about covert narcissism as one particular type of narcissistic personality tendency that relates specifically only to a certain kind of non-anxious introversion.

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  18. 18. cheek 9:32 am 09/5/2013

    CORRECTION — In 17. cheek 4:19 pm 08/30/2013 Comment above, the “non-” in the second to last word in that post should not be there. The correct final sentence is:

    “Therefore it seems appropriate to think about covert narcissism as one particular type of narcissistic personality tendency that relates specifically only to a certain kind of anxious introversion”

    Link to this
  19. 19. wolfbell 11:44 pm 10/24/2013

    Based on this list, I am a “covert narcissist”. However, I actually have avoidant personality disorder and I think that most people with that disorder would be “covert narcissists” based on your criteria. No we are not selfish and don’t “want people to recognize our brilliance”, we are just more sensitive because of past experiences. I tend to be very empathetic towards others and would feel guilty about hurting someone, which is not something you’d see with a narcissist. Get a bit more educated before you post stuff like this.

    Link to this
  20. 20. enlightened2014 3:26 pm 12/8/2013

    Sam Vaknin is a recognized expert on Narcissists because he is one, and what you describe is not a covert narcissist at all. I’ve studied this extensively. What you describe is an introvert with asperger’s. Those on the high functioning autistic spectrum are often mistaken for those with NPD. They either have too much empathy, or too little, but it’s not NPD, which are intentional and calculating behaviors. You’ll have to study NPD, high functioning autism, and psychopathology to understand the difference, and accurately understand what you’re looking at. To the person posting above me. If you are highly sensitive, your brain is actually different. Mine is this way as well. I absorb and notice everything. I figure things out that others can’t see. We are a lonely, misunderstood breed. My son has asperger’s, but he is an extrovert. Now that he has learned to blend in, he resembles someone with NPD. He is actually brilliant in many areas, but weaknesses accurately interpreting social skills, and sensory processing overload causes rages and meltdowns in an extrovert, and withdrawal in an introvert. They are overly honest people, don’t manipulate and don’t see manipulation in others. I actually had to study this extensively to see just how manipulative people with NPD actually are. Anyway, a HSP (highly sensitive person) is not covert narcissism. I wonder if narcissism even really exists, or if we’ve just never considered that highly intelligent people on the spectrum (introverted or extraverted) are misunderstood. I have had my doubts over the past few months as I have researched. Raise a child on the spectrum from the ground up, watch the progression, and you’ll see much more clearly. There is my five thousand cents. And we tend to be verbose. :)

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  21. 21. enlightened2014 3:42 pm 12/8/2013

    But have you ever watched Sam Vaknin speak in his monotone, droning voice that is almost robotic? Classic for an autistic. I doubt this self identified narcissist really is one, unless what he does is with calculated intent, and for self glory. Let’s not forget that the main traits of narcissism are lack of empathy (as defined by current standards) and look at me, look at me, look at me! The constant need for approval, admiration, adulation, adoration, attention…constantly. Every single brain on the planet is different structurally, and because of experience, and an array of fluctuating chemicals. Experts try to cram people into perfect diagnosis and cement them in stone, when they should be loosely using labels to understand, rather than stigmatize. Do you all understand where you’re going wrong?

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  22. 22. ValusMarkel 1:30 pm 07/26/2014

    Here’s the problem I have with these things (and I’m well aware of how my comments must be interpreted by people who identify with these things):

    The world as it exists is taken as the control environment. By “the world”, I mean the present form of society in which we find ourselves. This is typically what we call reality, while, in fact, it is only a narrow band in a much wider spectrum of environments. Nonetheless, it is the world we are forced to confront and, in that sense, it is, in fact, the real world. Oddly, though, we interpret everything through this myopic lens, as though it were a perfectly level playing field. Any difficulty, unwillingness, or inability to assimilate with this present form of society is labelled maladaptive, once and for all.

    When, really, traits which are handicaps in one society, or in one era, may be helps in another. And, supposing the organization of society is deeply flawed, even backwards, then, the traits which would be maladaptive might actually be the most intrinsically healthy ones, and the most needful, despite (or even because of) their marginalized status.

    Of course, arguments like this are easily ostracized and excluded from the larger conversation. Whenever we propose a model which depicts imbalances as fundamentally systemic, we’re calling into question the prevailing paradigms on which our culture is founded, and the culture naturally has built-in resistances to such talk. The way systems defend themselves is, paradoxically, by placing undue emphasis on individuals. In order for systems to maintain themselves, the bulk of expectation must be carried by individuals; it is the individual’s responsibility to conform to the system, and any objection on the part of the individual is framed as entitlement. All dissent is effectively quashed by labeling the dissenter a whining, covert narcissist with a martyr complex.

    It really is quite ingenious. And evil as all hell.

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  23. 23. Lostinthedarkness 11:55 am 02/18/2015

    i scored a 108 on the test. i was brought here while trying to grasp the fact that i may be a narcissist. it was first brought to my attention last night in class. and my girlfriend confirmed it last night when i asked her about it. i can see that i may be a covert narcissist now instead of an introvert like people told me i was.
    im just wondering if there is anything to be done about it? all i’ve been doing was trying to live my life, is it wrong to be narcissistic, i cant help who i am, do i just need to come to terms with it and be the best i can be as i’ve always tryed to do, or do i shun this part of myself as another character flaw?

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