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Attachment & Human Development

Vol. 14, No. 4, July 2012, 391403

Attachment and social competence: a study using MCAST in low-risk

Italian preschoolers
Lavinia Barone* and Francesca Lionetti
Pavia University, Pavia, Italy
(Received 21 July 2011; nal version received 1 April 2012)
The Manchester Child Attachment Story Task (MCAST) is a story stem method
suitable for children aged about 4 to 8, aimed at assessing childrens attachment
representations with a doll-play format that is evaluated with a series of
dimensional scales and classications. Although this instrument has already been
validated in previous studies, not all of the ndings have been conclusive. The
aims of the present study were (1) to examine the factor structure of the MCAST
scales, and (2) to test the association between childrens dichotomized MCAST
classications and factors with social competence, using the Social Competence
and Behavior Evaluation Scale (SCBE) with a normative group of Italian
preschoolers (age range 4.4 to 6.1). Results obtained from a sample of 64 children
conrm the association of MCAST attachment classications (security vs.
insecurity and organization vs. disorganization) with both social skills and
behavioral problems. Further independent studies on the variables analyzed are
recommended for corroborating the ndings obtained.
Keywords: attachment assessment; social competence; Manchester Child
Attachment Story Task

Over the last two decades, increasing interest in the role of attachment patterns
beyond infancy has led to the development of a host of assessment instruments (see
Solomon & George, 2008). These include separation-reunion procedures, versions of
attachment doll-play and picture tasks, questionnaires, and interviews to be used
with older children. Recent longitudinal studies (Grossman, Grossman, & Waters,
2005; Sroufe, Egeland, Carlson, & Collins, 2005) have highlighted how important it
is to use age-appropriate assessment methods in determining attachment features in
dierent periods of development.
However, while for infancy and toddlerhood (12 to about 20 months) researchers
can rely on a number of consistently validated measures like the well-known
Strange Situation Procedure (SSP; Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978) and the
more recent Attachment Q-Sort (Waters, 1987/1995) attachment theory is less
specic regarding suitable measures of security in the third and fourth years of life
and beyond. In childhood, the smaller number of situations perceived as threatening

*Corresponding author. Email:

ISSN 1461-6734 print/ISSN 1469-2988 online
2012 Taylor & Francis


L. Barone and F. Lionetti

(and thus appropriate for eliciting the attachment system), the broader and
multidimensional concept of parents accessibility (extending beyond actual
proximity and contact seeking, which are typical of infancy) along with the childs
achievements in the behavioral, symbolic, cognitive, and linguistic domains, make
any measurement eorts both especially crucial and, at the same time, challenging
(for reviews and discussion see Kerns, Schlegelmilch, Morgan, & Abraham, 2005;
Kerns, Tomich, Aspelmeier, & Contreras, 2000).
Among the story stem methods (see Robinson, 2007, for a review) suitable for
children of about 4 to about 8 year old, the Manchester Child Attachment Story
Task (MCAST; Green, Stanley, Smith, & Goldwyn, 2000), focuses on childrens
dyadic (motherchild) mental representations of attachment. Specically, it has a
complex coding system that allows for reliable measurement of many specic
dimensions pertaining to the challenging theoretical construct of attachment in
childhood (e.g. mentalization or specic facets of disorganization such as controlling
behavior) leading to the categorical attachment classication (secure, insecureavoidant, insecure-ambivalent, disorganized).
Validity and reliability testing of the MCAST has generated a promising body of
work. The rst study (Green et al., 2000), aimed at investigating the internal
consistency, inter-rater reliability, and stability of the MCAST, was conducted over
a ve-month period on a relatively small primary school sample (N 53). In another
analysis of data from the same sample (Goldwyn, Stanley, Smith, & Green, 2000) the
validity was supported by the concordance of MCAST and Separation Anxiety Test
classications (secure vs. insecure) and by the association of MCAST and maternal
AAI classications, but only with respect to the match between childrens
disorganization and unresolved state of mind classications. Results were not
signicant for the agreement between three-way or two-way attachment categories
(i.e., security vs. insecurity). In the same study an association was found between
disorganized MCAST classications and overall behavioral problems as rated by
parents but not for insecurity. In addition there were paradoxical results showing a
positive association between attachment security and internalizing behavioral
problems. Other data from a more recent Italian multicenter study on a large
sample (N 230; Barone et al., 2009) supported the internal consistency of the
MCAST coding system, as well as the discriminant validity of each scale in
contributing to the overall attachment classication and the reliability of overall
attachment classications among dierent trained coders. A study focusing on
gender dierences in middle childhood (N 122 Italian seven-year-olds) found that
sex biases in attachment insecurity distribution start at about 67 years of age, and
corroborated the ability of MCAST to discriminate between dierent forms of
insecurity, i.e. avoidant-A and ambivalent-C (Del Giudice, 2008). A further study on
the same low-risk sample (Colle & Del Giudice, 2011; N 122) demonstrated
associations between MCAST classications and some features of emotional
competence (emotion recognition and regulation skills). On a similar topic, Barone
and Lionetti (2011) tested attachment representations against emotional competence
in a small sample of late-adopted preschool children (N 20). Among the studies on
higher risk samples, Futh, OConnor, Matias, Green, and Scott (2008; N 113 early
school-age children) found moderate to strong correlations between the MCAST
engagement, positive content, coherence, and disorganization scales with maternal
and teacher ratings of childrens emotional and behavioral adjustment and their
prosocial behavior. The ndings, which were especially robust for the MCAST

Attachment & Human Development


disorganization scale, held across several socio-ethnic contexts. Leuzinger-Bohleber,

Laezer, Pfenning-Meerkoetter, Fischmann, Wol, and Green (2011; N 234)
reported that 23% of a sample of ADHD children presented with a primary
disorganized category, and 33% were coded as avoidant.
Finally, the MCAST was tested against other measures in three studies of clinical
samples: Green, Stanley, and Peters (2007; N 61 with externalizing disorders);
Minnis and colleagues (2009; N 33 with Reactive Attachment Disorder); Wan and
Green (2010; N 77 with behavior problems). All found that attachment, especially
disorganization, aected the outcomes of the other measures.
Although much ground has already been covered in other MCAST studies, we
think two aspects require further investigation. These constitute the main reasons for
the present inquiry. First, only one study has tested the factorial structure of the
MCAST scales on a low risk sample of young-school-age children (i.e. Green et al.,
2000) and only two further studies (i.e. Barone et al., 2009; Goldwyn et al., 2000)
have tested the reliability and validity of the MCAST entire coding system,
highlighting the need for clarication. There can be no doubt that a coding method
as complex as that developed for the MCAST requires a large body of empirical
work to rene its construct validity and scientic rigor, particularly in view of the
fact that the coding manual has been slightly revised since these studies were
conducted. The deletion of the turn taking, exploratory play, and displacement
scales is consistent with the results of Barone et al.s 2009 study, which showed these
scales to have poor predictive power. A caregiver disengagement scale has also been
added (Green, Stanley, Goldwyn, & Smith, 20002009). Second, because reliable
longitudinal studies have shown that childrens patterns of attachment are related to
subsequent social competence and problem behaviors in peer interactions (Fearon &
Belsky, 2011; Fearon, Bakermans-Kranenburg, van IJzendoorn, Lapsley, & Roisman, 2010; Rydell, Bohlin, & Thorell, 2005; Thompson, 2008), the MCAST needs to
be evaluated against key developmental tasks such as those for social competence in
a low-risk sample in early childhood.
Even if the several attempts at dening social competence (SC) do not overlap
completely (Vaughn et al., 2009), this construct can be considered an organizational
construct (Waters & Sroufe, 1983), as it implies the integration of developmental
domains (e.g. cognitive, social, emotional) in a salient context. In this light, SC may
be best dened as a set of composite skills enabling the pursuit of social goals using
aect, behavioral, and cognitive resources available to the child at a given point in
development. Research has already linked childrens narrative responses to another
representational attachment measure (i.e. the Attachment Doll Story Completion
Task by Bretherton and colleagues, 1990) to aspects of their social competence and
behaviors (Laible, Carlo, Torquati, & Ontai, 2004), supporting the idea that
childrens responses tap their emotion regulation skills in addition to representation
of attachment relationships and that both aect childrens more comprehensive
social skills, such as peer relationships and adjustment diculties. The most frequent
form of assessment of SC consists of the opinions of knowledgeable adults (i.e.
parents and/or teachers) concerning the behavior traits or qualities of the children
being studied, gathered as related items on questionnaires.
The Social Competence and Behavior Evaluation Scale (SCBE; LaFreniere &
Dumas, 1995) is a fairly widely tested scale (e.g. Denham et al., 2002; Laible et al.,
2004; Monteiro, Verissimo, Vaughn, Santos, & Bost, 2008) that is typically
completed by preschool teachers or parents, and was developed to assess patterns


L. Barone and F. Lionetti

of social competence and adjustment diculties (e.g. externalizing and internalizing

problems) in children aged 30 to 76 months. Educational settings such as school are
considered optimal for examining the manifestation of childrens attachment history
upon their social competence because childrens behavior is not being directly (or
proximally) inuenced by parents behavior as much as by childrens attachment
representations of parents.
Because of its emphasis on aect in dening social skills, the SCBE seemed an
especially appropriate instrument to test the association between attachment and
social competence in a normative group of preschool children. In light of these
considerations, the main aims of our study were:
(1) To analyze the MCAST multidimensional factorial structure in a sample of
Italian preschoolers;
(2) To examine the association between the MCAST factorial structure and
MCAST classications and SC outcomes as assessed by means of the SCBE
administered to the childrens teachers.

Sixty-four children (50% males) between the ages of 53 and 73 months (M 61.9
months, SD 6.3 months) participated in the study. Participants were recruited
from local preschools. None of the children presented any psychiatric disorders,
mental disabilities, or clinically signicant behavioral problems. Parents level of
education was available for all families and was computed as the highest education
level in each family. The educational level distribution was as follows: 6% (n 4)
with at least one parent with a Junior High School educational level; 52% (n 33)
with at least one parent with a High School degree and 42% (n 27) with a
University/College degree.
The MCAST was administered at childrens preschools in a quiet, individual setting.
The sessions were videotaped and then coded by the rst author. Three months after
the MCAST assessment, teachers were asked to ll out the Social Competence and
Behavior Evaluation for each child. All parents gave their informed consent for the

Attachment assessment
The MCAST presents children with four story stems that relate to specic
attachment stressors (nightmare, hurt knee, tummy ache, lost in a shopping center)
and one control and warm-up vignette (breakfast). The story stem protagonists are
limited to a child and mother gure, implying a dyadic relationship between the
child and primary caregiver. The manualized coding system developed by Green

Attachment & Human Development


et al. (20002009) uses a collection of scales that fall into four broad areas of
1. Initiation phase: this includes scales coding engagement behavior and the
quality of arousal of children.
2. Attachment-related behaviors: this includes patterns of proximity-seeking (by
both the child and the caregiver dolls), details of caregiving behaviors by the
caregiver doll (i.e. warmth, sensitivity, disengagement), self-care, angry resistance/
motivational conict, role-reversal by the child doll, and two assuagement cues (one
from the childs perspective and one from the observers perspective).
3. Narrative coherence: this includes the four AAI coding parameters of
discourse quality, quantity, relevance, and manner, based on Grice (1975).
4. Disorganized phenomena and bizarreness: this is one of the most critical areas
and its items are conceptually based on the disorganized and disoriented attachment
behavior scales found in the SSP coding system and the lapses of monitoring of
discourse identied in the AAI coding system. Finally, additional ratings are made of
controlling strategies a disorganization feature specic to this developmental
period (Solomon, George, & de Jong, 1995).
The MCAST yields 4-way attachment classications of A (avoidant), B (secure),
C (ambivalent), and D (disorganized) that represents an overall strategy of
Inter-rater agreement computed on 20% of the overall attachment classication
was 88% for the secure vs. insecure distribution (Cohens k .76) and 80% for the 4way attachment distribution (A, B, C, and primary D).
Social competence assessment
Childrens social competencies were assessed with the Social Competence and
Behavior Evaluation 80-SCBE. The SCBE is a questionnaire developed to assess
social competence and adjustment diculties in children 30 to 76 months (LaFreniere
& Dumas, 1995). The SCBE consists of 80 items, on a 6-point Likert scale, that cover
eight basic scales (Depressive-Joyful, Anxious-Secure, Angry-Tolerant, IsolatedIntegrated, Aggressive-Calm, Egotistical-Pro-social, Oppositional-Cooperative, Dependent-Autonomous) and four summary scales: Social Competence (well-adjusted,
exible, and pro-social pattern of interaction with peers); Externalizing Behavior
(angry, aggressive, and oppositional behavior); Internalizing Behavior (behavioral
patterns of sadness and anxiety) and General Adaptation, which globally assesses
childrens adaptation to the preschool context along all 80 items of the SCBE. Scores
along Externalizing and Internalizing scales are reversed, so that a high score
corresponds to a high degree of the specic named behavior.
The results are presented in two sections, the rst one being a premise for the second.
The rst section reports the internal structure of the MCAST scales as analyzed by
principal component analysis. The second section reports results obtained for the
association between the MCAST classications and factors and the SCBE (social
competence) summary scales.


L. Barone and F. Lionetti

MCAST overall classications of attachment distribution

Childrens MCAST-derived attachment classications were as follows: 56% secure
(B), 27% insecure-avoidant (A), 5% insecure-ambivalent (C), 12% primary
disorganized (D). Compared with normative data from the Italian multicentre study
(n 230; Barone et al., 2009), no signicant dierences were found between the secure
vs. insecure (w2(2) .74, p  .39) and organized vs. disorganized classications
(w2(2) .12, p  .72). Neither gender (secure vs. insecure w2(2) .80, p  1.0;
organized vs. disorganized, Fishers Exact Test .708), nor age (secure vs. insecure
F(1, 62) .16, p  .69; organized vs. disorganized F(1,62) .012, p  .91) were found
to have an eect on the distribution of MCAST classications.
Internal structure of the MCAST coding system
A Principal Component Analysis (PCA) with Varimax rotation was performed using
averaged scale values across the four attachment-related vignettes as original input.
Scores were also averaged across story stems for scales coding proximity seeking
from child to mother and mother to child (r .91); caregivers sensitivity and
warmth (r .94); and quality, quantity, relevance, and manner (ranging from r .88
to r .94) to avoid multi-collinearity problems.
Three factors with Eigenvalues greater than one explained 73% of the total
variance of the MCAST Scales (see Table 1). Factor 1 (Eigenvalue 6.98, 49.9% of the
variance) was bipolar. It loaded positively on scales recording proximity seeking
behavior, sensitivity-warmth caregiver behavior, coherence of the narrative, and
childs assuagement as observed by the coder (designed to capture security), but
negatively on scales coding for children self-care and caregiver disengagements,
designed to capture avoidance. Factor 2 (Eigenvalue 2.09, 14.9 %) loaded positively
on scales designed to capturing the intrusiveness of the caregiver, role-reversal and
angry resistance/motivational conict of child and caregiver dolls, and on scales
coding the bizarreness of the play and episodic disorganized behavior (scales
designed to capture ambivalence and disorganization). Finally, Factor 3 (Eigenvalue
1.12, 7.9%) loaded positively on scales recording the engagement and arousal of the
child during the procedure and assuagement reported by the child itself, and
negatively on items recording the role reversal behavior of dolls.
Table 1.

Factor structure of MCAST coding system.

MCAST Scales
Sensitivity & Warmth
Assuagement child
Assuagement obs.

Factor 1

Factor 2

Factor 3




Attachment & Human Development


Crossloadings along MCAST scales (Table 1), possibly due to the small sample
size, were resolved by the decision to consider the higher of the loadings. Rolereversal behavior, which loaded on more than one factor, was considered as loading
on Factor 2, given that high levels of role-reversal are taken as a specic feature of
disorganized attachment (Solomon et al., 1995).
Factor scores were then created by computing childrens averaged scores across
stories for the scales (with negative ones as reversed) that loaded on the factor. The
internal consistency for each factor was .91, .81, and .63, respectively.
Associations of childrens MCAST scales and attachment patterns with social
competence and behavioral problems
In order to examine whether the three MCAST factors were signicantly associated
to the social competence scales (social competence, internalizing, externalizing
behavior, and general adaptation) four hierarchical regressions were performed. For
each, the socio-demographic control variables (childrens age in months, gender, and
parents educational level) were entered in the rst block, and the three attachment
factors were entered jointly in the second block.
There were no multi-collinearity problems detected during data analysis
(VIF index ranged between values .56 and .90, Ti index ranged between values 1.0
and 1.1). The four r models (see Table 2) showed that attachment-related factors
were related to childrens social competence, internalizing, externalizing behavior,
and general adaptation regardless of socio-demographic variables. Specically,
Factor 2 (ambivalent-disorganized attachment features) was related to lower social
competence (b 7.31, p  .05) and more internalizing behaviors (b .47, p  .01),
whereas Factor 3 (appropriate engagement) to fewer externalizing behaviors
(b 7.43, p  .005). Factor 1 was not related to any of the SC scales.
The relationship between MCAST outcomes and SCBE results was further tested
by using the dichotomized attachment classications as independent variables
ANCOVAs and childrens social competence, internalizing, and externalizing
behavior as dependent variables. Considering the sample size, we compared
organized security vs. insecurity and organized vs. disorganized pattern of
attachment. The socio-demographic variables were entered as covariates.
Table 3 shows that securely organized children (in response to the MCAST)
were judged by their teachers to have greater social competence (F(4,59) 6.32,
p  .05), better general adaptation (F(4,59) 6.83, p  .05) and fewer internalizing
behaviors (F(4,59) 5.77, p  .05) than children whose MCAST responses were
judged insecure. In contrast, children with a primary disorganized MCAST
classication showed less social competence (F(4,59) 8.21, p  .01), poorer general
adaptation (F(4,59) 10.74, p 5 .005) and more internalizing (F(4,59) 5.04,
p  .05) and externalizing (F(4,59) 8.13, p  .01) behaviors. A further exploratory
ANCOVA analysis showed that insecure children presented more social
competence (F(4,24) 5.25, p 5 .05) less externalizing behavior (F(4,24) 5.31,
p 5 .05) and a better general adaptation (F(4,24) 7.17, p 5 .01) compared with
primary disorganized children. Of interest, when ambivalent group was excluded
from the analysis, the result remained signicant. Further, the ANCOVA
procedure did not reveal any signicant eect on SCBE scores when the
comparison between secure vs. insecure children was computed without including
the primarily disorganized group.

Table 2.

L. Barone and F. Lionetti

Prediction of SCBE scales from MCAST attachment factors.

Dep. Var





Factor 1
Factor 2
Factor 3






Factor 1
Factor 2
Factor 3






Factor 1
Factor 2
Factor 3






Factor 1
Factor 2
Factor 3



Soc. Competence
I Step





II Step

Internalizing Behav.
I Step




II Step

Externalizing Behav.
I Step




II Step

General adaptation
I Step




II Step


*p  .05; **p  .01; ***p  .005.

With regard to the factor structure of the MCAST coding system, our analysis
identied three factors. These were, respectively: (1) organization/security vs.
avoidance; (2) ambivalence/disorganization; and (3) appropriate engagement of the
child during the assessment procedure.
These results are partially in line with the rst validation study by Green and
colleagues (2000), where three factors emerged in the principal component analysis.
In both studies, Factor 1 represented attachment security/coherence and Factor 2
represented ambivalent-disorganized features. However, in our study Factor 3 was
related to appropriate child engagement (i.e. arousal, engagement, and assuagement
scales), whereas in Green and colleagues study (2000), scales coding self-care and
angry resistance/motivational conict behavior (i.e. anger and ambivalent behavior
underlying the attempt to maintain contact) loaded on Factor 3. This result could be
explained by changes introduced in the last revision of the manual (e.g. the deletion



(n 36) M (SD)


(n 28) M (SD)

Note: Mean scores are adjusted for age, gender and parent educational level.
*p  .05; **p  .01; ***p  .005.

Soc. Competence
Internalizing Beh.
Externalizing Beh.
General adaptation


Security vs. Insecurity


F(4, 59)
0.66 (.53)
4.94 (.49)

(n 56) M (SD)

1.01 (.34)
1.34 (1.07)
4.31 (.37)

(n 8) M (SD)

Organized vs. Disorganized



Table 3. SCBE scales and MCAST categorical classication of attachment. Age (5360 vs. 6072 months), gender (1, male), and parent educational level
(1, Junior High School education) were added as covariates.

Attachment & Human Development



L. Barone and F. Lionetti

of turn taking, exploratory play, and displacement scales; Green et al., 20002009)
or they could be related to the sampling process and/or to culture dierences.
In terms of the relationship between the MCAST factor structure and the SCBE
outcomes, only the factors concerning ambivalence/disorganization and childs
appropriate engagement linked signicantly with specic features of social
competence, while the factor for security/coherence vs. avoidance did not link up
with any features of social competence.
The third factor in the current study, appropriate engagement, linked with less
externalizing behavior. This result is in line with Futh and colleagues study on a high
risk sample (Futh et al., 2008) and with Greens MCAST validation study (Green
et al., 2000), where the same outcome was obtained in relation to childrens
temperament (as measured by Buss & Plomin, 1984). From a developmental point of
view, this could be related to the inuence of a dicult and adverse temperament
upon the emergence of subsequent behavioral problems (Rothbart, Ellis, Rueda, &
Posner, 2003).
In line with previous meta-analytical studies, the current ndings showed that
children with a primary disorganized category presented more externalizing and, to a
lesser extent, more internalizing behavioral problems, as reported in previous studies
assessing attachment with observational measures as the Strange Situation
procedure (Fearon et al., 2010; Groh, Roisman, van IJzendoorn, BakermansKranenburg, & Fearon, 2012). Moreover, children with insecure MCAST
classications were less competent in interaction with peers and presented more
internalizing features, whereas no association has been found between insecurity and
externalizing behavioral problems. Of interest, no association was found when
analyses were computed without considering the disorganized pattern. This outcome
is consistent with a previous study conducted on normative school-age children
(Goldwyn et al., 2000), where only disorganization was found to be linked to
behavioral problems.
The ndings of the present study are in part new, and in part corroborate those
of previous studies. A specic association was found between overall two-way
attachment classications and social competence (particularly the organizeddisorganized dichotomy). Both overall attachment classications and MCAST
factors detect an association between, on the one hand, attachment disorganization
and on the other, poor social competence including an increase in problem behavior.
This outcome seems to conrm even in a low-risk sample what already was found in
an at-risk sample (Futh et al., 2008), underscoring the validity of the MCAST as an
index of attachment disorganization in the early school-aged years.
As already stated in previous studies (e.g. Barone et al., 2009), the disorganization scale appears to be the best ne-grained assessment tool of MCAST instrument.
MCAST disorganization shows the strongest prediction to developmental risk
factors in terms of childrens behavior.
The link found between attachment and social competence in early childhood
seems to corroborate the general nding that organized secure children have an
advantage in social competence skills and, at the same time, calls for special
attention to the risk of poor social adjustment in children with a disorganized
To conclude, our ndings can be considered a contribution to the improvement
of the scientic rigor of a representational attachment assessment instrument for
young children at an age where their rapidly developing new relationships (to peers

Attachment & Human Development


and teachers) and their developmental achievements in various domains make the
assessment particularly challenging.
Limitations and future directions
The current exploratory study has a number of limitations. First of all, only one tool
was used the SCBE for assessing social competence. Even if questionnaires
completed by teachers are widely used and are considered reliable for assessing
childrens social competence (LaFreniere & Dumas, 1995), adding observational
measures by trained coders or using more sources would have added further support
to the results (see Vaughn et al., 2009). Second, other attachment measures for
testing external validity (e.g. motherchild observation, maternal AAI) would also
have made the evaluation of our ndings more robust. Third, the present study did
not recruit as large a number of subjects as the authors prior, and initial, multicenter
study (Barone et al., 2009; N 230) and the ndings cannot be generalized without
caution. It remains to be seen whether other independent studies would corroborate
the current data, if possible adding longitudinal studies to demonstrate stability and
predictive validity of MCAST scales and classications over a longer time-period.
The present data nevertheless suggest the opportunity of implementing a
comprehensive comparison with studies and previous work on attachment narratives
using the MCAST, an approach to the administration and scoring of the widely used
attachment story completion task that has relevance to both clinical and community
samples. Further analyses, involving more measures and multicenter studies, would
contribute to more conclusive ndings concerning the link between attachment and
social competence in preschoolers.
The authors would like to thank all teachers, parents, and children who gave their consent to
participate in this study. A special thank to the thoughtful comments of the two reviewers and
to Marinus van IJzendoorn for his useful comments on a rst draft of this paper.

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