Birth Order Essay Outline

Proposal Draft One - Birth Order, Perceived Parental Expectations, and Personality

This topic submitted by Tracy Ksiazak ( at 3:48 pm on 2/27/02. Additions were last made on Wednesday, May 7, 2014. Section: Myers.
An Investigation into Relationships Among Birth Order, Perceived Parental Expectations, and Personality Characteristics

Tracy Ksiazak

Proposed February 27, 2002


First is the worst, second is the best…So begins a taunt commonly overheard between siblings on long car trips and in playground disputes. This is just one example of our society’s tendency to make assumptions about an individual’s personality based on his or her birth order. Throughout the ages, birth order has been implicated as a significant factor in people’s personality development. This “birth-order myth” is manifested in such statements as “He’s an over-achiever because he’s a firstborn,” and “Youngest children are spoiled brats.” It’s difficult not to attribute personality traits to birth order. Birth order is an observable characteristic that all human beings possess and are capable of discussing. Frequently there do appear to be marked differences in individuals of different birth orders. Even Jane Goodall noted personality differences in the chimp siblings she studied.

Noted social scientists from early psychologist Alfred Adler to more the more contemporary Walter Toman and Judith Blake have investigated actual correlations between birth order and personality traits. Many researchers have postulated their own theories about the tendencies of individuals of certain birth orders to exhibit specific traits. However, the results of studies are not often statistically significant, nor can they sometimes be replicated.
This information leads me to believe that birth order in itself is not a significant predictor of personality traits. It is simply one factor interwoven with many others in an individual’s development. Another significant factor in personality development, which is often related to birth order, is level of perceived parental expectation. My study will examine the correlations among birth order, levels of perceived parental expectation, and personality traits in an attempt to discern whether both perceived parental expectations and birth order are equally predictive of an individual’s personality.

Relevance of Research:

Alfred Adler, a Viennese psychologist who lived from 1870-1937, established one of the first theories of birth order. His theory focused on the idea of “dethronement.” A couple’s first child is like a little prince or princess; subsequent children “dethrone” this child by taking away parental attention and affection (Ernst and Angst 85). The effects of “dethronement”, or lack thereof in the case of only children, determine such personality traits as responsibility, attitudes toward authority, self-esteem, and achievement motivation. According to this theory, oldest children are significantly different from youngest children because the first-borns suffer the effects of dethronement while the youngest children do not. Only children possess the characteristics held by first-borns before their “dethronement” occurred, and middle children hold completely different characteristics because they never had the experience of full parental attention before “dethronement” (Ernst and Angst 87).

In her study, Family Size and Achievement, Judith Blake examined the correspondences between the related variables of family size and birth order with measures of achievement in different spheres (financial, career, academic, etc.). Blake’s results led her to propose the sibling resource dilution theory, which states that the number of siblings in a family is negatively correlated with both child and adult achievement outcomes (10). Also, as birth order increases, the amount of available resources, which determines the child’s potential for achievement, decreases. According to this theory, only children are the most successful because they obtain all of the available resources of their parents (Blake 11). Oldest children are the second-highest achievers, and youngest children are the lowest achievers. The results of two similar studies by Kevin Majoribanks in 1989 and 1991 support this theory.

The most ambitious of the birth order/personality theories so far was postulated by Walter Toman, an Austrian psychologist who interviewed thousands of families in the middle of the 20th century and found that people with the same birth order and gender position tended to exhibit the same characteristics. In Family Constellation: Its Effect on Personality and Social Behavior, first published in 1961, Toman established theories concerning the personality traits that people of each birth order should exhibit. A summary of these theories is provided on the following page. Toman claims to be able to guess a person’s birth order and gender by examining a brief personality description and vice versa. Toman has released two subsequent editions of his book, which incorporate the influence of other factors upon personality.

Since Toman, several other researchers, mostly psychologists, have conducted studies attempting to find significant patterns in the relationship between birth order and other personality characteristics: rebelliousness (Sulloway, Freese), intellectual development (Zajonc), social skills, etc. These results have been inconclusive for the most part, however, as their results are frequently either statistically insignificant or fail to be reproduced in subsequent experiments. The debate over birth order and personality correlations will continue for quite some time.

The psychologist Walter Toman’s research lead him to theorize that specific personality traits appear in individuals in accordance with their birth order. The following is a summary of his theory.

Oldest Children… Youngest Children…

tend to be similar to their parents tend to be different from their
tend to be high academic achievers tend to be lower academic achievers
are more often leaders are more often followers
are often perfectionistic are often laid-back
are pushed harder by parents to excel are not pushed hard to excel
were often disciplined as a child were not often disciplined as a
have above-average verbal ability have average verbal ability
are independent are dependent
are often serious are often hedonistic
are often tense are often rebellious
tend to be conservative tend to be liberal
receive a lot of attention tend to be most sociable and popular
receive a lot of parental support tend to be most athletic
are more comfortable around adults are more comfortable around peers
accept authority resent authority
mature early mature late
are abstract thinkers are concrete thinkers
tend to expect a lot from life tend to be optimistic

Middle Children… Only Children...

tend to be different from their parents tend to be most similar to parents
were not often disciplined as a child tend to be high academic achievers
tend to be good negotiators are often leaders
tend to be peacekeepers are often perfectionistic
don't often ask for help or accept it are pushed hard by parents to excel
are independent were often disciplined as a child
tend to be pessimistic have the highest verbal ability
got little attention as children are often serious
tend to be low academic achievers are the most androgynous
deal well with many kinds of people got a lot of attention as children
resent authority often expect help, receive it
without asking
don't really have a niche tend to be optimistic
tend to expect little from life are highly supported by parents
are more comfortable around adults
accept authority
mature early
tend to expect a lot from life
show both "oldest" and "youngest" traits


Significant trends in relation to Toman’s theories about birth order and personality will exist. The implications of this are that there will be a significant correlation between the characteristics that people of each birth order actually display and the characteristics Toman associates with their birth order. (Please refer to the list on page four.) For example, first-borns will tend to exhibit perfectionism, be similar to their parents, and mature early.

However, I hypothesize that there will also be significant trends in correlations between perceived parental expectation and personality characteristics. Specifically, I believe that:

** High perceived parental expectations will correlate significantly with perfectionism, frequent discipline as a child, similarity to parents, high academic success, above-average verbal ability, early maturation, seriousness, tenseness, high motivation, expecting a lot from life, and acceptance of authority.

** Low perceived parental expectations will correlate significantly with being laid-back, acting as a follower, infrequent discipline as a child, marked difference from parents, playfulness, optimism, low academic achievement, expecting little from life, and procrastinating.

These trends will occur because personality is the result of multiple factors, of which birth order is only one. An individual’s personality depends upon his or her culture, family dynamics, sex, race, parental expectations, social class, and many other variables. After examining the research of many social scientists, I believe that birth order and parental expectation influence one another, as well as jointly influencing personality. Although it would be impossible to gain definitive proof for this theory, I believe that the results of my research will support it.

Materials and Methods:

I intend to study the correlations between:

1.) Actual personality trait and birth order data and the predictions of personality characteristics for individuals of each birth order in accordance with Toman’s theories. Do people really display the traits Toman attributes to individuals of their birth order?

2.) Personality traits and perceived parental expectations. Do individuals with a certain level of perceived parental expectations tend to display common personality characteristics?

I will conduct this research by administering a survey to 200 Miami University students and performing statistical analysis upon the results. I’ve selected Miami University students as my survey audience because they are a readily available test group, and, in using them, I control for the variables of age and culture. Most students here are Americans between the ages of 17 and 22 years. Focusing on this survey audience will allow me to eliminate some other major variables that may have produced differences in individuals’ personality characteristics. I’ve chosen to distribute 200 surveys because examination of this many individual cases should yield subjects of each birth order.

The following page is a sample copy of the survey I intend to distribute.

Sample Survey

Your sex (Please circle one): Female Male

Your birth order (i.e. first, only, third, etc): ___________________________

Of how many total offspring? ___________________________

How would you rank your parents’ expectations of you?

very low low moderate high very high

Please check all characteristics that you believe describe you:

___ Perfectionist ___ Cute
___ Most often a leader ___ Funny
___ Most often a follower ___ Adventurous
___ Laid-back ___ Don’t really have a niche
___ Often disciplined by parents as a child ___ Androgynous
___ Seldom disciplined as a child ___ Serious
___ Similar to parents ___ Low academic achiever
___ Very different from parents ___ Motivated
___ Academically successful ___ Sociable
___ Athletic ___ Supported by parents
___ Above-average verbal ability ___ Supported by siblings
___ Average verbal ability ___ Adept at dealing with
many kinds of people
___ Below-average verbal ability ___ More comfortable around adults
___ Good negotiator ___ More comfortable around peers
___ Peacekeeper ___ Hedonistic
___ Tense ___ Popular
___ Introverted ___ Resent authority
___ Extroverted ___ Accept authority
___ Hardworking ___ Matured early
___ Playful ___Matured late
___ Often ask for and accept help ___ Expect a lot from life
___ Often expect help and receive it without asking ___ Expect little from life
___ Don’t often ask for help or accept it ___ Procrastinator
___ Independent ___ Abstract thinker
___ Dependent ___ Concrete thinker
___ Rebellious ___ Optimistic
___ Liberal ___ Pessimistic
___ Conservative

My research will be conducted according to the following schedule:

Timeline of Intended Research Progress

Weeks 1-3 (1/7-1/25) Select poster topic and do preliminary research.
Week 4 (1/28-2/1) Post project idea. Continue research.
Week 5 (2/4-2/8) Present poster and get class feedback on final project ideas.
Weeks 6-8 (2/11-3/1) Narrow down topic. Continue to research. Write project proposal.
Week 9 (3/4-3/8) Print surveys.
Week 10 (3/18-3/22) Distribute surveys.
Week 11 (3/25-3/29) Distribute surveys.
Week 12 (4/1-4/5) Tabulate survey results.
Week 13 (4/8-4/12) Work with Statview to analyze data.
Week 14 (4/15-4/19) Produce tables and graphs.
Week 15 (4/22-4/26) Write discussion and conclusions. Prepare finalized project.
Week 16 Turn in finalized project


Blake, Judith. Family Size and Achievement. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989.

Bornholt, L.J., and J.J. Goodnow. “Cross-Generation Perceptions of Academic Competence:
Parental Expectations and Adolescent Self-Disclosure.” Journal of Adolescent Research.
14.4 (1999): 427-447.

Ernst, Cecile, and Jules Angst. Birth Order: Its Influence on Personality. New York: Springer-
Verlag, 1983.

Freese, Jeremy., et al. “Rebel Without a Cause Effect: Birth Order and Social Attitudes.”
American Sociological Review. April (1999): 207-231.

Green, Ernest J. Birth Order, Parental Interest, and Academic Achievement. San Francisco:
R & E Research Associates, 1978.

Goodall, Jane. Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe. Boston:
Houghton Mifflin, 1990.

Jurkovic, Gregory J. Lost Childhoods: The Plight of the Parentified Child. New York:
Brunner/Mazel, 1997.

Leman, Kevin. The Birth Order Book. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1984.

Majoribanks, Kevin. “Ethnicity, Sibling, and Family Correlates of Young Adults’ Status
Attainment: A Follow-Up Study.” Social Biology. 36 (1989): 23-31.

Majoribanks, Kevin. “The Sibling Resource Dilution Theory: An Analysis.” The Journal of
Psychology. 125 (1991): 337-346.

Nyman, Lawrence. “The Identification of Birth Order Personality Attributes.” The Journal of
Psychology. 129.1 (1995): 51-59.

Paulhaus, Delroy L., Paul D. Trapnell, and David Chen. “Birth Order Effects on Personality and
Achievement Within Families.” Pscychological Science. 10.6 (1999): 482-488.

Richardson, Ronald W., and Lois A. Richardson. Birth Order and You: How Your Sex and
Position in the Family Affects Your Personality and Relationships. Bellingham, WA:
Self-Counsel Press, 1990.

“Social Skills and Birth Order.” Psychological Reports. 64 (1989): 211-217.

Stewart, Louis H. Changemakers: A Jungian Perspective on Sibling Position and the Family
Atmosphere. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Toman, Walter. Family Constellation: Its Effects on Personality and Social Behavior. 2nd ed.
New York: Springer, 1969.

---. Family Constellation: Its Effects on Personality and Social Behavior. 3rd ed. New York:
Springer, 1976.

Zajonc, R.B. “The Family Dynamics of Intellectual Development.” American Psychologist.
June/July (2001): 505-510.

Zweigenhaft, Richard L., and Jessica von Ammon. “Birth Order and Civil Disobedience: A Test
of Sulloway’s ‘Born to Rebel’ Hypothesis.” Journal of Social Psychology. 140 (2000):

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Birth order is an important factor that helps unveil the mysteries of human behavior. This paper provides an investigation of family relationships and corresponding individual traits that pertain to birth order placement, and how such dynamics impact educational functioning. The firstborn child, who receives a tremendous amount of praise and attention fares exceptionally well in school, whereas later-born children operate at much lower levels. For example, middle children deal with psychological issues of low self-worth and identity crises, whereas the youngest children live in chaotic households that do not necessarily promote learning. The Confluence Model and The Resource Dilution Model shed light on the matter by providing explanations that unearth the relationship between family constellation and performance.

Keywords: Adaptive Cognitive Style; Confluence Model; Deidentification; Innovative Cognitive Style; Resource Dilution Model; U-Shaped Equity Heuristic


The role that birth order plays in shaping behavior has proven to be of significant consequence from ancient to modern-day civilization. The academic literature offers several examples of how firstborn children have upheld supremacy across a variety of contexts (Sulloway, 2007). For instance, the mortality rates of children in the 19th century occurred in epic proportions, and first born children grew to become more physically robust and customarily outlived their younger, frailer siblings (Penn & Smith, 2007). Presumably this was because firstborns were regarded as precious commodities and were indulgently pampered, nourished, and treated in the highest regard by doting parents. Additionally, preferential treatment adorned upon firstborn children has been a practice ceremoniously observed by royal families who have created primogeniture (Hurwich, 1993) infrastructures through which the eldest child is bequeathed successive sovereignty, a most eminent honor.

Even in the animal kingdom, there exist examples of species that favor the survival of firstborns within a family group, such as Verreaux's Black Eagles (Tennesen, 2006), who can only sustain one young chick a time. Thus, upon the arrival of subsequent chicks, the eldest eagle bludgeons his baby sibling to an untimely demise, receiving ostensible consent from parents who stand by and observe what would otherwise be deemed an abomination against nature.

According to an old adage, no two children are raised in the same household, regardless of overtly similar circumstances that impress upon their mutual cultural, religious, neighborhood, and even familial influences. Alfred Adler, a prominent 20th century psychologist and contemporary of Sigmund Freud, not only agreed wholeheartedly with this sentiment, but helped blaze a trail of groundbreaking research and anecdotal knowledge that surrounded the ways in which birth order characteristics molded each individual's personality by sculpting both their strengths and insecurities alike (Croake & Olson, 1977; Watkins Jr., 1992). Since Adler's time, a series of noteworthy researchers have allied their efforts into excavating information on birth order including Frank Sulloway and Robert Zajonc. Provided here is an overview of unique family dynamics that pertain to the assets and struggles of each birth order, and how such factors imbed themselves into the context of academic erudition, or learning styles.

In his theory, Adler identified four distinct sibling placements (i.e., firstborn, second born, middle child, youngest) although the trend in today's society leans toward smaller families (Rogers, 2001). A systemic lens that utilizes circular causality will serve as the framework for this overview, which opposes the notion that behavior follows a linear progression and rather is created by multiple forces that are constantly giving and receiving messages in a roundabout, circuitous fashion (Feinauer & Patterson, 1993; Neimeyer, 1989). For example, although parents ideally respond to the unique needs and characteristics that each child possesses, they also synergistically create those children's needs and characteristics. Hence, each family member contributes toward, and is on the receiving end of birth order manifestations.

Further Insights: Birth Order Theory

The Firstborn Child

The firstborn is a marvel, indeed (Lemen, 2008; Sulloway, 1996). When parents give birth to their eldest child they are constantly in awe of the miracle of life, of the special and delicate forces that came together to create such wonderment. They bask in the glory of their creation, and enthusiastically undergo all the developmental milestones side-by-side with their budding child: the first smile, the first step, the first word. It is difficult for parents to detach themselves from the single-minded focus extended toward such age-appropriate feats, and the newfound feelings of amazement that the firstborn infuses into the hearts of parents renders frequent proclamations of how brilliant, beautiful, funny, and/or obedient their child is in comparison to others. Not only are parents bowled over by the amazing triumphs their children accomplish, but they themselves are entering into new territory; the birth of their first child marks their entrance into parenthood. Although each subsequent child may be viewed as irreplaceable in his or her own right and undoubtedly draws out a specialized set of parenting skills, only the firstborn confers upon parents the illustriously distinguished titles of mother and father.

This extraordinary experience lends itself to the exceptional accomplishments enacted by firstborn children. In deference to Robert Merton's self-fulfilling prophecy, which suggests that people are capable of that which they believe they are capable of (1948), firstborns enter into situations at a higher starting point than their later-born peers. Equipped with the high levels of poise and self-assurance that their parents have instilled since their inception, and reeling from the positivity that parents themselves are experiencing from their newly donned parental identities, firstborns face the world with confident leadership skills, and an unfailingly steadfast work ethic. In other words, parents set the bar exceedingly high for firstborns, who in turn rise to the occasion academically (Iacovou, 2007; Wenner, 2007). Moreover, the fact that firstborns receive so much one-on-one stimulation from their parents contributes toward a high verbal prowess (Westerlund & Lagerberg, 2008) and mature demeanor (Families and Intellect, 1976; Zajonc, 2001; Zajonc & Markus, 1975), both of which translate quite propitiously into a classroom setting.

Benefits of One-on-One Parenting

Mothers and fathers of firstborns tend to be hyper-vigilant about their parental duties (Forer, 1969), even prior to the delivery of their beloved offspring. Expectant parents peruse through bookstores to thoroughly research the latest childrearing books that review up-to-date "do's and don'ts" associated with healthy, happy children, while households are impeccably transformed to comply with child safety standards. The methodical, systematic parenting style that parents of firstborns employ often transcends to their child, and it is not surprising that firstborns excel in academic environments, where regimented discipline equates with high levels of success.

Kirton's theory suggests that there are two types of cognitive styles that people possess: adaptive, in which firstborns excel, and innovative, mastered by later-borns (Skinner & Fox-Francoueur, 2010). Adaptors prefer to work in a structured, scheduled, rule-oriented milieu, whereas innovators feel stifled by such planned orderliness, and instead prosper under more flexible, creative, outside-the-box parameters. This knowledge may revolutionize our understanding of birth order and intelligence, since most IQ tests and educational environments investigate students' abilities against the backdrop of the adaptor's norms. Perhaps this is the reason why firstborns score three points higher on standardized tests compared with later-borns (Janecka, 2010), which may reflect the biased nature of the tests in terms of intellect.

The intoxicating high that firstborns experience, alas, comes to an end once a younger sibling graces the family unit with a very noticeable presence (Dunn & Kendrick, 1980; Dunn, Kendrick, & MacNamee, 1981; Field & Reite, 1984; Kendrick & Dunn, 1982). The birth of the second child can cause an uncomfortable jolt that upsets what the firstborn interprets as his sense of equilibrium, or the copious amounts of attention that had been lavished upon him or her. Nevertheless, the firstborn feels as though he has been "dethroned" and takes a while to adjust to the new sibling. This transitional period can be quite strenuous, for both the jealous firstborn, as well as exhausted parents who go to great lengths to reassure their first youngster while nurturing his or her younger newborn. The silver lining in this temporarily arduous cloud is that the situation tends to turn upward once the big brother/big sister role has fully been absorbed. Gripped with the knowledge that he or she is now the caretaker for the newest family member, the oldest, ideally, assumes such a role with gusto and eagerly takes the young sibling under his wing. The protective firstborn is thrust into the role of teacher/mentor. While on the surface this may appear to benefit the younger child, who has a built-in bodyguard and tutor, the actual beneficiary is the firstborn, whose cerebral development becomes tremendously advanced when assuming this surrogate role (Zajonc, 2001).

Firstborns in School

In school, firstborns may gravitate toward positions that will allow them to demonstrate and refine their superb leadership skills (Jarrett, 2003), such as class president or the captain of the chess club, as well as activities like the debate team whereby they can exercise the enhanced verbal dexterity that they have cultivated since birth (Berglund, Eriksson, & Westerlund, 2005). And although a number of factors correlate with whether or not a person attends college, including socioeconomic status and parental education, Wark, Swanson, and Mack (1974) found a positive relationship between firstborn children and a desire to pursue post-secondary schooling. Once enrolled in a university, different behavioral patterns among the birth orders persist and contribute toward academic success or failure. For example, whereas binge drinking on college campuses have skyrocketed to outrageous proportions (Mitka, 2009), firstborn students are more abstemious and refrain from spiraling out of control (Laird & Shelton, 2006). Surely this conscientious sensibility advances their longstanding record of successful scholastic achievement.

The Only Child

The only child is essentially an eldest child who lacks subsequent siblings, and is oftentimes lumped into the same category as firstborns. However, there are marked differences that discern the two placements from each other. Namely, throughout the course of his or her life, the only child remains in an environment that consists primarily of adults, and therefore only occasionally modifies his language to accommodate younger audiences. Utilizing sophisticated vernacular and prudent mannerisms which model the adults in the household, the only child is indeed wise beyond years, a trait which has both pros and cons. The benefits include higher IQ scores and a learned comportment (Polit, Nuttal, & Nuttall, 1980; Travis & Kohli, 1995), while the shortcomings entail an inability to relate to same-age peers (DeKeukelaere, 2004) and failure to divulge in the lighthearted and frolicsome exuberance of childhood. Moreover, without the presence of youngsters, only children never have to develop the art of sharing material belongings or emotional attention (Shulan, Guiping, & Qicheng, 1986).

The Middle Child

The middle child's arrival into the world is quite different (Forer, 1969). More experienced parents now create less of a fuss about all the "firsts," in terms of first smile, step, and word; they are no longer "firsts" to seasoned parents. Whereas the eldest child received acclaim for even the smallest of advancements, the middle child deals with very different parents, who must now divide their attention equitably among two children. Hence, the middle child is never able to relish in the undivided adoration that the eldest initially received. Although it might be assumed that the middle child would not fret about a lifestyle he never knew, this second-class status nevertheless seems to haunt his existence, and deep down he pities himself for being the overlooked and underappreciated runner-up. Parents of middle-born children have to cater to two children who are (at least theoretically) different in temperament. Feeling spread thin and often overwhelmed, second-time parents are more physically, emotionally, and mentally drained, and less apt to make overzealous aggrandizements toward their second-born child. Consequently, it is not uncommon for the middle child to become aware of and disgruntled at the lack of parental attention (Fritz, 2006).

Gender Dynamics

According to Hertwig, Davis, & Sulloway (2002), a U-shaped equity heuristic exists to describe parental investment, which suggests that mothers and fathers devote the majority of their energy to the eldest and youngest children. The firstborn is showered with praise because of his dutiful fulfillment of parental expectations, whereas the baby of the family symbolizes the fact his parent's reproductive window of time is about to expire and he therefore embodies their evolutionary "last chance" (Rhode et al., 2003). As is the case with all birth order patterns, gender plays a part in how the dynamics transpire (Harris & Morrow, 1992; Kristensen & Bjerkedal, 2010). According to the U-shaped equity heuristic, the middle child syndrome may be exacerbated or relieved based on whether or not that child replicates the gender configuration. For example, if the gender sequence of a family of three children follows a male-male-female or female-female-male arrangement, then the points of the "U" become reinforced. This is because both the firstborn and the lastborn represent the parent's novel experience in rearing a boy and a girl for the first time. Parents need to be aware of unbalanced treatment they may unconsciously afford their middle children, for it is well substantiated that parental involvement and school success parallel each other extensively (Barnard, 2004; Ray & Smith, 2010).

The Middle Child in School

Financially speaking, the strain of having a second child naturally further depletes family resources (Beld, 2006), which results in hand-me-down attire and understated, less showy or used playthings. Furthermore, parents are generally lackadaisical about the potential hazards associated with raising a child, as they were able to glean insight from the firstborn into the resourceful resilience that accompanies childhood (Colburn & Sorenson, 2010). Whereas firstborns were ushered to the hospital with minor scrapes, cuts, bruises, and coughs, parents assume a more relaxed stance about monitoring both safety concerns as well as staying atop everyday transactions such as bedtime readings, homework help, and quality time. This more relaxed attitude trickles down and eventually permeates the middle child's temperament; they are...

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