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Sometimes you see a piece of theater and it completely scrambles your brain:

Philip ZIMBARDO: I remember I was at one of the first performances of “Hair”…

That’s Philip Zimbardo, the renowned psychologist. Seeing Hair scrambled his brain because…

ZIMBARDO: …the performers start walking on the seats over your head and walking down the aisles. And that… I had never experienced that before. It was really troubling, exhilarating, confusing, because, again “Hair” was going to confuse you. They’re going to sing songs about masturbation, and black girls having sex with white guys, black guys having sex with… You know. So essentially, before the play began what they did is set up to say this is going to shock you, this is going to be off your usual radar. So don’t come expecting, you know, traditional theater. This is something new. I still remember, that was like forty-years ago.

Again, that was Philip Zimbardo. Does that name ring a bell? If you ever took Psychology 101 in college, think back to that… you remember reading about the Stanford Prison Experiment? That was Zimbardo’s experiment, back in 1971, in which some student volunteers played the role of prisoners and others acted as guards. Things got ugly, fast. To this day, Philip Zimbardo likes to mess with people:

ZIMBARDO: In many settings I’m in, I tweak my environment to see what would happen, what would happen if, you know, you go into a restaurant and the waiter gives you a thing and you say, “I’d like to start with dessert.” And he says, “what?” “I’d like to start with dessert. You’ve got a really good dessert menu.” And sometimes they say, “No, you can’t. You have to start with the appetizer.” You say, “No, I’d like to start with the dessert and I’ll work backwards. What difference does it make?” By putting people in totally new situations, that’s really how we discover something about ourselves.

*      *      *

Okay, so Philip Zimbardo is the man responsible for the Stanford Prison Experiment, one of the most famous social science experiments in history. We’ll hear more about that later. But first, let’s get to the real inspiration for today’s program. It is a theater piece, an immersive, interactive theater piece, called Sleep No More. It’s been playing in New York since early 2011, and it’s the creation of a British theater group called Punchdrunk. Now, Sleep No More is a mash-up of Macbeth and Hitchcock and film noir, but it’s even stranger than all that.

WOMAN: I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s insane. I don’t know.

WOMAN 2: It is. It’s crazy.

WOMAN: It’s sexual and violent.

WOMAN 2: Crazy… insane. There’s, uh, dead babies involved.

WOMAN: Passionate… I don’t know.

Sleep No More is designed to throw you off balance. It begins before you even go inside. The location is called the McKittrick Hotel but in fact it’s an old warehouse in Chelsea. The whole thing is cloaked in secrecy.

WOMAN: I’m not really sure what to expect.

MAN: We were told to know as little as possible. And so we’ve done almost no research as to what we’re about to do.  

WOMAN: I’m just hoping I can make it all the way through and I don’t leave. I don’t get too scared.

MAN: Just like little tidbits of intrigue, you know? We’ve heard that you get a key to a room apparently, everyone wears a mask, and you’re allowed to look through drawers in the sets. That’s about all we know.

WOMAN: We heard that it’s, like ,psychologically, like…

WOMAN 2: Intense?

WOMAN: Intense. Yeah, psychologically intense. And it seems interesting to me.

“Psychologically intense”: I would agree. What makes it so? Let me offer two thoughts: “control” and “context.” First, control. If you are the kind of person who likes to have a lot of control over your surroundings, if you’re not exactly a go-with-the-flow type of person — and yes, I’m describing myself here — then Sleep No More presents you with a bit of a challenge.

It starts while you’re waiting in line on the sidewalk. A bouncer requests a photo I.D., doesn’t say why, just requests it, and everyone in line complies, wordlessly. Once you’re inside, there’s a mandatory coat- and bag-check: everything must go, every computer, every purse. Then you’re shuffled through a long, pitch-black hallway… Out of the blackness, you emerge into a bar, a nice bar, with a good jazz band. The place has the feel of a speakeasy, and you’re thinking, hey, what year are we in here? You’re offered a drink. Absinthe, perhaps? A fortuneteller looks you over from a corner table. After a while, you’re summoned into a freight elevator, where you are given a mask, a beautifully creepy, beaked mask. And then you are told what you may and may not do for the rest of the evening. Here’s Tori Sparks; she plays Lady Macbeth.

Tori SPARKS: I think it’s very telling of who you are and how you first interpret those first instructions that you get, you know, keep your mask on, don’t talk, don’t use your cell phone, “fortune favors the bold.” You know, and people enter in and some people just can’t handle instructions, they can’t handle limitations. They want to talk and you just told them they can’t so they will. Other people are excited by the fact that they get to be anonymous for three hours.

Okay, so you’ve surrendered your valuables at the door and you’re now dispatched on a three-hour adventure, about which you are told next to nothing, during which you may not speak, and yet, you’re also told that “fortune favors the bold.” So yes, you have given up a bit of control. Okay, now for the context. Where are we? Where’s the stage? Well, there is no stage. Or, really, the stage is everywhere — six floors of warehouse that have been turned into an unbelievably elaborate set. There’s an old hotel and a town, there are lodgings for the Macbeths and the Macduffs, there’s a grand ballroom, a forest, a hospital, a cemetery. You are allowed to wander anywhere and everywhere, to open drawers and read letters, to eat candy from the glass jars in the sweets shop.

MAN: It’s sort of like choose your own adventure, so you’re just sort of forced to like forge your own path around the building and find different scenes.

WOMAN: You make your own journey. It’s like, very personal.

WOMAN 2: It’s sexual, and leading.

But what about the actors? Where are they?

MAN: I didn’t see an actor for like the first fifteen minutes, so I thought it was just kind of set decoration everywhere.

But then you start seeing them and trying to figure out who they are, their relationships. You think back to what you were told, that “fortune favors the bold.” And you learn that you have to follow the performers from room to room, even chase them. Or they might bring you with them:

WOMAN: A bald woman dragged me up several flights of stairs, through staircases, into this arena and it was, like, incredible.

The context is further muddied by the fact that none of the performers actually speak. But, over the course of the evening, you will see a lot:

MAN: Someone hanging themselves was pretty cool… the final… I won’t tell you that. Sorry!

WOMAN: A pregnant woman and her husband having a fight and then making up.

MAN: Lots of fighting. Lots of kissing.

WOMAN: Lots of taxidermy.

MAN: Dry humping.

WOMAN 2: My friend Austin is in it and he gets naked and bloody. So that was pretty crazy.

WOMAN 3: It’s just… it’s like a nightmare.  

And don’t forget: it is very dark, and you are wearing a mask.

Felix BARRETT: The mask is utterly critical. And without it, it wouldn’t work, or it would be something very, very different.

That’s Felix Barrett. He’s the artistic director of Punchdrunk and co-creator of Sleep No More.

BARRETT: They’re faceless, they’re anonymous, so there’s that sort of, that normal relationship between performer and audience is completely ground down. The first time I tried it, a middle-aged lady came and apologized to me afterwards and said, “I’m so sorry I put the mask on, I found myself being very rude, I was getting too close to the performers, I even touched one at one point, I’m so sorry.”

DUBNER: And you must have said “Thank you.”

BARRETT: I was like, “Thank you.” because I didn’t even realize how powerful it was. She felt compelled to do it because the mask had given her that freedom. And as soon as it came off she remembered who she was and where she was.

The mask does seems to embolden people.

WOMAN: Well… I did something I wasn’t supposed to do. I saw a dress hanging on the wall — because they said not everything is what it seems, those who take more risks will be rewarded more — so I put on the dress, and…

MAN: She was punished.


MAN: It belonged to one of the actresses.

WOMAN: It belonged to one of the actresses, so I shouldn’t have done it. The thought of being that much more anonymous with a switch of clothing was even more exciting.

One night Tori Sparks, who plays Lady Macbeth, was dancing inside a sort of glass box:

SPARKS: I had a woman… I was performing a solo in the box, and like, a crowd filled watching this thing. And for whatever reason this woman decided that she was going to throw objects at the glass. And she found anything and everything. There’s not much in this room that you can pick up and throw…

DUBNER: A bureau…

SPARKS: …but she found it all. She found…she went in our drawer and picked up the lipstick, the fur, anything, the wet t-shirts and just started chucking it as hard as she could at the glass.


SPARKS: And fortunately I was behind glass so I just kept going with what I was doing.

DUBNER: Don’t you really want to know what’s going on in that person’s mind, then, or do you just… Well, I guess in the moment you’re just trying to survive the scene.

SPARKS: I was in shock, just, you’re really making that choice right now. Why? Why would you even think that’s what needs to be done right now? Am I making you mad, are you trying to mess with me, what’s going on? So I just tried to stay in character and the steward that’s in this room of course went to try and stop her, and she just, she was just, “Oh, I didn’t know, just completely clueless.”

DUBNER: Fortune favors the bold.

SPARKS: Exactly.

DUBNER: Oh my gosh.

SPARKS: But meanwhile me and all these other spectators were just like, “Huh?”

Every detail of Sleep No More, the music, the mask, the choreography, has been carefully designed to crush your expectations that going to the theater means sitting in a square room and watching people on a stage speak their lines. Here’s Felix Barrett again:

BARRETT: It’s completely safe it just feels almost fictionalized. We fictionalize a state of tension that feels slightly unsettling and threatening when actually it’s not.

Before Sleep No More came to New York, it played in Boston, in an old school building …

BARRETT: When we did Boston the first show they said, Health and Safety said this is not going to work; it’s too dangerous. So we had to put the lights up, and the show didn’t work at all because the audience was just walking around it nonchalantly treating it like a gallery chatting because there was no sense of threat.

DUBNER: Even though you told them not to talk.

BARRETT: Yeah, because here we have this huge swath of the darkness. If that’s not there, then there’s no mystery.

So how would you behave if you were thrust into an unfamiliar situation, given a set of off-putting rules, and told to hide behind a mask? Sleep No More, for me, was a thrill — unsettling, on many dimensions, but also a thrill. What it really made me think about, however, wasn’t Macbeth, or Shakespeare, or Hitchcock, or all the awesomely grisly ideas promoted therein. I was mostly thinking about the audience. What it really made me think about was Philip Zimbardo, his Stanford Prison Experiment, and how people change their behavior depending on their surroundings. Here’s Zimbardo again:

ZIMBARDO: One of the things that strikes me about this interesting play is that it puts the audience in a totally new situation, that is, the audience has never been asked to wear masks, play a role, and have a set of rules to govern their behavior.

In a way, Sleep No More does to the audience, every night, what social scientists like Zimbardo have been doing, in experiments, for decades: they put people in a situation, fiddle with the variables, see how they behave. Like Stanley Milgram’s famous “obedience” experiments at Yale in the early 1960’s, to see whether a volunteer would administer an electric jolt to someone if told to do so by an authority figure. Milgram’s experiments took place shortly after Adolph Eichmann went on trial in Jerusalem for Nazi war crimes. Here’s Philip Zimbardo again:

ZIMBARDO: And as a sidebar, little Stanley Milgram and I were high school classmates at James Monroe High School in the Bronx in senior year in 1948, ’49. So essentially there was something in that water because it was really… Yeah, he was the little Jewish kid who worried about, you know, could the Holocaust happen in America? If Hitler said electrocute somebody, would you do it, or Hitler’s henchmen? And everybody said, “No, Stanley, we’re not that kind of person.” What he said as a high-school kid was, “How do you know unless you’re in that kind of situation?”

After the Milgram experiments, Zimbardo got the idea to set up a fake prison at Stanford, with some volunteers acting as guards and some as prisoners.

ZIMBARDO: And that was the central commonality in the Milgram studies and my Stanford prison study. We put people in a totally new situation where in both studies we gave people total power over someone else.

The experiment was designed to go on for two weeks. Twenty-four volunteers, all male college students, were randomly divided into inmates and guards. The “inmates” were “arrested” at their homes and brought to a makeshift prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology department. Immediately, their individuality was taken away — the guards called them by I.D. number rather than name, they wore stocking caps to cover their hair and a short smock with no underwear. The guards, too, were dressed alike, essentially becoming anonymous.

ZIMBARDO: The guards not only were in uniforms but they had to wear silvery reflective sunglasses, an idea I got from the movie “Cool Hand Luke.”

It didn’t take long for the situation to curdle. A third of the guards started to exploit their authority, taunting prisoners, making them simulate sodomy and clean toilets with their bare hands. Zimbardo himself began to play a role.

ZIMBARDO: I began to be the prison superintendent. I see videotapes of my…I’m walking down the yard with my hands behind my back and my chest out. I never do that. I was surprised to see that. But that is how, you know, military officers when they’re reviewing their troops… that’s how many politicians… it’s a position of authority and power, which I abhor. I mean, I always work hard to minimize the power I have as a teacher. And here I was unconsciously assuming it.

Now, Zimbardo is a situationist.

ZIMBARDO: I’m a situationist dyed-in-the-wool. Individual variations in quote “personality” predict almost nothing about people in these situations.

Meaning he firmly believes that people aren’t necessarily “good” or “bad” but that their behavior is strongly dependent on their situation, on the role they’re expected to play. During the Stanford Prison Experiment, the situation was so intense that after just 36 hours, some prisoners began to break down. Instead of lasting two weeks, the experiment was cancelled after six days:

ZIMBARDO: The way the study ended was I had invited young faculty members and graduate students who knew nothing about the study to come down and interview all the prisoners, guards, and staff. And Christina Maslach who had been my graduate student, who — we had just started dating — comes down the night before and sees the guards abusing the prisoners. And I look up, it’s a ten o’clock toilet run, ten o’clock at night, last run for the prisoners to go to the toilet. And the prisoners have bags over their heads, legs chained together, yelling, screaming, cursing, and I say, “Hey Christina, look at that, isn’t that interesting?” And she starts crying and runs out. And we have this big argument. And I’m saying, “What kind of psychologist are you? This is the crucible of human nature.” She says, “Wait a minute, how could you see what I see and not see it as dehumanization? I thought I knew who you were. I don’t know who you are. I don’t know who this person is, and I’m not sure that I want to continue my relationship with you if this is the real you.”

DUBNER: How long had you been dating by this point?

ZIMBARDO: Oh, probably six months.

DUBNER: And when she said it was it a kind of light bulb moment for you? Or did you fight against the impulse?

ZIMBARDO: No, I fought against the impulse because at some deep level I knew she was right. I didn’t want to believe that I was changed by the situation. I mean, I’m a grownup; I’ve done lots of research.

DUBNER: And not only are you a grownup, but you are the administrator of this thing. And it’s amazing to me… I mean, now, forty-some years later, you can talk about it with the perspective of someone who was a participant and who understands what happened to you. But did you have any sense that what was happening to you was happening to you at the time?

ZIMBARDO: Oh not at all. I’m saying it was not a light bulb, it was a lightning bolt that when she said it… I mean, we both talked about it. We subsequently got married the next year because I realized she was my heroine who saved me because the study was going to go another full week. I’m not sure what would have happened at that point. But it was a lightning bolt. And of course I resisted at first because what it means is I had made this mistake. I should have ended it days earlier. And essentially, it’s what administrators do. I didn’t do anything wrong, but I allowed wrongdoing to go on. And actually one of the worst guards said in a later interview, “The professor never said I couldn’t do it and therefore I did it.”

Coming up on Freakonomics Radio, what lesson should we take away from the Stanford Prison Experiment? How about no lesson at all?

Steven LEVITT: You know, I actually never… That’s one result I don’t believe.

So… does Sleep No More offer a better lesson in human behavior?

SPARKS: I think you could just come and just watch the audience for three hours too.

*      *      *

DUBNER: Let me ask you this, Levitt: I’m sure you’re familiar with the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, Philip Zimbardo, yes?


Steve Levitt is my Freakonomics friend and co-author. He’s an economist at the University of Chicago, and over the course of his academic career he has run and observed a lot of experiments, both in the lab and in the field:

DUBNER: So what do you think that says about anonymity or the power that a circumstance, a place, being put in a place and playing a role — the power that that has on us?

LEVITT: You know, I actually never… That’s one result I don’t believe. I just fundamentally don’t believe that if you take undergrads and if you put them in the role of the prisoner versus the prison guard…. It’s just, you know, I’ve never tried it but I just don’t believe that it’s real. And I think to get it you have to manipulate other things. It just doesn’t seem right to me that people are like that. And maybe that’s what’s so amazing about it, is that it really happens. And it was, I don’t know if you were with me by the time I was talking to it, a movie director from the BBC and he said he had tried to recreate that for the BBC and it got so ugly so quickly that he had to cancel the whole thing and they didn’t even do the show. But I don’t know…

DUBNER: But wait, “got so ugly so quickly” connoting that it did happen, yes?

LEVITT: Yeah, he said it was real, too. But a lot of times what I’ve found is that that when I try to do experiments as an economist that work great for psychologists, I cannot get them to work. And I really have come to believe that it’s because the people in the study are so keen on doing what the researcher wants them to do, and they think that the psychologist wants them to behave in one way, and they think the economist wants them to behave in a different way, and so it’s hard to reproduce some of those psychological findings. I would love to do the prison study, and I’d love to do it in a way that was unbiased. And I just, that’s one thing: I would bet a lot of money that things wouldn’t turn out the way that they did in that old Zimbardo study.

DUBNER: Well, you know, let me read you, here’s what a couple of the volunteers who played guards back then forty-some years ago. Here’s what they said recently. One said that he was playing a role from the outset trying to create drama to quote, “give the researchers something to work with.” And another guard said, “I didn’t think it was ever meant to go the full two weeks. I think Zimbardo wanted to create a dramatic crescendo and then end it as quickly as possible. I felt that throughout the experiment, he knew what he wanted and tried to shape the experiment by how it was constructed and how it played out to fit the conclusion that he had already worked out. He wanted to be able to say that college students, people from middle-class backgrounds, that people will turn on each other just because they are given a role and given power.”

LEVITT: So people won’t believe me, I have never heard those quotes. I didn’t know anyone else thought that way. What I said before was just my intuition that that was not human behavior what got revealed in those studies.

A study like the Stanford Prison Experiment could never happen today, at least not in the U.S. When it was over, the American Psychological Association imposed new standards for how research subjects could be treated. So, if you really want to mess with someone, manipulate their mind, your best bet may still be the theater. Felix Barrett, years before he created Sleep No More, staged a show that was so unorthodox and rarefied that only four people ever got to experience it.

BARRETT: It was called The Moon Slave and it started with an invitation being sent to come to a theater in this town in southwest England. You come to a theater to see a show called The Moon Slave and we invited press and arts council, the main funding body. So they thought it was a bog standard show, turned up expecting a normal sit down proscenium art show, arrived after dark to this sleepy little theater, no other cars in the car park, walked in, inside the theater, a dressed auditorium, seats two hundred, programs, lights on, and no one there. So they waited around for a while, got a bit spooked. Thankfully all of them stayed, and then a phone rings on top of that stage. And they realized they have to get up onto that stage.

Amongst the set they find a parcel that’s addressed to them. Inside that parcel (they unwrap it), it’s a phone that says your driver’s waiting outside. And then they leave the auditorium again, get into the second car waiting with our chauffeur. They get into the back of that car and the car speeds off and drives into the countryside. And there in the back of the car a narrated soundtrack, symphonic soundtrack, begins on the car stereo, and that’s the true beginning of the show. And for the next hour they’re driven around, dropped off in the middle of the countryside, given a headset so the story and the symphonic soundtrack continues, and they go through this vast walk through forests and countryside culminating in a massive sort of pyrotechnic finale when it’s revealed they’re not actually by themselves, they’re actually surrounded by two hundred scarecrows. And it was… We actually end up shooting a marine flare in the sky to reveal, to turn the sky red for fifteen miles. So it’s all about crescendo, and expectation, and intimacy.

DUBNER: Wow. So you do really love to mess with people, and I say that not pejoratively at all. In a, like… As a theater creator you see the audience member differently than other theater creators do, don’t you?


DUBNER: It strikes me that you are half theater creator and half social scientist.

BARRETT: I suppose… when I go and see… I can think back on sort of five pieces of theater that have blown me away. And there’s that sensation you get when it’s really high quality, well thought out, well crafted art that’s visceral, that connects emotionally, it’s almost like that sort of weird… that nexus where everything connects and you get this one sublime moment. I can feel that in my body now if I think about it. And all I want to do as a maker is to give audience members that sensation. And it’s difficult to find. And so maybe I just go a different route to try to source it. But I think I’m just the same as any other director. You just want your audience to be lost in the work you create.

That’s one of the pleasures of seeing Sleep No More: watching your fellow audience members get lost in the work. They don their masks and cast off their social mores. Yes, a few of them act out. They interfere with the cast. They steal:

SPARKS: They steal.

DUBNER: Yeah? What do they steal?

SPARKS: They take, they love the letters in Malcolm’s office, Lady Macbeth’s letters, they love to wear Lady Macduff’s fur coat. They love the nurse’s jacket. They love Macbeth’s coat that he gets hung in.

They have sex.

BARRETT: Yeah, I think every show we’ve done there’s been some sex.

And there is empathy too. During Sleep No More, one character tries to poison Lady Macduff. Here’s Maxine Doyle, the show’s choreographer and co-director.

DOYLE: There have been moments when audience have tried to interrupt that moment. And there’s been moments when Lady Macduff, well we set this up, she falls in the party, sometimes they let her fall on the floor, most of the time somebody will save her. More interestingly is Lady Macbeth. The decline of her story plays out in the hospital and she finishes in an image which is really vulnerable. Well, she’s naked and bloody and in another bathtub in the hospital. And she beckons to the audience sometimes to help. And some audience will help her, pick up a towel, give her a towel, or hold her. So it tends to be that audiences want to save, nurture, protect.

And here again is Tori Sparks, who plays Lady Macbeth, and Nick Bruder, who plays Macbeth.

SPARKS: Some people’s actions they can be sincere too, they offer one of the Macbeths a towel while they’re in the bathtub washing off the blood in the most sincere gesture possible.

DUBNER: Is it moving?

SPARKS: Yeah, it really can be. The intent behind anything can really move you… it just depends on why they’re doing it.

BRUDER: That’s a good point, it’s the intent behind things. There are twenty characters, so I could have a really great night…

SPARKS: And somebody else has a crap night.

DUBNER: Do you guys then have a postmortem afterwards?

SPARKS: When we all collect in the elevator at the end it is just unreeling the nights. Did you see this person in that dress? Did you see that guy in that polka-dotted shirt? Can you believe what he did? He took this; he took that. Everybody is just unleashing it all.

BRUDER: I had a great night, I don’t know what you guys are talking about.

In the end, Sleep No More is too wooly, too free-wheeling to think of as a social experiment. But it does look a little bit like society itself: rules are established and sometimes broken. Mores are adopted, but not by everyone. What’s most interesting — most encouraging perhaps — is how in Sleep No More, as in society in general, what we don’t end up with is total chaos. Here’s Steve Levitt again:

LEVITT: When I teach my class on the economics of crime to the undergraduates at the U of C, one of the points that I stress over and over is that the puzzle is not why is there so much crime, the puzzle is just the opposite, why is there so little crime? Why does the average person who has literally hundreds of chances to commit crimes in a day not take advantage of those? Right? Every time you walk past a five-year-old on the street, on the playground, you could bonk them over the head with no repercussions and run off. Or you could steal candy. You could take…

DUBNER: Some real high-stakes crimes you’re talking about, beating up children, stealing candy.

LEVITT: But nobody does them and you don’t worry about people doing them. And even when there are… I mean, I’ll be in a big room lecturing and I’ll leave my cell phone, and my backpack that has my computer in it. If I lost that computer I would be beside myself, but I’ll have complete faith that no one is going to steal it.  And it’s really not ultimately because they think they’ll be caught. I think that one of the greatest powers of society is the ability to inculcate in people a sense of right and wrong. And so the overwhelming majority of people are trained to not do things that are negative to other people. I mean, even criminals, I think, have some honor. It’s rare for a criminal to, you know, beat up an eighty-year-old lady. It happens from time to time, but criminals show some judgment in that regard.

So the next time you’re at the grocery store, or in church, or in an elevator, ask yourself: am I behaving the way I am because of who I am, or simply because of my surroundings? What would I do if I were wearing a mask? Am I as much of an individual as I think I am, or am I more like a lump of Silly Putty, just waiting for society, or a theater director, to mold me?

WOMAN: I think it makes you a little bit more daring, a little less inhibited…

WOMAN 2: …more mischievous.

WOMAN 3: You got really gutsy by the end.

WOMAN 2: I was really, I was really going for it

MAN: …brusquely pushing people aside to follow the person I was trying to follow.

WOMAN 4: Yeah, I got a little rude.

WOMAN 2: I would try to like make noises at other people…

MAN 2: I mean I think you just, there’s no boundaries.

WOMAN 2: I don’t know, it was completely different from anything I’ve ever experienced. It just felt good. It was right, in the moment.

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