Tag Archives: Cognitive Psychology


Dear Readers,

It has been a while that I posted anything here. A medley of reasons kept me away – the most important being some critical health issues. Yet, every dark cloud that hovers over your head filling your view of the world with darkness and gloom, either explodes into a storm of rain and drenches you cold, or sails away in time. This cloud is sailing away, and though I can still see its tail on the horizon, I am confident that the wind won’t reverse its course to bring it back. At least I hope that it won’t.

So, in all probability I am back.

I intend to dust away the cobwebs and scrub this blog to make it sparkle again. I also want to thank the latest follower of this blog who inspired me to return. (If you followed this blog yesterday, you are the one I am talking about.)

As I couldn’t move about a lot, I spent the last whole year experimenting with some new learning mediums. I worked extensively on the mobile platform (specifically iOS) and this year I intend to work on development of Android apps. I intend to share my learnings on content development for the mobile learning or m-learning medium here along with my thoughts on e-learning. I am also experimenting with Kindle. Recently I have once again started accepting corporate training assignments in Instructional Design and eLearning. I also plan to share my experiences from those programs here.

This blog primarily focuses on the psychological principles that relate to learning (directly and indirectly) so expect to see the regular stuff on cognitive psychology too 🙂

I leave you with a link to my latest article on the Creative Agni Website.


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Re-introducing Sloth and Froth!

I am not sure if I’ve ever formally introduced you to Sloth and Froth. They appear in my posts off and on. In other words, they’ve been freelancing – but now I intend to offer them a permanent position here. Thus, it becomes all the more necessary that they are introduced to you, their real audience.

Meet Sloth.

He (yes, HE) is a personification of his name. He is lazy. He is someone who’d love to have a droid doing his work for him. Sloth hates to get up in the mornings, he abhors the idea of taking a bath (even of  brushing his teeth, but he won’t tell you that,) and his daily To-do list begins with the task of finding an unsuspecting mule who’d do his work for him.

Fortunately, Sloth is very intelligent. His huge body houses an equally huge IQ…and so he’s not a complete loser, but he is absolutely NOT charismatic…and he doesn’t care. He loves to complain, and he is of the opinion that the entire world has been paid to conspire against him.

Now meet Froth.

She (yes, SHE – what did you think?) is bubbly, quite like her name. She’s full of energy. She resembles a freshly uncorked bottle of Soda. She’s extremely energetic and you’d think that she’d never tire out – but she does, because she’s also a perfectionist. She is an extreme hardworker – to the extent that she burns every extra ounce of fat off her perfect body. Froth’s charismatic; she’s attractive, and she’s very lively.

Froth is a career woman. She wants  to do well in her career and she doesn’t want to do it by cutting corners (if you know what I mean.) She is always politically correct but at the same time  she’s also quite emotional. This makes her feel stressed at times.

Following are the posts in which Sloth and Froth have featured so far. I hope you like them, because you’ll be seeing a lot more of them on this blog:)

PS: Does this post smack of Reverse-Gender-Bias?

Froth says: This isn’t gender-bias, this is how things are. Women are blah…blah…and men are blaher…bhaher!
Sloth says: Who cares? Pass me the mustard!


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Post-Training Stress, The Need for Perfection, and an Absence of Self-Acceptance!

If you think that I am over-stepping the boundaries of Cognitive Psychology and entering into the realm of Clinical Psychology, you are mistaken.

I am here – right where I belong. I am standing amidst trainers, content writers, and other learning professionals – I am where I belong…and yes, I am talking about Stress and Self-Acceptance.

I am talking about it because these are the realities of our lives.

A trainer who trains others to handle work-related stress experiences loads of it herself. The normal stress-busters don’t apply to her – her stress originates from something else…and unfortunately she has to face it after every training program she conducts. Her stress is repetitive, and hence a lot more damaging. It can quickly result in fissures, which can suddenly give way, rendering her completely helpless.

My focus today is the stress that every trainer experiences post-training.

Let us begin by understanding two terms:

  • Stress
  • Self-Acceptance

Stress is “a state of mental or emotional strain,”  and it manifests itself as a disorder when it begins to cause physical problems such as palpitation, perspiration, muscular tension, constipation, excessive hunger…and so on.

Self-Acceptance is “an acceptance of yourself as you are, warts and all

Now if you’ve got the two terms right, let us define our problem, determine its root-causes, and try to get rid of all the training-related stress that’s been plaguing our lives.


If you are a trainer, and if you are experiencing any of the physical symptoms listed above, you should go through this article.

Let’s first see why a trainer experiences stress!

Why Trainers experience Stress?

The trainer:

  • is uncomfortable with the act of delivering trainings and doesn’t like to interface with people.
  • doesn’t know the subject well and conducts the training in fear of not being able to deliver.
  • has a morbid fear of hecklers and while he trains he obsesses about one or more of the participants turning hecklers.
  • assumes that there are people in the group who know more than he/she does of the content, and that he’d be laughed at behind his back.
  • is a perfectionist and fears the possibility that a few/some/many of the participants might not be happy with his training.

There could be other reasons too – but then they’d probably be related to the root causes for the stress.

The Two Root Causes of Stress among Trainers:

Let us understand both these root causes:

  • the absence of Self-Acceptance and
  • the denial of diversity in the audience.

When we step into the shoes of a trainer, we aim for perfection. We want to be the best of trainers. We don’t want to go wrong. Unfortunately we aren’t God. We are humans – and as humans, we have our own set of “perceived” deficiencies. Here are some examples:
See if you can connect with any of these.

  1. Vocabulary issues (I don’t have a huge vocabulary)
  2. Posture issues (I slouch)
  3. Candidness issues (I can’t mince words)
  4. Temperament issues (I lose patience)
  5. Content issues (I don’t know the content)
  6. Personality issues (I hate being a trainer)

Though the list can go on – do you see that in this short list, the first five can be improved upon, the last can’t be (at least not with ease.)

So, you aren’t God but then what’s new?

How could Trainers Eliminate Stress from their Work-lives?

Accept your shortcomings and move forth. How about not worrying about them (the first 5) until you get past them. I slouch too – but I don’t think that it makes a difference to my training programs. I am working on my posture – some day I might have a better posture, but until then, don’t bother me. And the fact is – I don’t remember anyone having ever complained about it either. Cheer up! Nobody there is noticing those shortcomings, except you my friend!

But if you don’t like to connect with people, you might consider changing your career tracks – because your inner-self isn’t going to change in a month or maybe an year – it’d take more time…you won’t be able to keep the stress at bay for that long…so move on, dear – stress is a sadist – it kills you slowly…don’t be a trainer if you don’t like to stand there and talk. Just check out.

The second cause is simpler to understand and also to accept.

Remember that people are different. You can do your best, you can kill yourself bettering your best, but each individual is different from another – and though there would be 9 people out of 10 who would be normal and who would learn from you and appreciate your effort; the tenth might either not learn or might not want to appreciate you despite learning a lot! Don’t kill yourself for those nutcases.

And remember,
There are three kinds of learners:

  1. Who want to learn,
  2. Who are indifferent and would learn if you tried, and
  3. Who don’t want to learn!

Focus on the first two kinds – leave the third kind alone. You can’t force-feed learning. And yes – when I say leave the third kind, I say wipe them off your mind-screen! There feedback doesn’t matter – Aim to educate, train, teach, and enable 70% of your audience. If you are able to do better, consider it a bonus. Don’t aim for perfection, because perfection doesn’t exist. Remember that those who are interested in learning shouldn’t be penalized for those who aren’t.

So don’t let anyone stress you out – neither the perfectionist who sits inside you, nor the non-motivated heckler who sits outside. You are precious for people who really matter to you – save yourself for them.

Important Concepts Discussed in this Post:

  • Stress
  • Self-Acceptance
  • Perfection


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How Should Adult Learners Learn – 6 Tips for Learning Better!

This post isn’t for trainers, or instructional designers, or content developers; or any such individuals who are worried about making others learn. This post is for the adult learner. The adult, who for some reason becomes a learner, is the audience for this post.

Before I begin with the tips, I want to say that an adult might be in a training program for a variety of reasons. These reasons could vary from “having a genuine learning need” to “having been asked to go.” Irrespective of your reason, once you find yourself in a training, you have committed to spend the most precious of all your resources, your time, for the program. So, it’s now in your interest to get the best from it – even though at times, you might find yourself in a program that has no “immediate need/application” (ref: Knowles’ Andragogy) for you.

With that settled, let us now review the six steps you should take to make your experience happy and fruitful.

  1. Use your Prior Learning Smartly
  2. Strip your Mind of Preconceived Notions
  3. Share what you “Understand” and not what you “Know”!
  4. Peel the Jargon Away before your Share
  5. Delegate the Driving Activity to the Trainer
  6. Focus on the Training Goal and not your Personal Goal

Let us quickly look at each of the above six guidelines in some more detail.

Use your Prior Learning Smartly

We adults are burdened with tons of prior learning on almost half the things under the sun. This is a good thing for us only when we know how to use our learning – if we don’t, we have a tendency to spill it all over the place, in a random pattern. This may work when we are trying to impress an impressionable audience, who’s a blank slate when it comes to your esoteric knowledge area. Unfortunately it doesn’t work in a program that’s laid out to achieve a predefined learning objective, for a specific group of learners, within a given time-frame.

However, when we filter our prior learning and share only what is relevant, we initiate productive discussions. We also form a strong bond of learning with the trainer and the other participants.

So, use your prior learning smartly instead of shooting random arrows from the hip!

Strip your Mind of Preconceived Notions

  1. So you didn’t want to come for the training?
  2. You also don’t think that trainings help?
  3. You feel that the trainer is a moron – and that if anyone was worthy of doing a training program on the subject – you were?

Let’s see what you should be doing for each of the three points above.

  1. Cool off! Let us reflect upon it. You didn’t want to come, but for some arcane reason, you’ve ended up in the training. Now accept it.
  2. You don’t think trainings help – right? So why are you in the training then. You didn’t have the nerve to speak up and give your boss a piece of your mind…and so you find yourself in the program. Good. Now accept it.
  3. The trainer is a moron and you could do a better job? Great. Next time, apply for being the trainer not the trainee. Now…accept it.

Accept it, go ahead, and make the best use of the training by becoming more generous and more pliable. Remember, a dry and rigid stick breaks, the soft and the flexible one doesn’t – it dances and smiles, and it has loads of fun!

Get rid of your preconceived notions. Once you’ve crossed the threshold and entered the training hall, they can only hurt your learning and image. Leave them behind.

Share what you “Understand” and not what you “Know”!

We, the adult learners often act before we think. We are often driven by “esteem needs” and we try to put our best foot forward even before the party begins.

Don’t share every little speck of information that you had squirreled away, once upon a time. Weigh its relevance to the training content, decide if it could help others in some way, and then share it! But of course, for such mature decision-making, you’d need to have some understanding of what you want to share – just recalling a term wouldn’t help!

So if you are sitting in a training program on motivation, and the trainer has not yet begun to explain the MBTI personality types, don’t just point your finger at the trainer and shout, “you are the INTJ type!” Reflect upon your action. It was probably triggered by the need to let everyone know that you “knew already.” Nevertheless, had you understood MBTI personality types and not just remembered one of the 16 types, you could have waited until the topic was introduced. It would have helped you come up with a more useful contribution, which made the participants and the trainer respect you.

Peel the Jargon Away before your Share

As we all know, shop jargon is a very useful thing in shop. Unfortunately jargon doesn’t make a lot of sense in training programs that draw the audience from different backgrounds. Don’t use jargon when you discuss something in a training program. Yes, there could be some terminology that is introduced in the training program, or, that you are sure everyone in the training program would know – such terminology could be used with care.
Also be ready to explain any term that you use in your queries or discussions. If the use of such a term is unavoidable, preempt confusion  by explaining the term to everyone’s benefit.

Delegate the Driving Activity to the Trainer

We all like to be in command. We all like to be in the driver’s seat – especially if we think that we were better drivers. However, in training programs, it’s better to take a back seat and delegate the driving function to the trainer or the instructor.

Stretching the analogy a little further – you might be an excellent driver who driven for 20 the American roads. However, when in India, I’d recommend that you hire a local driver who knows how to navigate through the Indian city traffic and who’s conversant with the Indian traffic rules and guidelines. It would be a definite (and rather foolish) suicide attempt to take the steering wheel from this driver.

Let the trainer steer the training. He or she probably knows the subject terrain better than you do. You sit back and enjoy your learning ride.

Focus on the Training Goal and not your Personal Goal

We all have our personal goals. These goals are usually driven either by “safety/security needs” or by “esteem needs.” (Refer: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.) Sometimes the personal goal becomes too distant (Ex: My supervisor needed to send 4 people of this training – and because one of the originally selected team-members became sick, I was asked to go,” In such cases, we often yield to supervisor-pressure and agree to participate despite the training goal having no direct personal relevance. But look again, you agreed because you thought that it could help you forge a stronger relationship with your boss, or on the other extreme, not to face his wrath at the time of your appraisal, thus fulfilling your “safety/security needs,” or more precisely your “job security need”:-)

Thus the fact that you “elected” to go through the training program “proves” that you found a match between your personal goals and the training goal. After all, theoretically speaking, you can’t bulldoze adult learners into doing something that they don’t want to do.  So, “practically” speaking, if you didn’t have the gumption to stand up for your right to say No to the training program before you came into the program, there’s no point standing up after you’ve committed three days of your precious time.

The training goal is put in place beforehand and the trainer’s goal is to ensure that the training goal is met. Like it or not, your best bet is to accept this fact and try to achieve the training goal. That’s the only mature way of handling such a situation once it has arisen. Of course, the most reasonable course of action would be to not attend such programs where the training goal doesn’t match your personal goals.

Sometimes however, we have no choice in the matter. I understand. Yet, do remember, you have the choice of either making the best use of your time or of rolling it up and smoking it away!


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The Serial Position Effect and Its Use in Training/Course Design

Introducing the Serial Position Effect

Have you heard about the Serial Position Effect?
Of course you have. When you are positioned at the beginning of a list, you feel as chirpy as a bird, and when you are at the end, your nose scrubs the floor. When you are in the middle, you are just there – nothing feels great or lousy, and it’s just another day! So that’s the Serial Position Effect! The Cognitive Psychologists explain in greater detail and their explanations help us formulate some quick tips for making our content interesting. But let’s begin by putting on our experiential shoes.

Serial Position Effect – An Activity

Here’s a list. Read it and then hide it. (Scroll down, click alt-tab to bring up the Beyonce Knowles or George Clooney screensaver, or do whatever you usually do to hide the content on your screen.) Next, jot down on a piece of paper, all the words that you remember.

  1. Poodle
  2. Tree
  3. Dance
  4. House
  5. Airport
  6. Sugar
  7. Child
  8. Ground
  9. Watch
  10. Squirrel
  11. Truck
  12. Building
  13. Hospital
  14. Pencil
  15. Terrace
  16. Lamp

Which are the words that you remembered. According to the Serial Position effect, you must definitely have remembered the terms Poodle and Lamp (the first and the last terms.) The other terms that you remember too would have a greater chance to be found either in the first or the last few terms in the list.

The Serial Position effect (Ebbinghaus) combines two effects:

  • The Primacy Effect (We remember what is at the beginning of a list.)
  • The Recency Effect (We also remember what is at the end of a list.)

The Primacy Effect:

The primacy effect is the outcome of our conscious effort to retain the learning. Recall your experience. Did you repeat the first few terms, trying to “commit” them to memory? You were trying to shift your learning from Short Term Memory to Long Term Memory. This effect wasn’t possible if I had asked you to read the list in 10 seconds, instead of allowing you to stretch the time according to your convenience.

The Recency Effect:

The Recency Effect is the result of “recency.” Recall that I didn’t ask you to wait for an hour before jotting down the terms, instead, I asked you to do it (immediately) after reading the list. Chances are few that you waited before listing the terms you remembered. This effect, thus, is lost when there’s a time-gap between reading the list and recalling the terms. Note that Recency Effect doesn’t require you to shift your learning from the Long Term Memory to the Short Term Memory!

Some other examples that illustrate the Recency Effect are:

  • Forgetting the names of the family members of a person introduced to you in the last party you attended. (You remembered them for the duration of your conversation with the person in question.)
  • Forgetting single-use phone numbers immediately after use.

In both these cases, you didn’t think that the “learning” (names/phone numbers) was important enough to be sent to the Long Term Memory.

Using The Serial Position Effect in Course/Training Design:

Let us put a stop to the theoretical discussion on the Serial Position Effect and review its impact on course/training design.

  • When you want your audience to remember something, put it either at the beginning or the end of your session/lecture/series of activities.
    Sloth: Now you know why the beginnings and the ends are so much more fun than the body of the session. The trainer is trying to obtain a happy “reaction” from the audience. The trainer is also aiming at leaving the audience with happy memories!

    Don’t worry about Sloth. He’s got this uncanny ability to turn the concepts upside-down (not inside-out.)

  • If you can structure your content in form of expandable lists, do it – but make sure that its got a chiseled midriff – put all the groovy stuff either at the top or at the bottom. (You know that the metaphor is unintentional – it just happened:-) But even if you think otherwise, please yourself!)
  • Break your longer lists into two or more columns. The learner’s mind will then perceive each list as a separate one and the Primacy Effect will help him/her remember more.

Sloth: You should train yourself to begin your content with “What the learner would gain” and end with “What the learner has gained!” Then you’ll have a successful training program, without having to design and deliver anything else!

Froth: Sloth’s right. Having patented his technique of designing “Beginning-to-End in 60 seconds” training programs, he’ll shortly make his first million!


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Learning – Definition & Scope

This blog is called “The Zen of Learning” and so most of what you will find here would pertain to learning. Through this post, I intend to define the scope of learning and through it, the scope of this blog.

Let us begin by understanding the term learning, and then illustrate its meaning from two different perspectives.

The Webster on my desk defines learning as:

  • “The act of acquiring knowledge or skill” (when used as a verb,) and
  • “The knowledge or skill thus acquired” (when used as a noun.)

This definition, I find somewhat incomplete. So let me introduce another dimension into it, and define it as:
“The act of acquiring or modifying knowledge, skills, and attitudes.”

With this definition of learning in view, we can surmise that the scope of learning is vast. It goes beyond a set of formal activities designed to influence the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and attitudes of a specific learner segment. Thus, when we speak of learning, we relate to everything that’s got anything to do with personality development, skills acquisition, attitude transformation, instructional design, training, cognitive psychology, self-learning, observational learning…and so on. The list is long – so don’t worry about it.

Just remember this – if you are a human, the concept and the methods of learning are relevant to you.

Check this out:

  • If you are a homemaker, learning about how learning happens and how you can expedite the process of learning could help you raise smarter kids, build a better and stronger relationship with your husband, and make your chores easier and simpler.
  • If you are an engineer, the knowledge of how learning happens can make you analyze your own learning methods and learn faster.
  • If you are a marketing professional, this knowledge to help you market your products better, because you’ll be able to devise the best strategy to help the client learn why your products are the best for him or her.
  • If you are a writer, it could help you make your writing more relevant to your audience.
  • If you are an instructional designer, becoming comfortable with the phenomenon of learning could enable you to create content that always strikes the right chord…in your audience’s mind!

I can go on and on…you tell me who you are, and I can tell you how this knowledge could help you do better in… whatever you do.

And if you are a parent, this knowledge could come in handy when you teach your son, the nuances of skating:-)

Photo by dnamichaud

I’ll try to make short individual posts too, but you’ll often find serial posts on topics that demand space. As the blog evolves, I’ll try to classify the posts and help you navigate. For sometime however, I request you to join me in my exploration of this medium. Use the sidebar categories to find what suits your temperament and learning needs.

On Friday, I’ll return with a post on the different mediums through which learning may be enabled. It will introduce you to the different ways in which learning is imparted in today’s fast-paced environment. I am averse to technological jargon, so if you are looking for someone who could help you catch on with the new fangled methods of learning, without making you feel like you’ve lost your way in a rain forest, be here…on January 26, 2010!


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Attribution Theory & Self-Serving Bias – Application in Training & Content Development (3 of 3)

Following are the two posts that precede this post.

  1. Attribution Theory & Self-Serving Bias – Why People play down the Achievements of Others?
  2. Attribution Theory & Self-Serving Bias – Stability & Controllability

This is the third and final post in this series. Through this post, let us discuss some applications of the Attribution Theory.

Recall how Sloth and Froth applied different causes to their own and other’s successes and failures. What we saw was something that we’ve all experienced intuitively – the primal human tendency to improve ones appearance. An interesting application of Attribution theory, which popped into my head just now, can be seen in the behavior of a young woman viewing a picture of another woman (someone that her spouse or sweetheart may have found attractive.) The reasons that this woman would attribute to the “success” (read: attractiveness) of the woman in picture would probably read as:

“A play of lights. Those photographers can make anyone look beautiful! And I wonder why you don’t see those spots on her face that I saw when the camera did a close-up in…what was that show – Oh…Koffee with Karan, I suppose. And that figure?! Hasn’t anyone heard of Photoshop! She’s got curves?! Hah!”

And upon viewing her own photograph…
“The photographer didn’t know his work! Look at the way he messed up the lighting! I don’t have those three rumbling chins – no way! And my skin is actually many shades lighter. What’s that spot on my cheek? Must be a speck on the camera lens!”

Funny…but true! And we all know that it is true:-)

What’s Lacey’s Viewpoint?

The question is how can we use this reality to make learning more effective?

Here are a few tips.

1. Empathize. Feel what your Audience Feels!
2. Appreciate the Cultural Angle of Attribution
3. Ascribe Failure to Unstable and Controllable Causes
4. Ascribe Success to Internal and Controllable Causes

Empathize. Feel what your Audience Feels!

Remember that the audience attempts to view his/her success or failure in the best possible light. This of course means that for everything that happens during a learning experience, the audience’s mind is busy determining causes. By the time, you get around to explaining something, the audience has already booked a cause for it. So, Never tell the audience that his or her failure was due to an internal factor. (In all probability, the audience has already pinned the blame of failure on to something else, such as you, or the study material, the methodology, or even a visiting aunt.) If you differ, your explanation will be met with a cognitive dissonance.

Appreciate the Cultural Angle of Attribution

Always review a learning issue within the context of the culture. For instance, as Indians, we make external attributions for a person’s undesirable actions more often than the westerners. This is so because as a society we are driven by external obligations, humility, and the demands of our social/familial roles.

Thus, if a person is caught taking bribe, a westerner would probably be more disposed towards attributing the action to that person’s trait of dishonesty, while we would most probably blame it on the system.

Here’s another example.
My personal experience of dealing with the topic of plagiarism in a training program taught me that this topic has to be handled very carefully, else it would hit a wall of resistance. Discussing plagiarism as a malady to be remedied results in more productive discussions that discussing it as an act of dishonesty (which results in drawn swords.)

Ascribe Failure to Unstable and Controllable Causes

This is an old one, and I am sure that you are already a master at doing this. Ascribe failures to unstable and controllable caused (for example, if a learner fails to perform according to expectations, ascribe it to “lack of directed effort” (something that can be controlled, and which isn’t stable – are you wondering whether all that is internal and unstable can be controlled? Reflect.) Don’t ascribe it to “lack of aptitude for science.”)

If you think that a learner has developed the tendency to ascribe failures to external, stable, uncontrollable factors, gear up to steer this learner away from this defeatist attitude.

Ascribe Success to Internal and Controllable Causes

In societies such as ours, we grow up ascribing our successes to the hand of fate. When I was growing up, before and after my exams (until the results were declared,) I’d pray and hope that somehow my prayers would improve my results. Thankfully, my prayers were never answered and I learned to ascribe success to “internal and controllable” causes. I shudder to think what kind of person I would’ve become had I turned “lucky.”

We should attempt to help the learner view his/her successes as a result of her internal, stable, and controllable factors (such as the output of concentrated effort,) instead of external, unstable, and uncontrollable factors, such as luck.

I believe that such positive attributions can go a long way in bolstering the confidence of our children who would find themselves in control of their destiny instead of being controlled by it.

Photo by mikebaird

Of course, Attribution Theory has many other applications, and I don’t think that I can cover all of them, but I do feel that a conscious effort to keep the three parameters of Attribution Theory in mind could help all kinds of learning professionals – the trainers, the teachers, and the instructional designers. It could help us reach out to our audience, empathize with them, and become a positive influence in their lives.


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