Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995 Pages 413-418
THE ROLE OF POSSESSIONS IN CREATING, MAINTAINING, AND PRESERVING ONE'S IDENTITY: VARIATION OVER THE LIFE COURSE
Jim Gentry, University of Nebraska
Stacey Menzel Baker, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Frederic B. Kraft, Wichita State University
To determine the meaning of possessions to one's identity, three stages of the life course are investigated. Specifically, the role and nature of possessions as individuals seek to create (during youth), to maintain (during the mainstream years), and to preserve (during the elderly years) identity over time is examined. Comparisons are made between the stages to exemplify the different roles that possessions play across the life course. Following a discussion of how facing death forces individuals to resolve their identity and how individuals use possessions to make these resolutions at different life stages, the paper concludes by suggesting that marketers be more sensitive to the meanings which people attach to their possessions.
Possessions play a role in creating, maintaining, and preserving the identity of individuals (cf. Dittmar 1992; Solomon 1983). Over time, individuals develop a set of symbols which they believe represent the self-identity that they want to project (Hirschman 1980) as these material possessions are a part of one's identity (cf. Ball and Tasaki 1992; Belk 1988; Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981).
The symbolic role which possessions play in giving meaning to life is not a new concept in consumer research. However, recognizing the role that possessions play in different stages of the life course warrants more attention. The stages of the life course have been referred to as our years of learning, our years of earning, and our years of yearning (for immortality) (Neal 1989). Within each of these stages, individuals "use" possessions to enhance or maintain a positive identity over time. The salience of possessions to identity may be most noticeable as one realizes that death is imminent. With this realization, the identity of an individual becomes very central to one in one's remaining time.
The objective of this paper is to investigate the importance of possessions in creating, maintaining, and preserving one's identity over the life course. Particular attention is given to the role which possessions play in helping individuals to prepare for death. The paper begins by examining the roles that possessions play in this process. Next, the role of possessions over three trajectories in the life cycle (youth, mainstream, and elderly) are examined. Although it is realized that this trichotomy is a gross-oversimplification of the life course, the obvious variations within stages will be touched upon. In each stage, the roles which possessions play in facing death are explored. Finally, the implications of this research to marketers are offered.
IDENTITY AND POSSESSIONS
Through introspection, individuals achieve an understanding of their identity. Thus, a person's identity is said to be a function of how a person is viewed by himself/herself. One's identity is determined by examining the categories one uses to explain who s/he is in relation to past experiences, to others, and to the future. Thus, an individual's identity consists of the "personal and social characteristics of people as understood by themselves and others" (Dittmar 1992, p. 73). These personal and social characteristics are often expressed, to one's self and to others, through material possessions.
Dittmar (1991) notes the function of possessions for identity ranges from their functional (instrumental) roles to their symbolic roles by imbuing the possession with meaning. In their functional roles, possessions give the user control over an experience. In contrast, in their symbolic roles, possessions symbolize and reflect personal characteristics as well as group affiliation.
James (1890) suggested that a person will become whatever s/he can call his/her own. Pavia (1993) offered another perspective noting that identity may not only be a function of what one owns, but it may also be a function of one's ability to generate [and protect] what one owns. This process may vary over the life course since Pavia's perspective was derived from a group of informants in life's mainstream who were dying of AIDS.
The core self is composed of the ideas, talents, opinions, dreams, purposes, and commitments which provide the resources for creating, maintaining, and preserving one's identity over the life course (Nerken 1993). It may be that during certain times in the life course individuals draw more heavily on some of these resources than they do at other times in their lives. For instance, the young may focus on ideas and dreams of the future, the mainstream on talents and purpose, and the elderly more on dreams of the past and a yearning for a place in the future (immortality). In this paper, it is asserted that the contribution of possessions to self-identity differs across age groups as people in different stages are forced to prepare for an end to life.
THE ROLE OF POSSESSIONS OVER THE LIFE COURSE
Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981, p. 91) point out, "things tell us who we are, not in words but by embodying our intentions. In our everyday traffic of existence, we can also learn about ourselves from objects, almost as much as from people." Consumers use products to symbolize their identity to others (cf. Solomon 1983) as well as to define who they are to themselves (cf. Belk 1988). When consumers interact with or think about their possessions, a sense of identity is created, maintained, or preserved.
Life course research focuses on (1) the idea of a journey from beginning (birth) to an ending (death), and (2) the idea of seasons, or stages in this cycle, in that in one's life, one moves through a series of relatively stable segments within the total cycle (Levinson 1978). Transitions and trajectories over time are major elements in life course research. In transitions, changes in the life course are examined which are discrete and bounded in duration, with possible long-term consequences. In contrast, trajectories are long-term patterns of stability and change, often including multiple transitions, that can be reliably differentiated from alternative patterns. Adelman (1992), Belk (1992), and Gentry, et al. (Forthcoming), among others, have investigated possessions and their disposition during role transitions. In this paper, the focus is upon the role and meaning of possessions during life trajectories. Although there are most likely more than three stages in the life course (e.g., Levinson 1978), for the sake of simplicity, three broad stages (youth, mainstream, and elderly) are examined here. Within each trajectory, the role of possessions differs. Each stage will be examined in more detail in the following sections.
Individuals go through a normal process of "identification" through which, as children, they acquire social roles by consciously and unconsciously copying the behavior of significant others (Mowen 1993, p. 777). Psychologists have long been aware of the roles which parental figures and other people play in shaping and developing the selves of young children. Marketers have recognized that possessions acquire meaning during the socialization process (cf. Solomon 1983). However, the information which objects relay to the young is an important, and often neglected, aspect of learning about the self.
Strictly speaking, the young are seeking their own identity and trying to "separate" from their parents and from their peers to some extent to become their "own person." For example, when adolescent boys use such "macho" products as cars, clothes, and cologne, these possessions may bolster their developing and fragile masculine self-concepts (Solomon 1983). As adolescents struggle to create their own self identity, they may seek to acquire certain possessions (Belk 1988). These possessions may be used to plan for the future and to reflect ability, control, and power.
Ball and Tasaki (1992, p. 158) examined the role of attachment ("the extent to which an object which is owned, expected to be owned, or previously owned by an individual, is used by that individual to maintain his or her self-concept") to possessions. The authors found that attachment to products was higher prior to purchase than after purchase for 15-24 year olds, while attachment increased after purchase for older groups. Thus, the young may be more likely to dream of possessions and what those possessions will allow them to do, whereas their elders have the possessions which allow them to do the things of which the youth dream.
Possessions which reflect ability and control may be more important to youths. In a study of a group of Chicago residents between the ages of 8 and 30, Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981) found that this generation is more likely than its grandparents to give as examples of favorite possessions those that reflect ability or skills (e.g., athletic equipment) or those that they can manipulate or control (e.g., musical instruments, stereos).
The young are limited in that they do not have the privileges (nor the responsibilities) that adults have. They may want to be older and want to have the power and privileges which they perceive adults to have. Products sought by youths are often symbols of the power perceived to be held by adults. For instance, money may be seen as a source of power (Belk 1988; Ozanne, Hill, and Wright 1994). One informant of Ozanne, Hill, and Wright (1994) [The quotes in this paper taken from Ozanne, Hill, and Wright (1994) were used with the authors' permission.] noted:
Money to me is power. That's how I think, money gives me power. Money gives me the okay to do anything I want to do, stand on my own two feet.
The meaning of possessions to the young may differ depending upon their outlook for the future. Some youths do not understand what it means "to become," instead they focus on the present and satisfying themselves. For example, a student who drops out of high school a month before graduation obviously does not have a strong future orientation. Some do not foresee a future, instead they just act for now. Ozanne, Hill, and Wright (1994) provide a glimpse of these contrasting time orientations, as Mormon missionaries sacrifice an immediate, more "comfortable" lifestyle, whereas juvenile delinquents seek immediate gratification, power, and control, in part because some of the juvenile delinquents have trouble imagining being alive in five years.
The identities of mainstream adults (approximately ages 25-60) lie primarily in their roles; their identity comes from what they do (e.g. work, parenting, volunteering). In this stage, "identity" is based upon roles played, rather than on potential roles (promise) as with youths or roles once played (past) as with elderly. One's identity is a function of doing, being, and having. Possessions are important, but things are used to show who you are and to demonstrate your ability to generate them. They represent the "work identity" more than other sources of identity. The term "work" here is used broadly to include those tasks which constitute much of the individual's "flow experiences" (Csikszentmihalyi 1975); besides salaried or otherwise compensated activities, the term may include child care and home maintenance activities.
The mainstream years may encompass multiple transitions, including the bachelor, young married, early nest, full nest, and empty nest stages of the family life cycle. While one's identity changes across these stages, identity may have relatively more of a "current role" rather than "future role" or "past role" emphasis. However, of course, there are different time orientations in this stage. Thus, the role of possessions during this stage does vary perhaps more than in the other stages. For example, Olson (1985) found that younger couples give special objects which reflect future plans more importance, whereas older couples find objects which reflect past experiences to be more important to them. As this example illustrates, the mainstream years are the most difficult to make generalizations about because there is a great amount of variation. However, one thing that is clear is that products are used to set the stage for social roles (Solomon 1983).
As one ages, death becomes more of a reality. As family roles diminish (due in part to the great mobility of our society), as friends die, as work roles are given up, and as one's physical condition deteriorates (making volunteer work harder), identity suffers. Identity for the elderly is redefined after the transition from the workplace due to retirement and, as one reaches the old-old stage, after the adjustment to a limited mobility status. Gramlich (1974, p. 65) notes that aging subjects individuals to more and more loss: loved ones are lost, health is lost, cherished goals are unrecognized and lost, cherished occupation and sources of pride and value are lost in the progress of time. "Every individual requires the ongoing validation of his world, including crucially the validation of his identity and place in others....Again, in the broad sense, all the actions of the significant others and even their simple presence serve this sustaining function" (Berger and Kellner 1964, pp. 4-5). As friends and family move or die, identity diminishes.
Heisley, Cours, and Wallendorf (1993) and Unruh (1983) found that elderly view the intergenerational disposition of possessions as a means of creating some immortality for themselves and as a means of strengthening family ties. Both motives of disposition aid in the preservation of identity. Unruh (1983, p. 340) notes that, before they die, people interpret and apportion cues to their personal identities for those who will survive. They hope to be remembered, for example, as good fathers, competent women, successful businesspersons, creative artists, or peacemakers. "What is being preserved after death is a self-concept which existed during life, was acknowledged by others, and had become a significant aspect of the dead person's self."
Belk (1991b, p. 120) discusses an elderly informant who has 20 cardboard boxes of mementos which she has placed in storage. She refuses to discard them, because it would be like throwing her life away. She hopes these will mean something to her heirs when they go through her possessions after her death, and that they will finally appreciate what an interesting life she had.
Often the things which are most stable and which will always be there are possessions. Thus, possessions may serve as a source of comfort. This perspective is similar to that presented by McCracken (1988), who suggests that we displace our hopes and ideals into possessions and places of the past or future. These values are seen as too fragile, unsafe, and easily challenged if left in the present. The elderly see the good as residing in a golden age of the past. In contrast, youths and those in the mainstream of life see the good as residing in a future yet to come; they may believe their lives will be or are wondrously transformed once they get the car or home of their dreams (Belk 1991a). Not only do possessions remain while spouses and friends die, but possessions may be used to filter out the negative experiences of the past and stimulate only positive memories. For example, Belk (1991a, p. 30) discusses the manner in which family photos are constructed and the editing out of any unappealing results. "In doing so, we fashion our pasts as we would like to remember themCwithout sickness, anger, pain, or death."
CONSIDERATIONS OF ONE'S DEATH: IMPLICATIONS FOR THE MEANING OF POSSESSIONS
Death and one's identity just preceding death are discussed with the assumption that, just prior to death, an individual's identity becomes very central to him/her. The acknowledgment that death will occur adds insight to the topic of "identity;" given this, it is somewhat surprising that death has received little attention in the consumer research area. Gorer (1965) asserts that death has become taboo, and that in the twentieth century it has replaced sex as the principal forbidden subject. To the extent possible, we will consider the meaning of possessions to those for whom death seems imminent.
Unruh (1983) distinguishes two categories of death: (1) those who have a physical condition likely to lead to death in a short or predictable period of time; and (2) those not medically defined as dying, but who have acquired an awareness that life will end in the not-too-distant future. One aspect which separates the life stages is that the first category of death may soon occur in all three stages, while the second category is restricted mainly to the elderly. A variety of sources are used to support the logic contained in this paper. Examples from Adelman (1992) and Pavia (1993) who interviewed informants in the former category, and Heisley, Cours, and Wallendorf (1993) who investigated the meaning of possessions for those in the latter category are examined. The authors also have interviewed survivors in grief (Gentry, et al. Forthcoming) or Hospice counselors interacting with dying and survivors; these accounts deal with the deceased's processes while they were in the former category. In addition, examples which illustrate the role of possessions for the identity of juvenile delinquents and Mormon missionaries (Ozanne, Hill, and Wright 1994) are offered.
Preparation for Death in the Youth Years
Death in the youth years is rarely anticipated. However, some children face an untimely death because of terminal illness, while others are aware of their mortality because of the increasing violence in society. Increasing numbers of children have experienced the loss of close friends or witnessed violent crimes at school or at home. When asked what it was like to grow up where he did, one of Ozanne, Hill, and Wright's (1994) juvenile delinquent informants noted that:
It was tiring. I guess you could say "Man I want to get out of here!" Like you look around and there was a situation. You figure out who you should be with. You gonna look around now and be like "Where's so and so?" "He's dead." What about so and so?" "He's dead too. He got shot in the head." Somethin' like that.
The growth in the importance of possessions to the self concept of youths as they mature is described by Furnham and Jones (1987). However, this does not seem to occur with terminally ill children who become less interested in typical childhood possessions as they comprehend the finality of their illness and begin to exhibit disengaging behaviors. Some items in which they retain interest serve as tools for acting out and understanding the process of death and dying, e.g., boxes use for burying dolls, crayons for drawing graves, etc. (Bluebond-Langer 1989).
The third author has observed the use of possessions as a comforting mechanism for these children. One regional Hospice organization provides small toy bears for children under its care. These serve as a source of comfort and perhaps even as a personal confidant to whom the children can express their fears and whom they may even believe might accompany them past the time of death.
Part of the maturation process is the development of the ability to delay gratification. Children tend to be very present-time oriented but, with maturation, gradually acquire more of a future-time orientation. The violence present in the lives of many teenagers may add uncertainty to the process, converting doubts about "what will happen" to doubt about "future existence." Thus, societal cancer intensifies the "want it now" orientation already present as an age-graded function.
These youths who fear dying may seek instant gratification of the self, because they may think that there really is no future to which to look forward. An informant of Ozanne, Hill, and Wright (1994) explained this:
Like I can't walk through a mall you know and be like "Oh, I want to get that. I get that next week with my paycheck." or I'll get that, you know, when I get the money." You know I want that, I want to get that right now! I got to get that!
When depressing situations are faced everyday, some youths may know or think that death is imminent and that there is no way out. Thus, they may turn to acquiring possessions through nontraditional methods (e.g., killing for running shoes) using nontraditional possessions (e.g., guns other than for sport), and fantasizing about nontraditional possessions. In one of his commentaries, Donald Kaul (1993) has this tragic story to relate:
Recently the Washington Post carried a piece about John Wilson, the chairman of the D.C. council, who died earlier this month......In one of his last speeches, he offered this chilling anecdote:
He was seething over the fact his car had been stolen from in front of his house when he overheard some neighborhood boys talking about "different kinds of metal and stuff...colors...crushed velvet."
"I thought they were talking about cars," Wilson told his audience, "so I went over to talk to them and I said: 'Tell me something. What's the best kind of car to buy that nobody wants to steal.'"
The line is vintage Wilson. The boys broke into laughter and said: "We're not talking about cars, we're talking about caskets, what kind of caskets we want to be buried in."
The two extreme youth segments examined in Ozanne, Hill, and Wright (1994) represent two different perspectives toward the meaning of possessions. For some youths, such as the young Mormon missionaries, possessions symbolize future potential and the ability "to become." For others, such as the juvenile delinquents or the neighborhood boys which Kaul (1993) discusses, possessions symbolize undelayed self-gratification largely in part because of their frequent exposre to violence.
Preparation for Death in the Mainstream Years
In general, those in the mainstream, like youths, do not consider their deaths; instead they focus on their lives now. However, should one face one's own death during the mainstream years, one grieves the roles that must be given up.
Pavia (1993) discusses the meaning of possessions to those whose identity had already been lost in part, due to being in the last stages of AIDS. She re-interpreted the phrase "we are what we own" to be "we are what we own, because we are the ability to generate what we own." Weakened by AIDS and now homeless, some of her respondents were unable to protect their possessions from thieves and vandals. One of Pavia's [The quotes from Pavia (1993) are used with her permission.] informants (who is in the mainstream stage of the life course) discusses how her identity has changed:
Jean [Female, 26]: That was my idea of who I was. So to have to find inside who I was, was really difficult. I had to introduce myself as "... this is what I do," and then all of the sudden it was,"Well, I stay at home. I am an ex-nurse."
For the dying, the loss of one's ability to fulfill one's self-identity may well threaten one's hopes of immortality. Survivors interviewed as part of a study of grief processes (Gentry, et al., Forthcoming) discuss the work and volunteer roles that were central to their deceased spouses' identities. Ann T. [Female, 48] notes that "for Mike, giving up teaching was the toughest thing. This was harder for him to accept than the cancer." David A. [Male, 47] says that his wife
kicked me out of the kitchen until she became bed-ridden in the last ten months. That bothered her greatly, as she was bothered when others were in her kitchen. Until the very end, she insisted on sending cards to congregation members [he is a minister with a congregation of 1200 members] for birthdays and anniversaries, though her left hand was paralyzed and her right one limited. She used crayolas. She died on a Wednesday, and some arrived on Thursday. I suggested that someone else could do this, but she was adamant. This gave her purpose.
For Pavia's mainstream informants who are dying of AIDS, the meaning of most possessions declines:
Arnold [Male, 25]: I told my parents and my sisters, and everybody in my life right now, "Don't get me anything for Christmas because I don't want anything; I don't need anything....I don't even own a comb. I do own a toothbrush, two of them, and I don't have a desire to [own] anymore.
Ivan [Male, 25]: I had an entire house worth of goods and I just left it all...I just left [my roommates] everything and started over.
Samantha [Female, 33]: I think that when [life] comes to an end, possessions should be an irrelevant matter.
These reactions are due, in part, to the forced nature of the dispossession process for the AIDS victims; the informants could not qualify for Medicaid until their financial resources were depleted. Those possessions which were kept did take on more meaning, in a process similar to that noted by Adelman (1992, p. 402) who discusses the desire for immortality among residents of a home for those dying of AIDS.
A long-term resident who entered the home with two bags of clothes, after two years and several close relationships with dying residents, her room is now filled with their possessions. She notes, 'I make this room for memories and good feelings.'
Our interpretation of the interviews conducted by Pavia (1993) with AIDS patients and of the ones which were conducted by Gentry, et al. (Forthcoming) with those who had lost a loved one in this Mainstream stage is that one's family roles and work roles are keys to one's identity. When death becomes a reality, although social networks are still in place for the most part, possessions become relatively less important. As Pavia (1993, p. 428) notes, "Loss of energy removed control over what they could do on a daily basis, and, ultimately, their ability to do the things that were integral to their perception of self." Thus, much of the meaning of possessions for those in this stage of life is associated with the ability to generate them.
Preparation for Death in the Elderly Years
To some extent, the elderly dying are isolated from others because of the inability of most in the U.S. society to deal with death (Schilling 1993). Elias (1985, p. 10) notes that we have an inability to give dying people the help and affection they are most in need of when parting from other human beings, just because another's death is a reminder of the possibility of one's own. He later concluded (p. 190), "Never before have people died as noiselessly and hygienically as today in these societies, and never in social conditions so much fostering solitude."
For those unable to maintain their "purpose," tangible objects may be even more important to the desire to be remembered. Unruh (1993, p. 343) suggests that the "accumulation of artifacts is a strategy by which the dying preserve identities over time and communicate their importance to survivors....For the elderly, these objects represent the last symbolic remnants of who and what they once were." Their desires to be remembered encourage the sanctification process observed in Gentry, et al. (Forthcoming). In the extreme, "a small number of objects become sanctified to such a degree that their loss would be as tragic for the survivors as was the death of the deceased" (Unruh 1993, p. 348).
Gentry, et al. (Forthcoming) interviewed Paula G. [Female, 35], who discusses her Aunt Leona's plans to dispose of her possessions prior to her death from cancer. Family had played a major role in Leona's identity. "Leona was the one who kept the family together. She always wrote and sent cards."
In March, Leona started to make arrangements to have things allocated to our family. She had a will made up but there were the little things that needed to be taken care of. While Leona had some strength, she went room to room to see who gets what. Leona felt that each niece or nephew should choose; I felt that everyone would prefer that she decided who should get what. I felt that these things would mean a lot more to the recipient.
Family heirlooms had to stay in the family. Leona decided the disposition according to the personality of the item and the receiver. Aunt Leona was very concerned that the "kids" would not like her choice. We only made it as far as the china cabinet. She died before we could finish all the possessions.
Leona's care in the selection of possessions to go to various family members indicates her continuing role as the conserver of family ties.
In some instances, possessions offer immortality. Viorst (1986, pp. 296-297) notes:
It is easier to grow old if we are neither bored nor boring, if we have people and projects we care about....The process, begun in infancy, of loving and letting go can help prepare us for these final losses. But strippedCas age does strip usCof some of what we love in ourselves, we may find that a good old age demands a capacity for what is called "ego transcendence."....
Ego transcendence allows us, while perceiving ourselves as finite, to connect to the future through people or through ideas, surpassing our personal limits by means of some legacy we can leave to the next generation. As grandparents, teachers, mentors, social reformers, collectors of artCor creators of artCwe can touch those who will be there when we are gone. This endeavor to leave a traceCintellectual, spiritual, material, even physicalCis a constructive way of dealing with the grief we are feeling over the loss of ourself.
For the elderly, who are well aware of their mortality, possessions take on different meanings than they do for their younger counterparts. Not only is immortality possible through the transference of possessions, but possessions may also help make sense of the past, and allow the elderly to figure out where they are now by putting them at ease with the present. For example, possessions may help the elderly accept the past by helping them to relive past experiences and emotions (e.g., through photographs). In addition, possessions may be a source of comfort for the elderly as they maintain their existence among the things which are familiar to them.
That people in different stages of life view the meaning of possessions in different ways is not a radical concept. However, we would assert that marketers (who are, for the most part, in the mainstream of life) in the past have tended to view possessions from their own frame of reference, and, in many cases, have failed to acknowledge the frames of reference for different life stages. An example of how differing frames of reference yield different meanings may be meaningful. Insurance companies are developing "grandparent policies" which would put funds in a trust for grandchildren to be paid out at critical times in their lives (e.g., going to college, getting married, etc.). Those in the mainstream years may see this as a greedy appeal to the elderly or a possible loss of degrees of freedom in terms of the use of the inheritance. On the other hand, we imagine that such policies will be very appealing to the elderly, as they offer some degree of immortality to the purchasers.
Marketers have argued for decades that firms do more than sell what they produce, that they produce what people want. Marketers, more than others, realize that products provide more than functional performance, that many have symbolic meaning that imbues them with value far in excess of what might be assessed from a utilitarian perspective. The stream of research stimulated by Belk (1988) certainly acknowledges the role that possessions play in one's identity. Kleine, Kleine, and Kernan (1993) point out that we know very little "about how individuals' access to identity-related products affects identity-related esteem and the trajectory of an identity's development." The purpose in this paper is to develop the notion that the roles played by possessions vary greatly across age groups.
We advocate greater sensitivity on the part of marketers toward the symbolic meaning of products. If products' meanings or if messages promoting the products contribute to violence or, on a more mundane level, to rebellion against family and "acceptable" culture, marketers should be proactive and attempt to change the product's image before social problems result or public backlash occurs.
This paper suggests that possessions have an even more important function during the elderly years. As other sources of identity are eliminated, possessions are likely to remain. Given the tendency to ignore one's own demise and aging processes if at all possible, it is difficult for marketers to present their products as objects that will take on greater and greater value to consumers as they age. Such efforts may violate cultural taboos and also be seen as presumptuous or offensive by consumers.
A recognition of the importance which the elderly, as well as the young and the mainstream, place on their possessions in helping to preserve their identity over time will facilitate their struggle to maintain their identity. As Fromm (1976, p. 76) asks, "If I am what I have and what I have is lost, who then am I?"
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