Inside the mind of researcher Karen Hooker

Karen-Hooker-headerSchool of Social and Behavioral Health Sciences Co-director, Professor Karen Hooker came to Oregon State in 1994 and has held roles as the director of the Program on Gerontology, Human Development and Family Sciences interim department chair, founding director of the Center for Healthy Aging Research and the Jo Anne Leonard Petersen Endowed Chair in Gerontology and Family Studies. She earned a master’s degree in psychology from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., and a PhD in Human Development and Family Studies at The Pennsylvania State University in Pennsylvania.


What made you decide to get into this field of study? Is there one specific moment that inspired your career path?

“I have been interested in science ever since I was a little girl. But science at my high school in Pittsburgh, Pa., in the ’70s meant engineering and physics – and although I was one of only three girls in my high school physics class, I wasn’t all that interested in it for a personal career path. I remember being so astonished when I discovered psychology in college and asked my advisor, “You mean someone can have a science career studying humans?” It was the perfect combination for me. I got into lifespan developmental psychology in graduate school. What can be more interesting than understanding the origins of behavior and identity – what makes us who we are and how that develops and changes over the lifespan? The later stages of life at that point in time was largely uncharted territory – the whole field of aging and gerontology was being established right when I was at a point where my career was being launched.”

What does your current research entail?

“I study all aspects of personality. Personality is a very broad construct that encompasses what a person is like as well as processes that continually shape who and what we are, and importantly how this affects our most important life outcomes such as our relationships, educational and work careers, and mental and physical health. Most people know about trait aspects of personality – individual differences in how gregarious a person you are or how stressed out you tend to get in pressure situations – but personality is also much more than this. It includes our propensity to feel in control over certain situations and how likely it is that we will behave to enact our goals. It even includes our life story and how we remember and cognitively process events to tell our life story.

Karen-Hooker-SynergiesMy current research is multi-pronged, including several aspects of personality. One project is a microlongitudinal study, the Personal Understanding of Life and Social Experiences (PULSE) Project. This study was designed to examine the ways in which our personality traits and the people with whom we interact on a daily basis influence how we work toward goals in the health and social domains. The study involved 105 older adults who responded to an online survey every day for 100 days. The information you get out of this type of study is unique, as you can track how emotions, thoughts and actions play out in a relatively narrow window of time to better understand process at the individual level – putting personality under a microscope, so to speak.

Another current project involves examining purpose in life, domains of psychological well-being, life meaning and life values over a five-year period among adults who are on what I call ‘the threshold of old age’ – late middle-age. How people navigate transitions in their lives has always been of great interest to me, as it is during these times that theoretically one would expect to see the most changes in personality constructs such as self and identity. I have conducted studies on the transition to retirement, transition to caregiving and the transition to parenthood, all times where identity and one’s day-to-day life structure change dramatically.”

What sparked your interest in this topic?

“I think personality is greatly overlooked in our models of optimal aging, though this is changing as even economists are now studying personality! A very influential model of optimal aging is the Rowe & Kahn model of what they term ‘successful’ aging. It includes three foci: 1) preventing disability and disease 2) maintaining high cognitive and physical functioning and 3) engagement with life. Personality is influential in all three of these spheres – and especially in the third sphere of engagement with life. What type of person you are, whether or not you can be counted on, how you meet goals that you set and so on are crucial for forming and maintaining relationships with others as well as participating in productive activities – the keys to engagement with life. I developed the ‘six foci’ model of personality that takes into account the vastly differing constructs related to the overarching construct of personality, including more structural aspects such as traits, goals and life stories along with the parallel processes of states, self-regulatory processes and narrative processes.”

How will this make a difference?

“We know that personality makes a difference in life outcomes, but the interesting questions are getting at how this works and under what conditions personality and outcomes, such as finding satisfaction with life or using health care services, are linked. One example is how personality affects coping with illness. We have known for some time that optimism is important for coping with and even recovering from serious illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease. High levels of optimism lead one to believe that there are things one can do to improve, and of course if you believe your actions will have positive health consequences, you are more likely to engage in positive health behaviors such as sticking to dietary guidelines, exercising, taking medications as prescribed and so forth. You are also more likely to be pleasant to be around and may, therefore, have a stronger social support system than someone who is not so optimistic.”

What do you hope is the outcome of your research?

Karen-Hooker-Synergies2“A better understanding of how personality affects aging may allow us to intervene in ways that could potentially have big health impacts by later life. For example, we know that social support is very important – as important as not smoking – for morbidity and mortality. So, to the extent that we understand how personality relates to social support, we may be able to target interventions to match people’s personality so that forming strong relationships at crucial turning points – for example, moving to a new community or retirement – can be strengthened, relating to better mental and physical health.”

What’s next for you? Do you have any future research projects lined up?

“I was invited to Switzerland to be part of a group of faculty and graduate students who participated in a one-week intensive workshop to understand friendships in later life utilizing a national Swiss data set. We conducted some initial analyses and set up the general outline for two or three papers, and over the next few months we hope to work on writing up the results for publication in journals on aging.”

What is the best advice you’ve ever received, and who gave it?

“Some advice that has stuck in my memory is, ‘It is better to ask for forgiveness than permission.’ Obviously this wouldn’t apply in every situation, but I received this advice at Syracuse University, and it was given to me by a senior level faculty member when I was a new assistant professor. I think he was trying to tell me not to get too caught up in the bureaucratic details. There are times that if you believe in something strongly and want to be involved in a project for the right reason – you just have to go for it.”

What advice would you give to current students and recent alums?

“The first advice I would give is to tell students and recent alums to acknowledge those who supported them. Show gratitude and say thank you, as many people have done a lot to make it possible for you to get where you are today. Be ready to pay it forward. I also would advise students and recent graduates that employers value initiative – don’t just passively wait for others to tell you what to do. Take the lead, ask what you can do to help, see what’s coming next and be prepared to be a team player whose contributions are valued – and they will be noticed.

What are your favorite activities to do outside of work?

“I love to spend time with family and friends, hike, run, swim, kayak, read, travel, take photographs, listen to live music, go to sporting events, and a unique activity that I discovered and got hooked on only after moving to the West is finding petroglyphs! I am fascinated by how old rock art is, 1,500–10,000 years old, and it is fun to try to figure out what these ancient rock art panels mean and to imagine what life must have been like for people of long ago. The Oregon outback has many areas where you can find petroglyphs. I feel like I’m on a treasure hunt and an archeological dig when I search for petroglyphs. I guess it’s the developmental psychologist in me – trying to understand the meaning of what people do. How cool it is to see in petroglyphs that humans have always been interested in leaving a part of the self behind to guide the next generation.”

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