The Positivity Effect in old age refers to tendency for older adults to remember positive information better than negative information—births of children, vacations, cherished foods. This has long been considered a function of cognitive aging, an inevitable change that occurs in the mind itself. CGU alumna Christie Chung has been questioning the reality of this supposed cognitive change, however. “The Positivity Effect is most often seen in the youngest of older populations—people in the age range of 60 to 69 years,” she explains. “Older adults at age 70 or older do not consistently show this positivity bias in memory.”
Her hypothesis? “Entering their sixtieth year, many are entering retirement age, having their first grandchildren, and having other generally positive life experiences,” Chung suggests. “In the following decade, there are more health problems, increased dependence on others, and other frustrations that could be counteracting the Positivity Effect. It’s even possible that the Positivity Effect is caused by the more upbeat events of the sixties.”
Dr. Chung’s exploration of the Positivity Effect—whether cognitive phenomenon, socially-influenced coincidence, or myth—began during a postdoc at MIT, and will be continued during her work as an Assistant Professor at Mills College in Oakland, California. She was happy to return to the West Coast with her new husband, and has been reconnecting with her friends and mentors at Claremont Graduate University. It’s the culmination of a lifelong journey that has led the Hong Kong-born Christie to England for high school, Canada for undergraduate studies, Claremont for her graduate studies, and her Massachusetts post-doc (where she also worked on projects related to Parkinson’s disease and long-term memory).
She didn’t always see herself doing quantitative research. “Stats was not one of my favorite classes in undergrad,” she confesses, “But CGU had a great stats program, and all those things I learned from [Drs.] Kathy [Pezdek] and Dale [Berger] were really relevant.” At CGU, Christie found a position as statistics consultant for her fellow graduate students, and now is teaching the subject to her own undergraduates!
“If I have any advice for future graduate students,” she offers, “It’s to explore their field. Find out what you’re interested in. Talk to your professors, read up on the papers in areas of psychology you might be interested in. Try going to conferences, even if the papers seem to be over your current level—it’s really nice to see the kind of work you may be doing someday yourself!”