Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
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Healthy attitudes

Professor Berg wins grant for cross cultural public health study

Associate Professor of Psychology Michael Berg has received a fellowship from the Marion and Jasper Whiting Foundation that will allow him to broaden his public health scholarship and teaching by exploring Japanese attitudes toward health.

The foundation awards fellowships that enable professors to study abroad or away from their home institutions. The aim is to stimulate and broaden the minds of teachers to improve and enhance the quality of their instruction. This year, 35 recipients were selected for fellowships out of 77 applicants.

Berg, who serves as coordinator of the college’s public health program and a senior member of the Psychology Department, plans to travel to Japan in spring 2018 to gather examples of the ways in which culture influences health attitudes and outcomes.

The professor’s scholarship focuses on the interaction between public health and issues of identity, prejudice, motivation and other psychological forces. His work also intersects with issues related to social inequality and traditionally underserved populations. In the past, he has explored how attitudes toward obesity shape public health responses to this health issue, sometimes in ways that are counter-productive. More recently, the professor looked at health risks associated with college students’ attitudes toward intermittent smoking.

Berg’s interest in studying Japanese attitudes toward health and health care arise from the nation’s enviable health outcomes. Japan boasts the world’s highest life expectancy (83.7 years), yet its health care expenditures account for just 8 percent of its gross national product, approximately half of what the United States spends.

“My interest in Japan lies in their deep-rooted sense of interdependence, the valuing of personal connections and social harmony,” said Berg, contrasting that philosophy with the traditional Western emphasis on independence. “I believe that the communal bond and holistic thinking central to the interdependent way of life in Japan is the hidden secret to their success.”

By spending time studying in Japan, the psychology professor intends to gather material that will help to convey the impact of cultural attitudes on individuals’ health.

“The idea of interdependence has broad implications for how people view the world and their place in it, shaping their motives, feelings and values, including health attitudes and behaviors,” he said.

During his time in Japan, Berg also hopes to develop partnerships with public health scholars studying psychosocial influences on health. Among other things, Berg seeks to connect with scholars who could contribute to public health classes at Wheaton by delivering guest lectures via video-conferencing technology, thus offering students new opportunities for appreciating the roles that social expectations and personal psychology play in influencing an individual’s health.