Stephen Benning's research takes a two-pronged approach to understanding emotion and psychopathology. The first prong of these focuses on the personality disorder of psychopathy, which represents a confluence of two independent processes: a fearless and dominant temperament, combined with a propensity for impulsive and antisocial behavior. His research has demonstrated that these two components of psychopathy have distinct demographic, diagnostic, and personality correlates; he has also shown that they have different impacts on physiological responses. Individuals high in fearless dominance show reduced levels of fear and anxiety, particularly in contexts where the level of threat to a person is unclear. Those high in impulsive antisociality are vulnerable to a wide range of externalizing disorders (including antisocial personality disorder and substance dependence), and they appear less physiologically aroused by stimuli, though they have greater dopaminergic activity in anticipation of reward.
The other prong is more heavily focused on positive emotion and appetitive processing. One measure of these is the postauricular reflex, a small reflex behind the ear that appears to be larger during pleasant stimuli than during neutral or aversive stimuli. This reflex's apparently appetitive pattern of modulation has an opposite modulation pattern to the defensive startle blink reflex, which is elicited by the same noise probe as the postauricular reflex but which is larger during aversive than neutral or pleasant stimuli. Its potentiation is also reduced in depressed undergraduates, suggesting that it may be a marker of psychopathological states.
Dr. Benning earned his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities in 2006.