Ben Hinnant Ph.D.
Ph.D., University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 2008
(334) 844-4151 | 288 Spidle Hall
The official but kind of dry version:
My research interests are in child and adolescent development, familial and peer socializing influences, and biological stress response systems. A rich and continually developing scientific literature has illustrated the importance of a biopsychosocial approach for understanding human behavior and development. In my work I use advanced methods and statistics to illustrate the transactional nature of biological and environmental influences across development and across multiple levels of analysis.
Aspects of my research investigate the influence of family and peer stressors on development of biological regulatory systems. This is an important area of study because function of these bioregulatory systems is related to the development of child and adolescent externalizing and internalizing problems. In addition to family and peer stressors predicting bioregulatory function, environmental stressors and bioregulatory function interact consistently to predict development in multiple domains, including psychopathology symptoms and cognitive functioning.
Thus, my research incorporates multiple levels of influence including biological, environmental, and psychological domains, and emphasizes the transactions between these levels. One criticism of biology-centered research is that the applications to real world problems (e.g., programs aimed at reducing adolescent delinquency or substance use) are not always apparent. The applications become clearer, however, when considering how knowledge of biological systems regulating attention or reward and punishment sensitivity can lead to individuals being assigned to intervention or prevention programs that best match their needs. One goal of my research is to help advance the basic science of biopsychosocial interactions to facilitate their integration into outreach, prevention, or health promotion applied settings.
I am currently focused on developing my independent research program addressing the development of aggression, substance use, and risky decision making during adolescence. The adolescent period is marked by the unique combination of rapidly developing neural systems governing impulse control and sensation seeking and increased sensitivity to socializing influences, particularly from peers. This combination of developmental phenomena contributes to increased mortality from risky behavior. The cost to the public for dealing with the fallout of adolescent risky behavior is tremendous and, as such, further understanding of the risk and protective factors in the development of adolescent risky behaviors is an NIH priority.
The novelty of my research direction lies in the incorporation of function in bioregulatory systems relevant to adolescent risk taking and decision making. Drawing from prominent extant theories, I propose an evolutionary developmental model in which biologically-based personality traits interact with family and peer stress to predict development of bioregulatory systems, specific subtypes of aggression, delinquency, substance use, and decision making during adolescence. I recently submitted NIH and NSF grant applications on this topic. Although I am the primary investigator on these applications, my work is highly collaborative and involves both new and established researchers from several universities.
The less dry but more stream-of-consciousness version:
All of the above is to say that what I’m really interested in is how our biology interacts with our environments to shape the people we become over time. I’m especially interested in the transition from childhood to adolescence when kids are entering a part of their lives where they:
Have increased freedom / less parental supervision Come to be more strongly influenced by their peers and friends and what their peers and friends think of them Experience changes in rates of brain development, with parts of the brain tied to emotions and reward processing outpacing development of parts of the brain tied to impulse control and self-regulation Undergo all sorts of hormonally-driven changes to their physiology and stress response system activity, which feeds back into brain function and development
Understanding the convergence of these factors and how they all interact is really what’s at the heart of my research program. Each child or teen experiences these things to different degrees: For some the ride on the rollercoaster of adolescence is an easy one and for others it’s quite rough. So, I think it’s important to understand not just on average how teens develop, but also the individual differences that help to explain how children and teens change over time.
Is this research useful? That is a common question and one that should be at the front and center (or at least near the front and center) of every researcher’s work. I think that the research outlined above is very useful, and one of my goals is to take the research part and help to apply it to make programs aimed at preventing or intervening with adolescent risky behavior more effective. I think that more targeted prevention and intervention programs are the way to go, and this work will help to identify, for example, how teens who are hypersensitive to peer evaluation may be best served in a prevention or intervention program by choosing “modules” that teach skills for coping with peer evaluation or peer pressure.
I’m very fortunate to be in a department that supports and promotes this type of collaborative and multidisciplinary work that’s aimed at both advancing knowledge of child and adolescent development as well as applications to improve child and adolescent health and adaptation.