How do you know if someone you know is a psychopath? As Inc. colleague Jessica Stillman writes, for a definitive answer you'd need to assess the individual based on a long list of scientifically validated traits like lack of empathy, egocentricity, and lack of remorse.

Or you could look for less certain indications: Their professioncollege majorspeech patterns, what kind of boss they prefer to work for, and even their usual bedtime.

Or you could assess how eagerly psychopaths seek rewards. According to this research, a psychopath's brain is actually wired to seek rewards -- at almost any cost.

According to the researchers:

Impulsive-antisocial psychopathic traits selectively predicted nucleus accumbens dopamine release and reward anticipation-related neural activity in response to pharmacological and monetary reinforcers, respectively. These findings suggest that neurochemical and neurophysiological hyper-reactivity of the dopaminergic reward system may comprise a neural substrate for impulsive-antisocial behavior and substance abuse in psychopathy.

Or in non-researcher speak, in response to a reward a psychopath's brain can release up to four times as much dopamine as non-psychopaths.

That means psychopaths aren't necessarily people who simply do what they want without concern for the consequences. Psychopaths might actually care more about the consequences than other people.

To find out, the researchers first gave participants in the study a measure of amphetamine and then performed brain scans. They found that those with high levels of psychopathic traits released nearly four times the amount of dopamine in response to the amphetamine.  

Interesting... but not conclusive.

So then researchers performed brain scans while giving participants a reward for completing a task. The psychopaths showed much higher levels of dopamine response in anticipation of receiving the reward.

Every participants wanted the reward... but psychopaths really wanted the reward.

According to the researchers: 

It may be that because of these exaggerated dopamine responses, once they focus on the chance to get a reward... psychopaths are unable to alter their attention until they get what they're after. These individuals appear to have such a strong draw to reward -- to the carrot -- that it overwhelms the sense of risk or concern about the stick.

Granted: We all enjoy rewards. I know I do. (Wait -- should I have said that?) Rewards drive most behaviors. Even people who are incredibly giving do so at least in part because giving makes them feel good about themselves. 

But people who seek a reward in spite of the consequences -- moral, ethical, legal, career, relationship, etc -- may not be doing so because they don't care about the consequences. They may be hell-bent on getting that reward because they care too much about the reward aspect of the consequence. They're so drawn to the reward that they can't think about the risks -- or the other consequences.

And that's the real lesson. Caring about a reward is helpful up until the point that it is not. No reward should ever be assessed in isolation.

If you can build a bigger company, but only at the expense of your closest relationships, is it worth it? If you can land a huge contract, but only by violating your principles, is it worth it?

If the reward of chasing a dream is outweighed by the cost in other areas of your life... it's not worth it.

And if you can't take a step back and weigh the rewards against the costs -- if you feel so driven to achieve and gain something that you can't see anything else but the reward -- then hey, you might be a psychopath.

Or, more likely, you've lost sight of the fact that how successful you feel is based on the answer to one question: "How happy am I?"

You won't be happy -- not over the long term -- if you chase one reward at the expense of all the other things that also matter to you.

Do that and you may win a battle... but you will definitely lose the happiness war.

Published on: Apr 6, 2018
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