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  • Dictators who exhibited highly narcissistic, psychopathic, or sadistic traits were involved in some of the greatest catastrophes in human history. (More)

  • Malevolent individuals in positions of power could negatively affect humanity’s long-term trajectory by, for example, exacerbating international conflict or other broad risk factors. (More)

  • Malevolent humans with access to advanced technology—such as whole brain emulation or other forms of transformative AI—could cause serious existential risks and suffering risks. (More)

  • We therefore consider interventions to reduce the expected influence of malevolent humans on the long-term future.

    • The development of manipulation-proof measures of malevolence seems valuable, since they could be used to screen for malevolent humans in high-impact settings, such as heads of government or CEOs. (More)

    • We also explore possible future technologies that may offer unprecedented leverage to mitigate against malevolent traits. (More)

    • Selecting against psychopathic and sadistic tendencies in genetically enhanced, highly intelligent humans might be particularly important. However, risks of unintended negative consequences must be handled with extreme caution. (More)

  • We argue that further work on reducing malevolence would be valuable from many moral perspectives and constitutes a promising focus area for longtermist EAs. (More)

What do we mean by malevolence?

Before we make any claims about the causal effects of malevolence, we first need to explain what we mean by the term. To this end, consider some of the arguably most evil humans in history—Hitler, Mao, and Stalin—and the distinct personality traits they seem to have shared.[1]

Stalin repeatedly turned against former comrades and friends (Hershman & Lieb, 1994, ch. 15, ch. 18), gave detailed instructions on how to torture his victims, ordered their loved ones to watch (Glad, 2002, p. 13), and deliberately killed millions through various atrocities. Likewise, millions of people were tortured and murdered under Mao’s rule, often according to his detailed instructions (Dikötter, 2011; 2016; Chang & Halliday, ch. 8, ch. 23, 2007). He also took pleasure in watching acts of torture and imitating in what his victims went through (Chang & Halliday, ch. 48, 2007). Hitler was not only responsible for the death of millions, he also engaged in personal sadism. On his specific instructions, the plotters of the 1944 assassination attempt were hung by piano wires and their agonizing deaths were filmed (Glad, 2002). According to Albert Speer, “Hitler loved the film and had it shown over and over again” (Toland, 1976, p. 818). Hitler, Mao, and Stalin—and most other dictators—also poured enormous resources into the creation of personality cults, manifesting their colossal narcissism (Dikötter, 2019). (The section Malevolent traits of Hitler, Mao, Stalin, and other dictators in Appendix B provides more evidence.)

Many scientific constructs of human malevolence could be used to summarize the relevant psychological traits shared by Hitler, Mao, Stalin, and other malevolent individuals in positions of power. We focus on the Dark Tetrad traits (Paulhus, 2014) because they seem especially relevant and have been studied extensively by psychologists. The Dark Tetrad comprises the following four traits—the more well-known Dark Triad (Paulhus & Williams, 2002) refers to the first three traits:

  • Machiavellianism is characterized by manipulating and deceiving others to further one’s own interests, indifference to morality, and obsession with achieving power or wealth.
  • Narcissism involves an inflated sense of one’s importance and abilities, an excessive need for admiration, a lack of empathy, and obsession with achieving fame or power.
  • Psychopathy is characterized by boldness, callousness, impulsiveness, a lack of empathy and guilt, and antisocial behavior, including violence and crime.
  • Sadism involves deriving pleasure from inflicting suffering and pain on others.

There is considerable overlap between the Dark Tetrad traits. In general, almost all plausible operationalizations of malevolence tend to positively correlate with each other and negatively with “benevolent” traits such as altruism, humility or honesty. (See the section Correlations between dark traits and other traits in Appendix B for more details.)

This suggests the existence of a general factor of human malevolence[2]: the Dark Factor of Personality (Moshagen et al., 2018)—analogous to g, the general factor of intelligence—characterized by egoism, lack of empathy[3] and guilt, Machiavellianism, moral disengagement, narcissism, psychopathy, sadism, and spitefulness. Like most personality traits (Johnson et al., 2008), malevolent traits seem relatively stable over the lifespan (Obradović et al., 2007) and influenced by genetic factors (Vernon et al., 2008), but more on this below.[4]

Throughout this article, we will assume a dimensional—rather than categorical, “black-or-white”—conception of malevolence. That is, we believe that malevolent traits exist on a continuum—just like most other human traits such as extraversion or intelligence (cf. Haslam et al., 2012; Plomin, 2019, ch. 5). Slight Machiavellian or sadistic tendencies, for example, are common. Many humans seem to flatter their superiors and enjoy seeing (non-tragic) mishaps of their political opponents. But only a few individuals will derive pleasure from witnessing human torture or will kill their former friends just to consolidate their power.

It is this latter type of human—showing clear signs of at least some highly elevated Dark Tetrad traits—who we have in mind when we use the term “malevolent”.

Malevolent humans in power pose serious long-term risks

In this section we discuss why and how malevolent individuals in highly influential positions—such as political leaders or CEOs of notable companies—could negatively affect humanity’s long-term trajectory, ultimately increasing existential risks (including extinction risks) and risks of astronomical suffering (s-risks).

Malevolent humans often rise to power

Malevolent humans are unlikely to substantially affect the long-term future if they cannot rise to power. But alas, they often do. The most salient examples are dictators who clearly exhibited elevated malevolent traits: not only Hitler, Mao, and Stalin, but also Saddam Hussein, Mussolini, Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, Duvalier, Ceaușescu, and Pol Pot, among many others.

In fact, people with increased malevolent traits might even be overrepresented among business (Babiak et al., 2010; Boddy et al., 2010; Lilienfeld, 2014), military, and political leaders (Post, 2003; Lilienfeld et al., 2012), perhaps because malevolent traits—especially Machiavellianism and narcissism—often entail an obsession with gaining power and fame (Kajonius et al., 2016; Lee et al., 2013; Southard & Zeigler-Hill, 2016) and could even be advantageous in gaining power (Deluga, 2011; Taylor, 2019). Again, Appendix B provides more details.

History suggests that malevolent leaders have caused enormous harm

One reason for expecting malevolent humans in power to pose risks to the future is that they seem to have caused great harm in the past.

Hitler, Mao, and Stalin were directly involved in several of the greatest atrocities in history, such as World War II, the Holocaust, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the Great Terror. There thus seems to be a correlation between the malevolence of (autocratic) political leaders and the amount of harm that occurred under their rule; at least according to our understanding of history.[5] If the past is any guide to the future, individuals with highly elevated dark traits could again manage to rise to positions of extreme power and cause extraordinary harm.

However, correlation does not imply causation. Even if we grant that this correlation indeed exists[6], one could argue that there are better explanations for how these atrocities came about. In particular, it seems plausible that other factors—such as political instability or extremist ideologies—matter most. We discuss these issues in more detail in this section of Appendix A.

It’s also worth mentioning that individuals with malevolent personalities are more likely to adopt dangerous ideologies. Dark Tetrad traits are associated with political extremism generally, including supporting the use of violence to achieve political and other ideological goals (Duspara & Greitemeyer, 2017; Međedović & Knežević, 2018; Gøtzsche-Astrup, 2019; Jones, 2013).[7]

Thus, while we agree that history is largely shaped by economic, political, cultural, institutional, ideological and other systemic forces, we believe that the personality traits of individual leaders—at the very least in autocratic regimes—can plausibly make a substantial difference as well (see also Bertoli et al., 2019; Byman & Pollack, 2001; especially p. 115-121; Gallagher & Allen, 2014; Jones & Olken, 2005). After all, there were humans who rose to power within rather autocratic regimes but who nevertheless enacted relatively beneficial policies. Examples include Juan Carlos I of Spain, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Mikhail Gorbachev, Lee Kuan Yew, and Marcus Aurelius, who seemed to exhibit more benevolent personality traits than the likes of Hitler, Mao, and Stalin.

Malevolent leaders have the potential to corrupt humanity’s long-term future

One could question whether malevolent individuals can substantially influence the long-term trajectory of humanity for the worse, even from positions of extreme power. It is possible that they only cause short-term harm, in which case reducing malevolence may not be a priority from a longtermist perspective.

However, we believe malevolent leaders plausibly have a significant detrimental effect on the long-term future. Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, for instance, seemed to have had a profoundly negative influence on global affairs and international cooperation, some of which can arguably still be felt today, more than half a century after the atrocities they perpetrated.[8] That said, it is difficult—if not impossible—to assess long-term impacts, as we do not know what would have happened counterfactually.

Broad risk factors due to malevolent leaders

Beckstead (2013) asks whether there is “a common set of broad factors which, if we push on them, systematically lead to better futures”. It seems plausible that malevolent humans in power would push such factors in the wrong direction.[9]

Specifically, we conjecture that malevolent humans in power would affect the risk factors below in the following ways:

  • Increase the spread of political extremism and other dangerous ideologies (see again Appendix A).

  • Exacerbate the risk of great power wars and international conflict (Byman & Pollack, 2001, particularly p. 112, 134, 137-138; Gallagher & Allen, 2014)[10], including the risk of nuclear war and arms races involving transformative AI.

  • Increase the likelihood of the formation of a global totalitarian regime, potentially resulting in a permanent lock-in of harmful values and power structures.[11]

  • Increase the likelihood of reckless behaviour, rather than careful reflection, in high-stakes situations (for example, those resembling the Cuban Missile Crisis).

    • Dark Triad traits, psychopathy in particular, are associated with extreme risk-taking (Hosker-Field et al., 2016; Visser et al., 2014).
  • Increase intranational conflict and undermine public institutions, social coordination, collective decision making and general discourse[12], particularly by:

    • Exacerbating economic and social inequality.[13]

    • Increasing corruption (Bendahan et al., 2015, table 5), rent-seeking, and the risk of financial crises (Boddy, 2011).

    • Reducing access to information, e.g., through censorship and propaganda.[14]

    • Reducing trust in government and institutions (Bowler & Karp, 2004).[15]

Such trends would plausibly lead to worse futures in expectation. They also plausibly increase existential risks (including extinction risks) and suffering risks (see the next section). However, the evidence linking these risk factors to malevolent humans in power is fairly weak, for various reasons. We are therefore only somewhat confident in these connections.

Existential and suffering risks due to malevolent leaders

In terms of more concrete scenarios, the most extreme risks to the long-term future would arguably result from malevolent humans with access to highly advanced technology, particularly transformative AI.

The following list outlines some (non-exhaustive) examples of how malevolent individuals could increase existential and suffering risks:

  • As noted above, malevolent individuals tend to exhibit more risk-taking behaviour. In the context of a project to develop and deploy transformative AI, they are therefore more likely to ignore potential warning signs and omit precautionary measures. This increases the risk of misaligned transformative AI.
  • Malevolent humans are likely less opposed to making threats than the average human (Jonason et al., 2012; Ullrich et al., 2001)[16] and plausibly less motivated to pursue peaceful bargaining strategies. Conflicts involving malevolent humans are therefore significantly more likely to escalate and result in catastrophic outcomes. Also, it could be dangerous if AI systems inherit some of their values or heuristics, such as an increased willingness to make and carry out threats and/or a reduced willingness to compromise.
  • Advanced technology might enable sadistic individuals in power to create suffering on an unprecedented scale.
  • A malevolent individual, or a small group of such individuals—e.g., the inner circle of an autocratic state—might manage to obtain control of Earth (cf. MacAskill, 2020)[17], and eventually the observable universe. For example, imagine Hitler or Stalin had access to advanced technology—including aligned AGI and mind uploading, enabling immortality. Such a lock-in of permanent rule by a (global) malevolent dictator would clearly qualify as an existential risk, as it would thwart any prospect of a more valuable future. It also constitutes a significant s-risk as there would be nobody left to keep any sadistic tendencies of the dictator in check.

While specific scenarios are necessarily speculative, it seems clear that malevolent leaders pose a serious threat to humanity’s long-term future. Of course, malevolent leaders are not the root of all evil, and many conflicts, wars and atrocities would happen without them. Nevertheless, we believe that preventing malevolent individuals from rising to power is likely valuable and robustly positive, according to almost all moral perspectives (compare also Beckstead, 2013; Tomasik, 2013a, 2013b).

Interventions to reduce the influence of malevolent actors

Advancing the science of malevolence

Further research into the construct of malevolence and its consequences would allow us to make more rigorous statements about the links between malevolent leaders and bad outcomes.

A more established science of malevolence would also help raise awareness of malevolent personality traits and how to detect them among the general public, influencers, politicians, researchers, and academics. Generally, the more we know about malevolence, the easier it is to accomplish many of the interventions discussed below.

Developing better constructs and measures of malevolence

It seems worthwhile to develop constructs capturing more precisely the constellation of traits most worrisome from a longtermist perspective, as existing constructs will not always do so.

For example, one of the most commonly used scales to measure psychopathy, the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised by Hare et al. (1990), consists of 20 items, grouped into two factors. Factor 1—characterized by cruelty, grandiosity, manipulativeness, and a lack of guilt—arguably represents the core personality traits of psychopathy. However, scoring highly on factor 2—characterized by impulsivity, reactive anger, and lack of realistic goals—is less problematic from our perspective. In fact, humans scoring high on factor 1 but low on factor 2 are probably more dangerous than humans scoring high on both factors (more on this below). Generally, most measures of psychopathy include items related to increased impulsivity (e.g., Cooke & Michie, 2001; Levenson et al., 1995; Lilienfeld & Andrews, 1996).

The most dangerous individuals tend to go undiagnosed

Individuals officially diagnosed as malevolent—e.g. those diagnosed with psychopathy, antisocial or narcissistic personality disorder—are probably unrepresentative of the most dangerous individuals. This is because an official diagnosis is only made when somebody suffers from immediate and severe problems (relating to their malevolence) or was forced to seek therapy, e.g., because they committed a crime.

In contrast, malevolent humans with good impulse-control and otherwise decent mental health have no reason to seek out a therapist and will generally not be convicted of crimes. The most dangerous malevolent humans will realize that not being unmasked as malevolent is of the highest importance, and will have sufficient motivation, cunning, self-awareness, charisma, social skills, intelligence and impulse-control to avoid detection (Perina et al., 2020).[18] Such individuals might even deliberately display personality characteristics entirely at odds with their actual personality. In fact, many dictators did precisely that and portrayed themselves—often successfully—as selfless visionaries, tirelessly working for the greater good (e.g., Dikötter, 2019). It may therefore be very valuable to conduct more research on this hard-to-detect type of conscientious, strategic malevolence (cf., e.g., Gao & Raine, 2010; Lilienfeld et al., 2015; Mullins-Sweatt et al., 2010).

Manipulation-proof measures of malevolence

To prevent malevolent humans from reaching highly influential positions, we need to be able to reliably detect those traits.

Currently, most measures of dark traits take the form of either interviews or self-completed questionnaires. Smart malevolent humans can easily manipulate these types of instruments and evade detection by lying. It is key, therefore, that we develop manipulation-proof measures of malevolence, i.e., measures that cannot (easily) be gamed.

One possibility would be to ask peers and previous associates to evaluate the personality traits of the person in question.[19] Of course, this raises several problems. Malevolent humans could have charmed and fooled many of their (former) friends and colleagues. They could also bribe or manipulate others to lie. So, while other-report measures (e.g., 360 degree assessments) may be harder to manipulate than self-reported ones and are therefore valuable, they are unlikely to completely solve the problem.[20]

Physiological or neurobiological measures based on methods like EEG or fMRI might be particularly difficult to manipulate—though this would probably require substantial technological and scientific progress. Neuroimaging techniques might allow us to identify abnormal brain structures or detect suspicious behavior, such as showing neurological signs of pleasure and/or no distress when seeing other humans or animals in pain. Therefore, more neurobiological research on the neurological signatures of pleasure and displeasure (e.g., Berridge & Kringelbach, 2013), and on the neurobiology of sadism and psychopathy, might be very valuable.[21] (Note that we have not investigated this in detail, so it is probably best to start with a systematic literature review.) However, such methods also raise ethical questions about judging people by brain scans rather than their actual behavior.

Potential misuse and negative consequences

Manipulation-proof measures of malevolence could also be misused—like all technology. For instance, governments might falsely brand political opponents as psychopaths.

Another concern is that such tests may constitute an unfair form of discrimination against humans with certain traits. This is because they measure innate characteristics that are impossible to change, rather than exclusively considering the actual behaviour of individuals. Also, even if this is deemed acceptable in the case of malevolence, advocating for testing in this context might lead to the widespread adoption of personality testing in general, which some believe could have negative consequences. (On the other hand, existing selection procedures also implicitly or explicitly select based on innate traits such as intelligence, and also include various kinds of tests.)

Lastly, unless tests of malevolence have perfect validity and reliability, there will be measurement errors: Some people will be diagnosed as highly malevolent even though they aren’t, and some truly malevolent people will escape detection.

How valuable would manipulation-proof measures of malevolence be in practice?

Given the potentially enormous benefits, why has there been so little interest in the development of manipulation-proof tests of malevolence? First, doing so is likely difficult and, especially if it involves neuroscience research, expensive[22] (as an example, MRI machines cost between $0.3M and $3M). Second, malevolent humans might, in some cases, actually benefit individual companies or political parties: high levels of psychopathy and narcissism could be useful for things like negotiating, motivating employees, or winning public approval. Third, most people likely overestimate their ability to discern malevolent traits in others, making them less interested in such tests. Finally, it seems that tests in general are not used much in at least some contexts; for example, most elected or appointed positions in government do not require intelligence, knowledge, or personality tests.[23]

One might argue that it was obvious to most people that dictators such as Hitler, Mao, and Stalin were malevolent even before they gained power, and that manipulation-proof measures of malevolence would therefore have been useless. However, we are doubtful that people can easily detect malevolence, at least in the most dangerous types of individuals, as mentioned above. (See also the section How well can people detect malevolent traits in Appendix A for more details.)

Of course, many did suspect that Hitler, Mao, and Stalin were malevolent. However, this was not common knowledge—and without objective evidence, calling an individual malevolent can easily be dismissed as slander. Not to mention that anyone making such accusations risks serious reprisals. So even if a majority had realized early on that Hitler, Mao, and Stalin are malevolent, it might not have helped.

However, if manipulation-proof and valid measures of malevolence had existed—alongside strong norms to use them to screen political leaders and widespread trust in their accuracy—it could have been common knowledge that these individuals were malevolent, which would have significantly reduced their chance of rising to power. Essentially, manipulation-proof and valid measures of malevolence could serve as an objective arbiter of good intentions, analogous to the scientific use of experiments as objective arbiters of truth. Their role in a hiring process could then be compared to security clearances, for instance.

It is not clear whether even perfectly diagnostic measures of malevolence would ever become widespread—for example, because of the abovementioned ethical concerns. However, for highly influential positions, people are most willing to make use of all available evidence (and candidates for such positions have an incentive to provide credible signals of trustworthiness). For instance, receiving a top-secret security clearance involves extensive interviews with one’s (former) spouses, colleagues, friends and neighbors, alongside reviews of medical and psychiatric records, and sometimes even polygraph examinations. This elaborate and arguably privacy-violating process would be unacceptable for a routine job, but is considered appropriate given the stakes at hand. Last, it could already be valuable if only a few companies or government departments started using manipulation-proof measures of malevolence; near-universal adoption of such measures is by no means necessary.

Despite these caveats, we believe that work on manipulation-proof measures of malevolence is promising. Subject to personal fit, it may be worthwhile for some effective altruists to consider careers in psychology or neuroscience. This would allow them to advance the science of malevolence, contribute to the development of manipulation-proof measures of malevolence, and improve their chances to convince decision-makers to take such measures seriously.

Political interventions

Many factors determine whether an individual can rise to a position of power, and it is important to include (non-)malevolence as a criterion when selecting leaders. Ideally, we should establish strong norms against allowing highly malevolent leaders to rise to power—even in cases where elevated Dark Tetrad traits may be instrumental in advancing the interests of a company or nation.

While the notion of Dark Tetrad traits is not foremost in most people’s minds, one could argue that much political debate is about related concepts like the trustworthiness or honesty of candidates, and voters do value those attributes.[24]

Perhaps the key issue, then, is not a lack of awareness; rather the non-availability of reliable objective measures and the overestimation of people's ability to detect malevolence. In fact, humans seem too eager to view their political opponents as inherently malevolent and ill-intentioned. Conversely however, humans also tend to view members of their own tribe as inherently good and overlook their misdeeds. (See again Appendix A for more details.)

The media also tends to depict impulsive psychopaths—say, ruthless serial killers with a long history of violence or crime. These are relatively easy to detect, potentially leading to a false sense of security (compare also Babiak et al., 2010, p.174-175). As mentioned above, it may therefore be valuable to raise awareness that at least some types of malevolent humans are difficult to detect.

Alternatively, we could influence political background factors that make malevolent leaders more or less likely. It seems plausible that political instability, especially outright revolutions, enable malevolent humans to rise to power (Colgan, 2013, p. 662-665). Generally, democracies plausibly select for more trustworthy, predictable and benevolent leaders (Byman & Pollack, 2001, p.139-140). Thus, interventions to promote democracy and reduce political instability seem valuable—though this area seems rather crowded.

Even within established democracies, we could try to identify measures that avoid excessive polarization and instead reward cross-party cooperation and compromise. Mitigating the often highly combative nature of politics would plausibly make it harder for malevolent humans to rise to power.[25] (For example, effective altruists have discussed electoral reform as a possible lever that could help achieve this.)

Since elevated Dark Tetrad traits are significantly more common among men (Paulhus & Williams, 2002; Plouffe et al., 2017), it also seems beneficial to advance gender equality and increase the proportion of female leaders.

Other potential factors that might facilitate the rise of malevolent individuals include social and economic inequality, poverty, ethnic, military or religious conflicts, and a “widespread sense of grievance or resentment” (Glad, 2002, p. 4). Thus, identifying cost-effective interventions to improve these factors (as well as identifying factors we haven’t thought of) could be promising. A more thorough study of the history of malevolent humans rising to power would also be valuable to better understand which factors are most predictive.

Overall, it seems plausible that many promising political interventions to prevent malevolent humans from rising to power have already been identified and implemented—such as, e.g., checks and balances, the separation of powers, and democracy itself. After all, much of political science and political philosophy is about preventing the concentration of power in the wrong hands.[26] We nevertheless encourage interested readers to further explore these topics.

Future technologies and malevolence

In this section, we explore how possible future technologies could be used to reduce the influence of malevolent actors.

Whole brain emulation

Whole brain emulation is the hypothetical process of scanning the structure of a brain and replicating it on a computer. Hanson (2016) explores the possible implications of this technology. In his scenario, brain emulations (“ems”) will shape future economic, technological and political processes due to their competitive advantage over biological minds.

One key question is: which human brains will be uploaded? We believe that it would be crucial to screen potential ems for malevolence—particularly the first individuals to be uploaded. Considering the power that the first ems would likely have to shape this new “Age of Em”, it could be disastrous for humanity’s long-term future if a malevolent individual forms the basis for (some of) the first ems (cf. Bostrom, 2002, p. 12). Conversely, by screening for malevolence, using manipulation-proof measures, we could effectively reduce malevolence among ems. This offers an unprecedented opportunity to ensure that malevolent forces have significantly less influence over the long-term future.[27]

Transformative AI

Many longtermist effective altruists think that shaping transformative artificial intelligence, and in particular solving the alignment problem, is a particularly good lever to improve the long-term future. Some concrete proposals for alignment—such as Iterated distillation and amplification—involve a “human-in-the-loop” whose feedback is used to align increasingly capable AI.

In these scenarios, the “human-in-the-loop” plausibly has enormous responsibility and leverage over the long-term future. It is therefore extremely valuable to ensure that the relevant individual or individuals—if e.g. a jury or parliament fulfills the role of “human-in-the-loop”—do not exhibit malevolent traits. (Again, this requires or is at least facilitated by the availability of manipulation-proof measures.)

Even without human involvement, artificial agents may exhibit behaviour that resembles malevolence (to the extent that this notion makes sense in non-human contexts) if such heuristics prove useful in its training process. After all, the fact that malevolent traits such as psychopathy or sadism evolved in some humans suggests that those traits provided fitness advantages, at least in certain contexts (Book et al. 2015; McDonald et al., 2012; Nell, 2006; Jonason et al., 2015).

In particular, it is possible that domain-general capabilities will emerge via increasingly complex multi-agent interactions (Baker et al., 2019). In this case, it is crucial that the training environment is set up in a way that prevents the evolution of undesirable traits like malevolence, and instead rewards cooperative and trustworthy behaviour.

To the extent that artificial intelligence designs are inspired by the human brain (“neuromorphic AI”), it seems important to understand the neuroscientific basis of malevolence in humans to reduce the risk of neuromorphic AIs also exhibiting malevolent traits.

Genetic enhancement

A third class of relevant new technologies are those that make it possible to change the genetic makeup of future humans. This would offer unprecedented leverage to change personality traits and “human nature”, for better or for worse (cf. Genetic Enhancement as a Cause Area). In particular, selection against malevolent traits could significantly reduce the influence of malevolent individuals.

This is because most variance in adult personality is due to genetic influences (~30–50%) and nonshared environment effects (~35–55%), leaving comparatively little room for the shared environment (~5–25%)[28] (e.g., Knopik et al., 2018, ch. 16; Johnson et al., 2008; Plomin, 2019; Vukasović & Bratko, 2015). (See the sections “Broad-sense heritability estimates of dark traits” and “Is selecting for personality traits possible?” in Appendix B for more details.) By contrast, nonshared environmental influences—which include measurement error, chance life events, and de novo mutations—seem to be mostly unsystematic, idiosyncratic, and unstable, and therefore difficult to influence (Plomin, 2019, ch. 7).

Genetic enhancement technologies might also result in the creation of humans with extraordinary intelligence (see, e.g., Shulman & Bostrom, 2014, p.2-3). Such humans, if created, will likely be overrepresented in positions of enormous influence and would thus have an outsized impact on the long-term future. Reducing malevolence among those individuals is therefore especially important.

Overview of genetic enhancement technologies

There are various technologies that would make it possible to modify the genetic makeup of future humans. We think the following four are most relevant:

  • In vitro fertilization (IVF) is a process of fertilisation where an egg is combined with sperm outside the body. In several Western countries, 2-8% of newborns are already conceived in this way. While this is primarily used to address infertility, it is possible to create several fertilized eggs and select among those.
  • Gene editing (e.g., via CRISPR) is the insertion, deletion, modification or replacement of DNA in the genome of an organism.
  • Iterated embryo selection (IES, Shulman & Bostrom, 2014; Sparrow, 2013) takes a sample of embryos and repeats two steps: a) select embryos that are higher in desired genetic characteristics; b) extract stem cells from those embryos, convert them to sperm and ova, and cross those to produce new embryos.
  • Genome synthesis is the artificial manufacturing of DNA, base pair by base pair.

Note that these methods can interact with each other and should thus not be viewed as being completely separate. For more details, we highly recommend Gwern’s Embryo selection for intelligence.

How far away are these technologies? Gwern writes that “IES is still distant and depends on a large number of wet lab breakthroughs and finetuned human-cell protocols.” Nonetheless, he states that: “[...] it seems clear, at least, that it will certainly not happen in the next decade, but after that…?”. He concludes that “IES has been badly under-discussed to date.”

Regarding genome synthesis, Gwern writes that the “cost curve suggests that around 2035, whole human genomes reach well-resourced research project ranges of $10-30m” and that it “is entirely possible that IES will develop too slowly and will be obsoleted by genome synthesis in 10-20 years.”

Gwern gives the following summary:

“CRISPR & cloning are already available but will remain unimportant indefinitely for various fundamental reasons; [...] massive multiple embryo selection is some ways off but increasingly inevitable and the gains are large enough on both individual & societal levels to result in a shock; IES will come sometime after massive multiple embryo selection but it’s impossible to say when, although the consequences are potentially global; genome synthesis is a similar level of seriousness, but is much more predictable and can be looked for, very loosely, 2030-2040 (and possibly sooner).”


Genetic enhancement is widely criticized. Numerous atrocities have been committed in the quest to forge a new, “better” kind of human. We would like to emphasize that we do not advocate for genetic enhancement per se. We only argue that if genetic enhancement happens, it seems prima facie important to select against malevolent traits—comparable to the rationale behind differential intellectual progress and differential technological progress.

Still, we are treading dangerous waters. Even just bringing up the possibility of selection for or against personality traits might inspire misuse of such methods. One particularly worrisome scenario is selection against all forms of rebellion and independence, branded as “antisocial tendencies”, which could enable extreme totalitarianism. Generally, the currently dominant individuals and classes could abuse these powerful technologies to cement their power.

It is also worth noting that very high levels of usually beneficial traits can be negative: too much trust, for example, might result in naïvety and an increased likelihood of being exploited. Similarly, completely eliminating usually harmful traits could backfire as well: for example, in certain situations, some degree of narcissism and Machiavellianism may benefit entrepreneurs and politicians. Generally, different personality traits are useful for different roles in society, so some diversity is beneficial.

For these and other reasons, it could be net negative to shift personality traits by more than one or two standard deviations.[29] However, we are primarily interested in shrinking the right tail of the distribution—e.g., by selecting against embryos with polygenic scores for Dark Tetrad traits above, say, the 99th percentile. This could be done while only marginally decreasing the mean. Generally, if we apply the (double) reversal test, current rates of dark traits—particularly highly elevated ones—appear very far from optimal.

Moreover, many dark traits appear to be genetically correlated with each other and negatively genetically correlated with benevolent personality traits (Vernon et al., 2008). Thus, selecting against one dark trait will tend to decrease other dark traits and increase benevolent traits. This plausibly makes selection efforts more robust, though this could also have some downsides.[30]

Lastly, we should arguably be especially cautious in scenarios that involve genetically enhanced humans of extraordinary intelligence. Extremely intelligent sadists and psychopaths would pose risks that outweigh any plausible benefits.


Funding or otherwise encouraging more research on the genetic basis of malevolent traits would allow us to better select against these traits. Ideally, we would have a good understanding of the genetic basis of malevolent traits before technologies such as genome synthesis arrive. Thus, it is plausibly time-sensitive to do this research now, even if powerful genetic enhancement technologies will not be developed for the next several decades.

A particularly cost-effective intervention might be to convince personal genomics companies, such as 23andMe, to offer tests of Dark Tetrad traits. 23andMe has over 10 million customers, so even if only a small fraction of customers took these tests (e.g., out of curiosity), we would already achieve sample sizes surpassing those of large GWA studies.[31] Improved psychological measures of malevolence with higher reliability and validity, as discussed in previous sections, would also enable GWA studies to better identify genetic variants associated with such traits.

In general, increasing the social acceptability of screening for Dark Tetrad traits plausibly increases the probability that future projects involving more powerful technology will also do so. The more established and well-known Dark Tetrad traits are, and the less controversial their heritability, the easier it would be to accomplish many of the interventions mentioned above. It might be valuable, for instance, to persuade sperm banks or other institutions responsible for screening sperm (or egg) donors to add measures of Dark Tetrad traits to their screening process and display the results prominently to women choosing sperm donors.

As with non-genetic interventions, we could attempt to raise awareness of malevolent traits, their heritability, and their dangers. Rather than trying to make changes to the supply side, it might be easier to increase demand by popularizing Dark Tetrad traits.[32] Most parents want their children to be responsible, empathic, and kind. If they are willing to pay for screening for malevolent traits, then sperm banks or others will offer such services.[33]

However, considering the significant dangers outlined above, we believe that public advocacy of the idea of genetic selection against malevolence would likely be premature. Indeed, more research on how to best avoid negative consequences—such as increased inequality or dehumanization of (un)enhanced humans—of possible interventions in this area would be important.

Subject to personal fit, it may also be worthwhile for some effective altruists to consider careers in bioinformatics, social sciences relating to GWA studies, bioethics, or related fields, to be in a good position to later influence key players.

Concluding remarks

Many of the above interventions face serious technical challenges. It may be hard to develop manipulation-proof measures of malevolence, and selection on personality traits is probably difficult due to low additive heritability. In addition, many interventions—especially those related to genetic enhancement technologies—entail severe risks of misuse and unintended negative consequences.

However, some of the suggested interventions involve neither speculative future technology nor controversial ideas about genetic enhancement. Overall, we recommend a mix of different interventions, as well as further work aiming to find new types of interventions and checking the assumptions that underlie existing interventions.

Most parents, cultures, and religions feature some notion of "not being evil", so one could argue that reducing malevolence, broadly construed, is already quite crowded. However, we believe the interventions we have explored are more targeted, and are potentially more far-reaching and more neglected than, say, cultural norms or parenting.

Reducing the influence of malevolent actors is not a panacea, of course. Many of the world's biggest problems are not (primarily) due to malevolent intent per se, and instead are mostly caused by incompetence, irrationality, indifference, and our inability to coordinate the escape from undesirable equilibria.

That being said, we believe that reducing the chances of malevolent individuals rising to power would have substantially positive effects under a broad range of scenarios and value systems—whether they place primary importance on avoiding existential risks, reducing suffering, or improving the quality of the long-term future.

Appendix A

How important are situational factors and ideologies compared to personality traits?

In this section, we discuss the extent to which historical atrocities can be attributed to the personality traits of individuals versus structural factors.

First, it seems plausible that background conditions that enable dictatorships in the first place—such as political instability and an absent rule of law—also make it more likely that malevolent humans will rise to power. Individuals who are reluctant to engage in murder and betrayal, for example, will be at a considerable disadvantage under such conditions (also see Colgan 2013, especially p. 662-665).

Similarly, power tends to corrupt (e.g., Bendahan et al., 2015; Cislak et al., 2018) so it could be argued that most individuals who rise to the top within autocratic regimes, will become more malevolent. Generally, a wealth of social psychology research attests to the importance of situational factors in explaining human behavior (Milgram, 1963; Burger, 2009), though the understanding of modern psychology is that behavior depends on both situational factors and individual personality traits (Bowers, 1973; Endler & Magnusson, 1976).

One particularly relevant factor is the spread of extremist and fanatical ideologies such as fascism, violent communism, and fundamentalist religion, which have undoubtedly contributed to historical atrocities. In fact, such ideologies have plausibly had a much bigger impact on history than the personality traits of individuals and could pose even greater risks to the long-term future. So why focus on personality rather than ideology or structural factors?

For one, tens of millions of people are already combating the dangerous ideologies mentioned above, or work on ensuring political stability and rule of law. These efforts are laudable, but also seem very crowded, which suggests that many of the most cost-effective interventions have already been identified and carried out.

As mentioned above, there is also ample evidence that individuals with malevolent personalities are drawn to dangerous ideologies:[34] Dark Triad traits predict increased intention to engage in political violence (Gøtzsche-Astrup, 2019). Narcissism and psychopathy are associated with political extremism (Duspara & Greitemeyer, 2017). Sadistic and psychopathic traits predict endorsing a militant extremist mind-set, in particular the use of violence to achieve political and other ideological goals (Međedović & Knežević, 2018). Machiavellianism and psychopathy predict racist attitudes, including support for Neo-Nazis and the KKK (Jones, 2013). Dark Triad traits correlate with social-dominance orientation (Jones & Figueredo, 2013; Jones, 2013), a measure of an individual’s preference for economic and social inequality within and between groups (Pratto et al., 1994; Dallago et al. 2008).[35]

Most ideologies also seem open for interpretation, leaving sufficient room for the idiosyncratic beliefs and personality traits of leaders to make a difference. Khrushchev and Gorbachev, for example, while broadly sharing Stalin’s Marxist-Leninist ideology, have caused much less harm than Stalin. Conversely, as the examples of Stalinism, Maoism, and Juche show, malevolent individuals can develop an existing ideology further, making it even more harmful.

In the end, ideologies, belief systems, and personality traits appear inevitably intertwined. Narcissism, for example, entails inflated beliefs about one’s abilities and place in history, by definition. Generally, malevolent individuals tend to hold beliefs that serve as (un)conscious justifications for their behavior, such as a sense of entitlement and grandiosity, and seem more likely to endorse dangerous worldviews and “ideologies that favor dominance (of individuals or groups)” (Moshagen, 2018, p. 659).

Finally, it is instructive to compare large-scale atrocities to small-scale atrocities like murder or contract killing. While rates of violent crime surely depend on social background factors and culturally transmitted norms, psychopathy is also considered a strong predictor for homicide, including instrumental, calculated murder (Fox & DeLisi, 2019). If we accept that malevolent personality traits like psychopathy play a causal role in violent crime, it stands to reason that such traits also play at least some causal role in many large-scale atrocities.

How well can people detect malevolent traits?

Historical evidence suggests that even many of their political adversaries—at least for some time—did not realize that Hitler, Mao, and Stalin were malevolent, even after they were in power.

Chamberlain famously trusted Hitler’s sincerity for far too long. Churchill once remarked that ‘‘Poor Chamberlain believed he could trust Hitler. He was wrong. But I don’t think that I am wrong about Stalin’’ (Yergin, 1977, p. 65). Similarly, Truman believed that Stalin ‘‘could be depended upon…I got the impression Stalin would stand by his agreements’’ (Larson, 1988, p. 246).[36] At least until the 1940s, many Westerners and Chinese seemed to have been enamored with Mao, potentially partly due to the influential book ‘Red Star over China’ (Snow, 1937) which painted him in an extremely favorable light (Chang & Halliday, ch. 18, 2007).

Countless famous intellectuals—including G.B. Shaw, H.G. Wells, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Beatrice Webb, Sidney Webb, Susan Sontag, Oswald Spengler, Carl Jung, Konrad Lorenz, and Martin Heidegger—praised authoritarian leaders like Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin or Fidel Castro (Hollander, 2016; 2017). Even today, most Russians and Chinese think highly of Stalin and Mao, respectively.

In summary, it seems that many humans fail to detect malevolent individuals, particularly when ideological, patriotic or other biases affect their judgment. Generally, Hitler, Mao, and Stalin—like many narcissists—seem to have been quite polarizing; some thought they were obviously malevolent, others viewed them as benevolent, nearly messianic figures.

Appendix B

See Appendix B: Reducing long-term risks from malevolent actors for additional details.


Thanks to Jesse Clifton, Jonas Vollmer, Lukas Gloor, Stefan Torges, Chi Nguyen, Mojmír Stehlík, Richard Ngo, Pablo Stafforini, Caspar Oesterheld, Lucius Caviola, Johannes Treutlein, and Ewelina Tur for their valuable comments and feedback. Thanks to Sofia-Davis Fogel for copy editing. All errors and views expressed in this document are our own, not those of the commenters.

David’s work on this post was funded by the Center on Long-Term Risk.


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  1. Of course, assessing other people’s personality is always fraught with uncertainty, especially if they are long dead. ↩︎

  2. Other researchers have suggested similar constructs aimed to represent the common core of “evil” (e.g., Book et al., 2015; Jones & Figueredo, 2013; Marcus et al., 2018). ↩︎

  3. Baron-Cohen (2012) argues that the defining feature of human evil is “zero degrees of empathy.” However, some psychopaths can read other people extremely well and would thus score highly on certain items of the empathy questionnaires Baron-Cohen describes in his book. Furthermore, as Baron-Cohen acknowledges, people on the autism spectrum tend to have less empathy—at least certain forms of it—but they are not more malevolent than the population average. Therefore, reducing malevolence to “zero degrees of empathy” could be problematic or at least crucially depends on how we define and operationalize empathy. ↩︎

  4. As of now, there is no established treatment of malevolence. Harris and Rice (2006) review the empirical findings on the treatment of psychopathy but are quite pessimistic about their effectiveness. ↩︎

  5. A more rigorous analysis would be valuable, though it would also be methodologically challenging—assessing the personality traits of historical figures, for example, is rather difficult. ↩︎

  6. One reason to be hesitant here is that it seems plausible, for instance, that we, as well as journalists and historians, see more signs of malevolent personality traits in leaders who have caused great harm, and will tend to overlook malevolent personality traits in leaders who have done more good. ↩︎

  7. Again, we refer to Appendix A for more details. ↩︎

  8. For example, without Mao and Stalin the probability of a communist China is smaller. A non-communist China may have better relations with the U.S., and the probability of great power wars and (AI) arms races may be reduced. However, such claims are necessarily very speculative. For instance, one could also argue that World War II may have increased longer-term stability by leading to the formation of the UN. ↩︎

  9. Or, as Robert Hare, one of the most well-known researchers of psychopathy, puts it: “Serial killer psychopaths ruin families. Corporate, political and religious psychopaths ruin economies [and] societies.” (Ronson, 2012, p. 117). ↩︎

  10. Gallagher & Allen (2014) found that U.S. presidents scoring higher on the Big Five facet “altruism” were less likely to employ military force. ↩︎

  11. Also compare MacAskill: “I still endorse the view of pushing resources into the future. The biggest caveat actually I’d have is about the rise of fascism and Stalinism as the thing to push on [...] even though you might not think that a particular ideology will last forever, well, if it lasts as long until you get like some eternal lock-in event, then it lasts forever. [...] I kind of think the rise of fascism and Stalinism was a bigger deal in the 20th century than the invention of nuclear weapons.” (MacAskill, 2020). ↩︎

  12. Dark Triad traits in political candidates correlate with more negative campaigns and fear appeals (Nai, 2019). ↩︎

  13. Since Dark Triad traits correlate with social dominance orientation (SDO, Jones & Figueredo, 2013), malevolent leaders will, on average, exhibit higher SDO and prefer policies resulting in higher social and economic inequality. ↩︎

  14. Azizli et al. (2016) find that psychopathy and Machiavellianism are associated with a greater propensity to lie and engage in high-stakes deception. ↩︎

  15. Bowler & Karp (2004) find that scandals involving politicians tend to lower political trust. It seems plausible that malevolent political leaders are more likely to be involved in scandals. ↩︎

  16. According to Ulrich et al. (2001), the rate of antisocial personality disorder among criminal offenders, 45% of whom were convicted of “robbery or extortion,” is more than 10 times higher than that of the control sample. Jonason et al. (2012) also find that Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy all correlate with the use of “hard tactics” in the workplace, including “threats of punishment” (see Table 1, p. 451). ↩︎

  17. MacAskill (2020, emphasis added): “[...] when you look at history of well what are the worst catastrophes ever? They fall into three main camps: pandemics, war and totalitarianism. Also, totalitarianism or, well, autocracy has been the default mode for almost everyone in history. And I get quite worried about that. So even if you don’t think that AI is going to take over the world, well it still could be some individual. And if it is a new growth mode, I do think that very significantly increases the chance of lock-in technology.” ↩︎

  18. Kaja Perina on the Manifold podcast (Perina, 2020): “[M]ost of the studies on psychopaths [...] are done on inmates. For that reason, we’re forced to conjecture about the really successful ones because I think the more successful, the more they evade detection, perhaps, lifelong. So there is this disconnect wherein a lot of them, the violent ones, the less intelligent ones, really end up in jail, and these are the ones who are studied, but these are not the ones who are highly Machiavellian, necessarily, these are not the ones who are brilliantly manipulative. These are the ones who are committing violent crimes and get caught.” ↩︎

  19. Extensive background checks, for example with the help of private investigators, would be another promising possibility. Intelligence agencies do this already for somewhat related purposes. Generally, the competitive nature of the political process can often uncover past immoral behavior—though swaying partisan views seems to require evidential strength that is difficult to achieve. Thanks to Mojmír Stehlík for raising these points. ↩︎

  20. Yet another possibility would be to use “objective” personality tests that don’t rely on self- or other-report but use actual performance tests to evaluate personality traits (without the test-taker knowing which trait is supposed to be measured). However, according to our cursory reading of the literature, the few “objective” personality tests that exist seem to have low validity (e.g., Kline & Cooper, 1984). ↩︎

  21. However, one needs examples to train such predictors in the first place. One could start by looking for differences in the brains of normal people and, say, diagnosed psychopaths, but this metric will be biased towards diagnosed psychopaths who are at least somewhat unrepresentative of non-diagnosed malevolent humans (as explained above). One needs to correct for this ascertainment bias. ↩︎

  22. Relatedly, neuroscience research is often underpowered, resulting in low reproducibility of the accumulated findings (Button et al., 2013). ↩︎

  23. However, the education system also involves a lot of tests and grading; and is at least somewhat related to career advancement. Such tests are also common for military entry and sometimes civil service. In the context of elections, the key question is why voters do not generally demand such tests (including related objective measures, such as tax returns). ↩︎

  24. However, there exists the frightening possibility that some voters want their political leaders to be at least moderately malevolent. Most Russians and Chinese, for example, seem to think highly of Stalin and Mao, respectively—though this is likely at least partly due to propaganda. Generally, many voters seem to like “strong men” like Putin and overlook or even appreciate elevated Dark Tetrad traits in their political leaders. Also, according to the (potentially biased) assessment of “experts”, politicians with autocratic tendencies—many of whom nonetheless received the majority of votes—score significantly higher on Dark Triad traits than the average politician (Nai & Toros, 2020). ↩︎

  25. It is also worth noting that in some forms of government, such as allocating political positions to randomly selected individuals or hereditary monarchy, those in positions in power are exactly as likely to be malevolent as the population at large. This may be better than fierce competition for positions of power if the latter advantages the most ruthless and malevolent individuals. On the other hand, good selection procedures could also reduce malevolence in positions of power below the baseline; and of course this is only one consideration among many when evaluating different forms of government. ↩︎

  26. Thanks to Richard Ngo for making this point. ↩︎

  27. However, initial distributions may change due to competitive pressures or other factors. Even if none of the first ems are malevolent, there is no guarantee that malevolence will remain absent in the long run. ↩︎

  28. Extreme events like severe abuse or violence can make a huge difference for the victims, but such events are relatively rare and therefore do not explain much variance in the general population (Plomin, 2019). ↩︎

  29. Also note that shifting personality traits by more than this would likely be very difficult even if one wanted to do this. ↩︎

  30. Some dark traits, such as Machiavellianism, can be beneficial under certain circumstances. It might be better if one could single out a dark trait, such as sadism, and only select against it while leaving other dark traits unchanged. ↩︎

  31. However, GWA studies of personality are still fairly weak even at such scales. Even higher sample sizes might be achieved by identifying proxy variables of malevolence, such as public records on crime. However, this could easily backfire and cause great harm in numerous ways, so one would have to be very careful. ↩︎

  32. Currently, Dark Tetrad traits seem to be neglected in many relevant areas. Most sperm banks measure traits such as height, attractiveness, physical and mental health but not Dark Tetrad traits. Services that offer pre-implementation diagnostics screen for all sorts of genetic diseases and some even for IQ but not for Dark Tetrad traits. Test batteries of enormous government projects like the UK Biobank measure thousands of variables—including physical health, height, and preferred coffee and cereal type—but they don’t measure Dark Tetrad traits or even most personality traits in any sort of rigorous manner. ↩︎

  33. Generally, reducing the influence of malevolent actors can be done in myriad (often mutually reinforcing) ways. For instance, the more widespread belief systems are that put great value on non-malevolent traits such as compassion and altruism, the more parents might demand screening for malevolent traits, and the more future (government) projects will include measures of malevolence in their test batteries. ↩︎

  34. Adopting certain ideologies could also make one more malevolent. However, we think it’s plausible that most of the correlation is explained by causation from malevolent traits to dangerous ideologies, partly because personality traits seem less amenable to change than beliefs. ↩︎

  35. The Dark Triad also predicts sexism (Gluck et al., 2020; O'Connell & Marcus, 2016), nationalism (Matthews et al., 2018) as well as cognitive and affective prejudice (Koehn et al., 2019). Psychopathic traits predict opposition towards free speech and animal rights as well as support for using war as a tool for diplomacy (Preston & Anestis, 2018, Table 3). Machiavellianism and narcissism also seem to correlate with overconfidence (Campbell et al., 2002; 2004; Macenczak et al., 2016; Jain & Bearden, 2011), and thus plausibly negatively correlate with epistemic humility which should serve a protective function against all kinds of extremism and fanaticism. (Note that we don’t intend to convey that all these associations are equally dangerous.) ↩︎

  36. Many of these and similar quotes could have been made solely for political reasons, e.g., to strengthen alliances. ↩︎

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Just a quick thought: Supporting (investigative) journalism is also a possible intervention. I think journalism is considered a pillar of democracy? Currently, Kelsey Piper's work on OpenAI/Sam Altman is a good example.

Yes, I think investigative journalism (and especially Kelsey Piper's work on Altman & OpenAI) is immensely valuable. 

In general, I've become more pessimistic about technology-centric/ "galaxy-brained" interventions in this area and more optimistic about "down-to-earth" interventions like, for example, investigative journalism, encouraging whistleblowing (e.g. setting up prizes or funding legal costs), or perhaps psychoeducation / workshops on how to detect malevolent traits and what do when this happens (which requires, in part, courage / the ability to endure social conflict and being socially savvy, arguably not something that most EAs excel in). 

Richard Möhn
Down-to-earth interventions sounds better to me, too. I like all of the examples.

Amazing article, It is a great insight into the malevolent person.

Yet I don't see the problem in the malevolent, but the system that allows their rise by making those malevolent traits praisable in every ideology, even in commerce.

There is no definition of ideology in the text, yet one is needed, because every ideology is dangerous. For an ideology seeks to impose a single maxim over other human endeavours, nazism was about racial supremacy, marxism positions the class struggle as an idea over all, religious fundamentalism puts god above everything, capita... (read more)

Thanks. I guess I agree with the gist of your comment. I'm very worried about extremist / fanatical ideologies but more on this below. I guess it depends on how you define "ideology". Let's  say "a system of ideas and ideals". Then it seems evident that some ideologies are less dangerous than others and some seem actually beneficial (e.g., secular humanism, the Enlightenment, or EA). (Arguably, the scientific method itself is an ideology.) I'd argue that ideologies are dangerous if they are fanatical and extreme. The main characteristics of such fanatical ideologies include dogmatism (extreme irrationality and epistemic & moral certainty), having a dualistic/Manichean worldview that views in-group members as good and everyone who disagrees as irredeemably evil, advocating for the use of violence and unwillingness to compromise, blindly following authoritarian leaders or scriptures (which is necessary since debate, evidence and reason are not allowed), and promising utopia or heaven. Of course, all of this is a continuum. (There is much more that could be said here; I'm working on a post on the subject). Sounds like an ideology to me but ok. :)  

Hi, interesting article. Thank you for writing.

I felt that this article could have said more about possible policy interventions and that it dismisses policy and political interventions as crowded too quickly. Having thought a bit about this area in the past I thought I would chip in.


Even within established democracies, we could try to identify measures that avoid excessive polarization and instead reward cross-party cooperation and compromise. ... (For example, effective altruists have discussed electoral reform as a possible lever that could help achieve this.)

There are many things that could be done to prevent malevolent leaders within established democracies. Reducing excessive polarization (or electoral reform) are two minor ones. Other ideas you do not discuss include:

  • Better mechanisms for judging individuals. Eg ensuring 360 feedback mechanisms are used routinely to guide hiring and promotion decisions as people climb political ladders. (I may do work on this in the not too distant future)
  • Less power to individuals. Eg having elections for parties rather than leaders. (The Conservative MPs in the UK could at any time decide that Boris Johnson is n
... (read more)

Thank you, excellent points!

I will probably add some of your intervention ideas to the article (I'll let you know in that case).

I felt that this article could have said more about possible policy interventions and that it dismisses policy and political interventions as crowded too quickly.

Sorry about that. It certainly wasn’t our intention to dismiss political interventions out of hand. The main reason for not writing more was our lack of knowledge in this space; which is why our discussion ends with “We nevertheless encourage interested readers to further explore these topics”. In fact, a comment like yours—containing novel intervention ideas written by someone with experience in policy—is pretty much what we were hoping to see when writing that sentence.

Better mechanisms for judging individuals. Eg ensuring 360 feedback mechanisms are used routinely to guide hiring and promotion decisions as people climb political ladders. (I may do work on this in the not too distant future)

Very cool! This is partly what we had in mind when discussing manipulation-proof measures to prevent malevolent humans from rising to power (where we also briefly mention 360 degree assessments).

For w

... (read more)
Relevant policy report from the UK Parliament on enforcing the Ministerial Code of good behaviour, (from 2006): https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200506/cmselect/cmpubadm/1457/1457.pdf (I wasn't sure what to do with this when I found it, I might add other policy reports I find to this thread too until I have the capacity to actually work on this in any detail) Less directly relevant but somewhat interesting too: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmselect/cmpubadm/121/121i.pdf

Thanks for sharing these additional ideas and insights!

Also removing the extent to which dishonesty pays, for example with better fact-checking services.

I ran (and published a paper on) an experiment on fact-checking for my Psychology Honours in 2017, so I have a smidge of knowledge here, though it's a bit rusty. Some brief thoughts:

  • I do suspect "better fact-checking services", in the sense of more accuracy or checking more facts, would be somewhat beneficial
  • But I think there's some reason for pessimism about just how much people really "care" about the results of fact-checks, even when they see those fact-checks. Here's my study's abstract:
In the ‘post-truth era’, political fact-checking has become an issue of considerable significance. A recent study in the context of the 2016 US election found that fact-checks of statements by Donald Trump changed participants' beliefs about those statements—regardless of whether participants supported Trump—but not their feelings towards Trump or voting intentions. However, the study balanced corrections of inaccurate statements with an equal number of affirmations of accu
... (read more)
I've just read the results of an interesting new study on the effect of red-flagging some information on social media, with flags such as "Multiple fact-checking journalists dispute the credibility of this news", and variations with "Multiple fact-checking journalists" replaced by, alternatively, "Major news outlets", "A majority of Americans", or "Computer algorithms using AI". The researchers tested the effect this had on the propensity of people to share the content. The effect of the "fact-checking" phrasing was the most pronounced, and very significant (a reduction of about 40% of the probability to share content; which jumps to 60% for people who identify as Democrats). Overall the effect of the "AI" phrasing was also very significant, but quite counterintuitively it has the effect of increasing the probability of sharing content for people who identify as Republicans! (By about 8%; it decreases that same probability by 40% for people who identify as Democrats.) https://engineering.nyu.edu/news/researchers-find-red-flagging-misinformation-could-slow-spread-fake-news-social-media
Thank you for the insight. I really have no strong view on how useful each / any of the ideas I suggested were. They were just ideas. I would add on this point that narcissistic politicians I have encountered worried about appearance and bad press. I am pretty sure that transparency and fact checking etc discouraged them from making harmful decisions. Not every narcissistic leader is like Trump.
Yeah, that sounds right to me. And reminds me of a paper I read when working on that experiment, the abstract of which was: Relatedly, it could be that "more" or "better" fact-checking would lead to better actions by or discourse from politicians, even if voters "don't really care much" about fact-checks or never really see them, due to politicians overestimating what impact fact-checks would have on voters' perceptions. (To be clear, I do think fact-checks probably have at least some impact via the more obvious route too; I wonder mostly about the magnitude of the effect, not whether it exists.)

Personally, I think this is gold.

On the other hand, I’m not so sure that sadism is particularly worse for the long-term future than the dark triad traits. Yes, sadistic leaders may pose a special S-risk, but I am not sure they increase other x-risks so much – e.g., Hitler was kind of cautious concerning the risk of nuclear weapons igniting the atmosphere, and Stalin was partially useful in WW II and avoided WW III.


Some dark traits, such as Machiavellianism, can be beneficial under certain circumstances. It might be better if one could single out a dark trait, such as sadism, and only select against it while leaving other dark traits unchanged.

with these parts of the Appendix A:

Dark Triad traits predict increased intention to engage in political violence (Gøtzsche-Astrup, 2019)…
Historical evidence suggests that even many of their political adversaries—at least for some time—did not realize that Hitler, Mao, and Stalin were malevolent

Actually, open sadism often raises opposition; and I think the big 3 above weren't salient because they were sadistic – would they have killed less people if they were just functional psychopa... (read more)

Thank you, good points.

I agree that it’s not clear whether sadism is really worse than the Dark Triad traits.

e.g., Hitler was kind of cautious concerning the risk of nuclear weapons igniting the atmosphere,

I’m not sure whether Hitler and Stalin were more sadistic than they were Machiavellian or narcissistic. If I had to decide, I’d say that their Machiavellianism and narcissism were more pronounced than their sadism.

Regarding Hitler being “kind of cautious”: It seems plausible to me that Hitler was less cautious than a less malevolent counterfactual German leader.

What is more, it seems not too unlikely that Hitler would have used nuclear weapons in 1945 if he had had access to them. For instance, see this quote from Glad (2002, p. 32):

As the Allies closed in on Berlin, [Hitler] wanted churches, schools, hospitals, livestock, marriage records, and almost anything else that occurred to him to be destroyed. In April 1945 he wanted the entire leadership of the Luftwaffe to be summarily hanged. He considered bringing about the destruction of German cities by announcing the execution of all Royal Air Force war prisoners, so that there would be massive bombing in reprisal. He may al

... (read more)

Thanks for the remarks concerning Hitler and Stalin.

I think it might be quite valuable, for the project as a whole, to better understand why people are drawn to leaders with features they would not tolerate in peers, such as dark traits.

For one, it’s very plausible that, as you mentioned, the explanation is (a) dark traits are very useful – these individuals are (almost) the only ones with incentives enough to take risks, get things done, innovate, etc. Particularly, if we do need things like strategies of mutually assured destruction, then we need someone credibly capable of “playing hawk”, and it's arguably hard to believe nice people would do that. This hypothesis really lowers my credence in us decreasing x-risks by screening for dark traits; malevolent people would be analogous to nukes, and it’s hard to unilaterally get rid of them.

A competing explanation is that (b) they’re not that useful, they’re parasitical. Dark traits are uncorrelated with achievement, they just make someone better at outcompeting useful pro-social people, by, e.g., occupying their corresponding niches, or getting more publicity - and so making peopl... (read more)

Malevolent humans with access to advanced technology—such as whole brain emulation or other forms of transformative AI—could cause serious existential risks and suffering risks.

Possibly relevant: Machiavellians Approve of Mind Upload Technology Directly and Through Utilitarianism (Laakasuo et al. 2020), though it mainly tested whether machiavellians express moral condemnation of mind uploading, rather than their interest directly.

In this preregistered study, we have two novel findings: 1) Utilitarian moral preferences are strongly and psychopathy is mildly associated with positive approval of MindUpload; and 2) that Machiavellianism – essentially a calculative self-interest related trait – is strongly associated with positive approval of Mind Upload, even after controlling for Utilitarianism and the previously known predictor of Sexual Disgust (and conservatism). In our preregistration, we had assumed that the effect would be dependent on Psychopathy (another Dark Triad personality dimension), rather than Machiavellianism. However, given how closely related Machiavellianism and Psychopathy are, we argue that the results match our hypothesis closely. Our results suggest that the perceived risk of callous and selfish individuals preferring Mind Upload should be taken seriously, as previously speculated by Sotala & Yampolskiy (2015)

I'm surprised to see that this post hasn't yet been reviewed. In my opinion, it embodies many of the attributes I like to see in EA reports, including reasoning transparency, intellectual rigor, good scholarship, and focus on an important and neglected topic.

This is one of the best posts I've read here, wow.

One of the main things that concern me is that malevolent people could appropriate the concept of malevolence itself and start a witch hunt for people who have nothing to do with malevolence. This was passingly mentioned when acknowledging that political leaders could brand their opponents as malevolent. Overall I think this post makes a good job of outlining the pros and cons, but I just wanted to write this consideration in a comment because it has been somewhat prominent in my mind.

Thanks for the comment! I would guess that having better tests of malevolence, or even just a better understanding of it, may help with this problem. Perhaps a takeaway is that we should not just raise awareness (which can backfire via “witch hunts”), but instead try to improve our scientific understanding and communicate that to the public, which hopefully makes it harder to falsely accuse people. In general, I don’t know what can be done about people using any means necessary to smear political opponents. It seems that the way to address this is to have good norms favoring “clean” political discourse, and good processes to find out whether allegations are true; but it’s not clear what can be done to establish such norms.

Hi David and Tobias,

I just came across Who would destroy the world? Omnicidal agents and related phenomena, which relates to your analysis. For reference, here is the abstract:

The capacity for small groups and even single individuals to wreak unprecedented havoc on civilization is growing as a result of dual-use emerging technologies. This means that scholars should be increasingly concerned about individuals who express omnicidal, mass genocidal, anti-civilizational, or apocalyptic beliefs/desires. The present article offers a comprehensive and systematic

... (read more)
I'm not aware of quantitative estimates of omnicidal actors. Personally, I'm less interested in omnicidal actors and more interested in actors that would decrease the quality of the long-term future if they had substantial levels of influence. This is partly because the latter type of category is plausibly much larger (e.g., Hitler, Mao, and Stalin wouldn't have wanted to destroy the world but would have been bad news regardless).  FWIW, I've done a few pilots on how common various "s-risk conducive" values and attitudes are (e.g., extreme retributivism, sadism, wanting to create hell) and may publish these results at some point. 

Thanks, it's a very nice article on an important topic. If you're interested, there's a small literature in political economy called "political selection" (here's an older survey article) . As far as I know they don't focus specifically on the extreme lower tail of bad leaders, but they do discuss how different institutional features can lead to different types of people gaining power.

Thanks for the pointer!

Thanks for this interesting article. Regarding malevolence among business leaders: my impression is that corporations have rewarded malevolence less over time.

E.g. in the early 1900s you had Frederick Taylor (arguably the most influential manager of the 20th century) describing his employees like:

one of the very first requirements for a man who is fit to handle pig iron as a regular occupation is that he shall be so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox than any other type.

Modern executives would never say this about their staff, and no doubt this is partly because what's said in the boardroom is different from what's said in public, but there is a serious sense in which credibly signaling prosocial behaviors towards your employees is useful. E.g. 80 years later you have Paul O'Neill, in almost exactly the same industry as Taylor, putting worker safety as his key metric, because he felt that people would work harder if they felt taken care of by the company.

My guess is that corporations which rely on highly skilled workers benefit more from prosocial executives, and that it's hard to pretend to be prosocial over a decades-long caree

... (read more)
Thanks, that's a good example. Yeah, I think that's probably true. Just to push back a little bit, the pessimistic take would be that corporate executives simply have become better at signalling and public relations. Maybe also partly because the downsides of having bad PR are worse today compared to, say, the 1920s—back then, people were poorer and consumers didn't have the luxury to boycott companies whose bosses said something egregious; workers often didn't have the option to look for another job if they hated their boss, et cetera. Generally, it seems plausible to me that "humans seem to have evolved to emphasize signaling more in good times than in bad." (Hanson, 2009). I wonder if one could find more credible signals of things like "caring for your employers", ideally in statistical form. Money invested in worker safety might be one such metric. Salary discrepancies between employees and corporate executives might be another one (which seems to have gotten way worse since at least the 1970s) though there are obviously many confounders here. The decline in child labor might be another example of how corporations have rewarded malevolence less over time. In the 19th century, when child labor was common, some amount of malevolence (or at least indifference) was arguably beneficial if you wanted to run a profitable company. Companies run by people who refused to employ children for ethical reasons presumably went bankrupt more often given that they could not compete with companies that used such cheap labor. (On the other hand, it's not super clear what an altruistic company owner should have done. Many children also needed jobs in order to be able to buy various necessities—I don't know.) Maybe this is simply an example of a more general pattern: Periods of history marked by poverty, scarcity, instability, conflict, and inadequate norms & laws will tend to reward or even require more malicious behavior, and the least ruthless will tend to be outcompeted (co
That seems reasonable. Another possibility is looking at benefits, which have grown rapidly (though there are also many confounders here). Something which I can't easily measure but seems more robust is the fraction of "iterated games". E.g. I would expect enterprise salespeople to be less malevolent than B2C ones (at least towards their customers), because successful enterprise sales relies on building relationships over years or decades. Similarly managers are often recruited and paid well because they have a loyal team who will go with them, and so screwing over that team is not in their self-interest.

Probably you're already aware of this, but the APA's Goldwater rule seems relevant. It states:

On occasion psychiatrists are asked for an opinion about an individual who is in the light of public attention or who has disclosed information about himself/herself through public media. In such circumstances, a psychiatrist may share with the public his or her expertise about psychiatric issues in general. However, it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.

From the perspective of this article, this rule is problematic when applied to politicians and harmful traits. (This is similar to how the right to confidentiality has the Duty to Warn exception.) A quick Google Scholar search gives a couple of articles since 2016 that basically make this point. For example, see Lilienfeld et al. (2018): The Goldwater Rule: Perspectives From, and Implications for, Psychological Science.

Of course, the other important (more empirical than ethical) question regarding the Goldwater rule is whether "conducting an examination" is a necessary prerequisite... (read more)

Some thoughts that occured to me while reading:

1) Research suggestion: From afar, malevolence-detection techniques seem like a better version of the already-existing tool of top-secret security clearance (or tests similar to it). I am not confident about this, but it already seems that if top-secret security clearance was a requirement for holding important posts, a lot of grief would be avoided (at least where I am from). Yet we generally do not use this tool. Why is this? I suspect that whatever the answer is, it will apply to malevolence-detection techniques as well.

2) Potential bottleneck: Suppose you succeed and develop 100% accurate malevolence-detection technique. I think that, by default, you would have trouble convincing people to use it. ("I mean, what if I score high on it? You know, I am keeping my dark side in check and I don't plan to become too influential either, so my malevolence doesn't really hurt anybody. But the other people don't know that! If I get branded as malevolent, nobody will talk to me ever, or hire me, or anything!") I conjecture that the impact of this agenda will be bottlenecked on figuring out how to leave the malevolent p... (read more)

(Also, it might not be obvious from my nitpicking, but I really like the post, thanks for it :-).)

Thank you. :) No worries, I didn't think you were nitpicking. I agree with many of your points.

[...] if top-secret security clearance was a requirement for holding important posts, a lot of grief would be avoided (at least where I am from). Yet we generally do not use this tool. Why is this? I suspect that whatever the answer is, it will apply to malevolence-detection techniques as well.

One worry with security clearances is that they tend to mostly screen for impulsive behaviors such as crime and drug use (at least, according to my limited understanding of how these security clearances work) and would thus often fail to detect more strategic malevolent individuals.

Also, your claim that “we generally do not use this tool [i.e., security clearances]” feels too strong. For example, 5.1 million Americans seem to have a security clearance. Sounds like a lot to me. (Maybe you had a different country in mind.)

I conjecture that the impact of this agenda will be bottlenecked on figuring out how to leave the malevolent people a line of retreat; making sure that if you score high on this

... (read more)
I think the more modest usage is reasonable choice. I am Czech. We do have the institute, and use it. But, as far as I know, our president doesn't have it, and a bunch of other people don't have it. (I.e., it seems that people who need secret information on a daily basis have it. But you don't need it for many other positions from which you could put pressure on people who have the clearance.)

Thanks for this write-up, I thought it was really interesting and not something I'd ever considered - kudos!

I'll now hone in on the bit of this I think needs most attention. :)

It seems you think that one of the essential things is developing and using manipulation-proof measures of malevolence. If you were very confident we couldn't do this, how much of an issue would that be? I raise this because it's not clear to me how such measures could be created or deployed. It seems you have (1) self-reports, (2) other-reports, (3) objective met... (read more)

Thank you, great points. I wouldn't say it's "essential"—influencing genetic enhancement would still be feasible—though it would certainly be a big problem. Yes, that would be an issue. That seems true though it seems at least conceivable that voters will demand such measures in the future. (As an aside, you mention large organisations but it seems such measures could also be valuable when used in smaller (non-profit) organizations?) Yeah, true. I guess it's also a matter of how much (negative) weight you put on malevolent traits, how much of an effort you make to detect them, and how attentive you are to potential signs of malevolence—most people seem to overestimate their ability to detect (strategic) malevolence (at least I did so before reality taught me a lesson). Interesting, that seems plausible! I've always been somewhat bewildered by its popularity. True. I guess measures of malevolence would work best as part of the hiring process (i.e., before one has formed close relationships). I agree that there are probably substantial barriers to be overcome. On the other hand, it seems that many companies are using "integrity tests" which go in a similar direction. According to Sacket and Harris (1984), at least 5,000 companies used "honesty tests" in 1984. Companies were also often using polygraph examinations—in 1985, for example, about 1.7 million such tests were administered to (prospective) employees (Dalton & Metzger, 1993, p. 149)—until they became illegal in 1988. And this even though polygraph tests and integrity tests (as well as psychopathy tests) can be gamed (rather easily). I could thus imagine that at least some companies and organizations would start using manipulation-proof measures of malevolence (which is somewhat similar to the inverse of integrity) if it was common knowledge that such tests actually had high predictive validity and could not be gamed.
You could imagine scenarios where we apply objective measures to children, embryos, and/or couples who are considering having children. This would avoid some of the free-choice problem around who takes the test, though it doesn't really get around the Minority Report problem. Also there'd still be selection at the parent level (some would-be parents would decide to not get tested). Interesting that we don't do anything like this for psychopathy currently, as far as I know. (Psychopathy appears to be somewhat genetic.)
Thank you! Agree, these posts are excellent. For what it's worth, I share Gwern's pessimistic conclusion about the treatment of psychopathy. Other Dark Tetrad traits—especially if they are less pronounced—might be more amenable to treatment though I'm not especially optimistic. However, even if effective treatment options existed, the problem remains that the most dangerous individuals are unlikely to ever be motivated to seek treatment (or be forced to do so).
In this section, we explore how possible future technologies could be used to reduce the influence of malevolent actors.

Psychedelics probably help with this as well (when carefully administered).

Anecdotally, a lot of Western contemplative teachers got started on that path because of psychedelic experiences (Zen, Tibetan Vajrayana, Vipassana, Advaita Vedanta, Kashmiri Shaivism). These traditions are extremely prosocial & anti-malevolent.

Less anecdotally, Hendricks et al. 2018 found lifetime psychedelic use correlated with reduced criminality (survey wi... (read more)

There hasn't been a proper RCT yet though.

Pokorny et al. (2017) seems like a relevant RCT. They found that psilocybin significantly increased empathy.

However, even such results don’t make me very optimistic about the use of psychedelics for reducing malevolence.

The kind of individuals that seem most dangerous (people with highly elevated Dark Tetrad traits who are also ambitious, productive and strategic) seem less likely to be interested in taking psychedelics—such folks don't seem interested in increasing their empathy, becoming less judgmental or having spiritual experiences. In contrast, the participants of the Pokorny et al. study—like most participants in current psychedelics studies (I think)—wanted to take psychedelics which is why they signed up for the study.

Moreover, my sense is that psychedelics are most likely to increase openness and compassion in those who already started out with some modicum of these traits and who would like to increase them further. I’m somewhat pessimistic that giving psychedelics to highly malevolent individuals would make them substantially more compassionate. That being said, I'm certainly not confident in that assessment.

My intuition is p

... (read more)
Thanks for this great comment! I had forgotten about Pokorny et al. 2017 – that's definitely relevant work. A lot of Nazis were interested in the occult, and Mao wrote poetry. More research needed here. As far as I know, there hasn't been any work done on how psychedelics affect individuals with high Dark Tetrad scores. Yeah, the Concord Prison Experiment is pretty bad. Hendricks et al. 2014 is better work on this, though it's just a survey. Do you know where this worry comes from? Gabay et al. 2019 found that MDMA boosted people's cooperation with trustworthy players in an iterated prisoner's dilemma, but not with untrustworthy players. I take that as some evidence that MDMA doesn't acutely harm one's rationality. I don't think there's been similar work done for other psychedelics. I think spiritual bypassing is a real problem, and unwise psychedelic use can definitely facilitate it. Context & integration seems very important.
Good point, my comment was worded too strongly. I’d still guess that malevolent individuals are, on average, less interested in things like Buddhism, meditation, or psychedelics. Interesting paper! Though I didn’t have MDMA in mind; with “psychedelics” I meant substances like LSD, DMT, and psilocybin. I also had long-term effects in mind, not immediate effects. Sorry about the misunderstanding. One reason for my worry is that people who take psychedelics seem more likely to believe in paranormal phenomena (Luke, 2008, p. 79-82). Of course, correlation is not causation. However, it seems plausible that at least some of this correlation is due to the fact that consuming psychedelics occasionally induces paranormal experiences (Luke, 2008, p. 82 ff.) which presumably makes one more likely to believe in the paranormal. This would also be in line with my personal experience. Coming back to MDMA. I agree that the immediate, short-term effects of MDMA are usually extremely positive—potentially enormous increases in compassion, empathy, and self-reflection. However, MDMA’s long-term effects on those variables seem much weaker, though potentially still positive (see Carlyle et al. (2019, p. 15). Overall, my sense is that MDMA and psychedelics might have a chance to substantially decrease malevolent traits if these substances are taken with the right intentions and in a good setting—ideally in a therapeutic setting with an experienced guide. The biggest problem I see is that most malevolent people likely won’t be interested in taking MDMA and psychedelics in this way.
Our estimates of the likelihood of malevolent people being interested probably hinge on our theory of where malevolence comes from. e.g. if we think malevolence mostly arises as a maladaptive coping response to early trauma, you could imagine interventions that resolve the trauma and replace the maladaptive response with a more prosocial & equally fit response (and malevolent people being interested in those interventions). But if we think malevolence is mostly a genetically-mediated trait, it's probably harder to change. I haven't poked the literature on this yet.

Big Think just posted a video about improving leader selection by screening for psychopathy including narcissism… 

I am skeptical of this line of reasoning because I see little reason to believe that malevolence determined the policies in question. Game theory political scientists argue that different institutional structures make it rational or irrational for leaders to distribute public goods or targeted goods, practice repression, allow political parties. For a more in depth treatment, see the Dictator's Handbook by Bruce Bueno De Meqsuita and Alistair Smith. Their core argument is that because dictators must appease a very small group of powerful interest lead... (read more)

I'd definitely agree that leaders' personalities are not the sole factor in determining a countries' policies, levels of repression, etc., even in autocracies. And I'd tentatively guess that leaders' personalities tend not to be a larger factor than other influences combined. And it's very plausible to me that institutional structures tend to be a larger factor.  But it seems to me that leaders personalities are very likely at least sometimes a substantial factor. And, from memory, I don't think this post makes or requires stronger claims than that. I.e., I don't recall it making confident claims that other factors like institutional structures are usually smaller factors than personality. Are there passages you thought were overly strong? I think this post was largely arguing that, on the margin, it could be quite valuable to think about reducing risks from malevolence - not that other factors like institutional structures don't also matter. This claim seems plausible to me, but I've never seen the claim before or seen specific evidence on it. Could you cite a source for that? I also know of some data points that seem to push against that claim. For example, I believe there was a lot of torture during the one-party states of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. (Here are some sources that seem to support this, though I only read the titles, as I was already pretty sure this was true: 1, 2, 3.)  And a handful of historical accounts I've read make it seem quite plausible that the personality of the leaders played a role in this. In particular, those accounts suggest these leaders (or at least Hitler and Stalin; I know less about Mao) took pleasure in things like ordering tortures or gruesome deaths,  that they regularly personally ordered these things, and that they sometimes ordered these things at times when it seems it wasn't useful or logical to do so. Here's one paper that supports those claims (though I'm mildly skeptical of the paper in some ways): Why Tyrants Go Too
Source: https://edisciplinas.usp.br/pluginfile.php/103226/mod_resource/content/1/James%20Vreeland%202008.PDF Concerns with causation: I worry about the underlying assumption that democracies don't encourage malevolent traits. So we observe less mass killings and rival killings in democracies than in dictatorships. One explanation is that democracies are selecting for anti-killing leaders. Another explanation is that malevolent leaders in democracies see little gain from killing while malevolent leaders in certain types of dictatorships see much gain from killing. For example, Abraham Lincoln and Richard Nixon seem to have a lot of malevolent traits, but they mostly refrained from political killings. So the fourth section suggests too much causation on the personalities of leaders. Fair - even if most of the difference in political killing is from institutional incentives, preventing malevolent actors from becoming dictators or presidents is big gains. Secondly, this research agenda must recognize that authoritarian cultures may accept or encourage violence against non-comformists or "disloyal" people. It's a deeply sad fact, but important to understand. If torturing dissidents is an expected and approved behavior it is weaker evidence of a malevolent personality (fundamental attribution error). Targeting your interventions: You should pay more attention to how autocrats are actually selected. There are a few good models, my favorite is selectorate theory which (in dictatorships) emphasizes trust between top lieutenants. To continue with your preferred 40's references, Herman Goring, Himler, Keitel and Borman all hate and distrust one another. But they each trust Hitler because Hitler selected them to receive stolen wealth in exchange for support. So as long as the autocrat is alive the alliance is "stable". In this model they care most about malevolence when the ruling coalition/launching org selects the next dictator. This famously happened after Stalin died
Thanks for sharing that source. I tried to skim through to find the part most relevant to your claim, and found this: So I do think this source supports your claim. But I'd note that: * That data just covers 1985-1996. Hitler, Stalin, and Mao seem the most salient examples of potentially very malevolent individuals wielding great power and causing great harm, and each would be excluded from that data set. * I'm not saying that the study should've focused on an earlier period, or that there's some reason our predictions about the future would be better informed by an earlier 11 year period. * But I'd be more confident about extrapolations from the data set if it spanned a larger period of time. * And I think it would make sense for our predictions to draw on both that data and the observation of extreme harms under the one-party states of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. (The latter is just a sample of 3, but I believe it accounted for a large portion of all deaths in mass murders, famines, etc.) * The difference in averages doesn't look hugely substantial - ~30% of 1 standard deviation - even if it was statistically significant. * This seems like a further reason to also pay substantial attention to other observations, like harms under Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. (Again, this doesn't mean your claim was false, just that its evidence base and implications may be more limited than one might have thought.)
I'm compelled by this. That the difference is only 30% of 1 standard deviation means that lots of variation could be explained by other factors. Personality of the dictator could still explain lots of variation, even a majority. There could also be a relationship between dictator personality and allowances for dissent. Thanks for explaining that! Aside, you would be more compelling if you talked about autocrats other than Hitler, Stalin and Mao.
Do you mean talking about other autocrats as well, or instead of, talking about Hitler, Stalin, and Mao? If you mean "as well", I'd agree. I've already started looking at some others (as did David and Tobias, the authors of this post), and will hopefully do more of that. The reason for focusing mostly on those three so far is just that it takes time to learn about more, and those three were (I'd argue) huge factors in a large portion of all harms from political atrocities in the 20th century. If you mean "instead of", could you explain further why you say that?
Hmmm, that is a good question. Let me dig in more. Here are reasons to talk about others than Hitler Stalin and Mao Coup Proofing is a common practice of dictators for political survival Some behaviors of Hitler, Stalin and Mao have compelling institutional explanations that have become repeated behavior of long-ruling dictators. I'm thinking of coup proofing in particular. Coup proofing is a set of policies dictators enact to prevent a single small group from seizing power; rotatring or purging officers (Tukachevsky/Rommel) splitting the army into multiple factions/militias (NKVD/SS/Revolutionary Guard). We've since observed that lots of dictators (and coup-threatened democracies) practice coup-proofing. So I would be careful about attributing the *intra-elite* violence by particular regimes to the personalities of the leaders. Coup-proofing cannot explain violence against non-elites by those regimes. Change in ideological motivation between early dictators and modern dictators Secondly, Hitler, Stalin and Mao were much more ideological than most modern dictators. The Mussolini model of a "moderate" or "synarchic" authoritarianism spread more after WWII. By moderate I mean without a narrow, extreme vision of state-society interaction, not that dissent or economic freedom were allowed. Particularly today ideology structures the behavior of dictators much less. So one could argue that both Hitler and Stalin faithfully followed the visions laid out in their (terrible and warped) ideologies. If you buy that argument you would update downward on future dictators committing similar violence against non-elites. For example, Mohammad Bin Salman has killed and tortured elite rivals, dissenters and starved many thousands of Yemenis to death. But he does not seem interested in any state project that would involve violence on the scale of Hitler/Stalin/Pol Pot. All that said, I personally do not put much weight on my ideology argument. Firstly, the ideological explanat
Your comments about coup-proofing seem interesting and useful. I think the fact that more leaders engaged in violent coup-proofing (rather than it just being Hitler, Stalin, and Mao) should indeed provide weak evidence against the theory that the unusual (compared to the population as a whole) personalities of leaders plays a key role in whether violent coop-proofing occurs. This is because that theory would now need to claim that a larger number of leaders have personalities that are unusual in the relevant way, or that a lack of such unusual personalities was "made up for" by other factors in some cases. But I think that this fact would only serve as weak evidence, because it doesn't seem very implausible to claim that a fairly large number of dictators, or leaders of coup-threatened democracies, have personalities that are unusual in the relevant way. These are people in unusual positions which are arguably easier to get into if one is ruthlessly self-interested, so it wouldn't seem surprising (prima facie) if their average levels of ruthlessness-relevant traits was notably above population averages. Additionally, it seems worth distinguishing violent coup-proofing from coup-proofing as a whole. In terms of how well they might evidence malevolent traits, "rotating [...] officers" and "splitting the army into multiple factions/militias" seem quite different from the sorts of violent purges engaged in by e.g. Stalin. (It may well be that violent coup-proofing is very common as well; I'm just flagging that the distinction seems relevant for my purposes.) You also seem to imply that (a) these coup-proofing behaviours may have been rational things for a self-interested leader to do in those situations, and (b) this is reason to be careful in assuming that this is about personality. I think (a) is a good point. And I think there's some merit to (b), in the sense that this pushes against thinking something like "These leaders are just crazy and evil."  But overall,
I have one criticism of the argument that coup-proofing prevalence is evidence for personality factors. Suppose that if people observe a game being played multiple times they are more likely to set aside their personal preferences and "play to win". So if I were the first dictator of Iraq I might say "no I'm not going to kill generals who come from different towns, that would be evil". And then get killed for it. And maybe the second dictator says the same thing. But by the time the third or fourth dictator rises to power he'll either be selected for willingness to use violence or he will decide his preference for living is stronger than his preference for not killing. While I agree that many people would not commit inter-elite violence as the first leader, I suspect a much larger number would as the 5th leader. So an argument for point B. Saddam Hussein was the 5th Iraqi leader to take power by coup within 21 years. But on the other hand, there are lots of leaders that just stepped down when they lost the support of their ruling coalitions. And those heroes do not become famous. This is strong evidence of the importance of personality.
To be clear, my argument was more like "coup-proofing prevalence doesn't seem like strong evidence against personality playing an important role". I.e., I don't think that it should reduce our belief that personality plays an important role. It is true that I think I'd see these behaviours as evidence for personality playing an important role. But I'm not sure, and I'm not seeing it as key evidence. I'd agree that a much larger number would as the 5th leader than as the 1st leader, in the scenario you describe. And I think this is a valuable point. But, in line with your final paragraph, I'd still bet that many people wouldn't; I think many people would simply step down, flee, or accept radical changes to the nature of their regime. And perhaps more importantly, I think personality influences whether someone tries to become a leader in the first place, and whether they succeed in that. So I expect a lot of people to not want to "do horrible things", recognise that pursuing this leadership position may require them to "do horrible things" along the way or to stay in power, and thus just not pursue those positions. (That said, I did say "I'd be willing to bet that a very large portion of people wouldn't engage in violent coup-proofing, even if they were in a situation where doing so would help them keep power." So there's a valid reason why you focused on how people would behave if they somehow landed in the leadership position, rather than how likely they are to enter those positions to begin with.)
Thanks for this comment. Your points (and counterpoints!) about changes in ideological motivation are very interesting. And I think it'd probably be good for me to spend some time engaging with evidence/arguments about how much ideology influenced Hitler, Stalin, and Mao's most "extreme" behaviours and whether/how much the influence of ideology has waned.  And it does seem wise to think about that, and about more modern examples, if one is planning to communicate with the public, policymakers, or academics about this topic in a way that leans substantially on historical examples of dictators. (I'm not sure if anyone will actually do such communications, or emphasise those cases when doing so. It may, for example, make more sense to just focus on the psychological studies, or on examples from business.)
I did recently think it might be interesting to look into Nixon as a case study in how, and how well, democratic institutions can mitigate the harm caused by leaders with high levels of dark tetrad traits. (I just think it might be such a case study, because I haven't yet really looked into evidence on Nixon's personality - this is just a guess so far.) Thanks for highlighting Lincoln too - I wouldn't have guessed he had high levels of dark traits, but I'll look into it. I'd definitely guess that the reasons there is less harm from malevolent leaders in democracies are both that democracies select for malevolence less, and that democracies don't allow/incentivise malevolent behaviours as much.  In my head, I currently break intervention options in this cause area into: * Reducing how malevolent people are (via, e.g., very cautious and well thought-out and not-rushed genetic engineering) * Reducing the chances of malevolent people getting into positions where those traits create major risks (via, e.g., electoral reform, reducing instability and conflict) * Reducing the risks created when malevolent people get into those positions (via, e.g., checks and balances, maybe reducing centralisation of power) I had felt like this post implied all three of those categories, not just the first two. But now that I re-skim the Political interventions section, I see that that might not have been made very explicit. So that critique of yours may be valid. (And I definitely agree with your point, separate from how it relates to potential oversights of this post.) I definitely agree that: * it's important to consider multiple explanations of the various horrific or troubling behaviours * it can be easy to psychoanalyse/diagnose from a distance in a foolish way * the fundamental attribution error is worth keeping in mind here I'm hoping to look a bit into how much we can trust speculative psychological profiles in general, maybe "best practices" for that shaky endeavour,

Great post, thanks for writing it!

Baron-Cohen (2012) argues that the defining feature of human evil is “zero degrees of empathy.” However, some psychopaths can read other people extremely well and would thus score highly on certain items of the empathy questionnaires Baron-Cohen describes in his book. Furthermore, as Baron-Cohen acknowledges, people on the autism spectrum tend to have less empathy—at least certain forms of it—but they are not more malevolent than the population average. Therefore, reducing malevolence to “
... (read more)
Thank you! I agree that the distinction between affective and cognitive empathy is relevant, and that low affective empathy (especially combined with high cognitive empathy) seems particularly concerning. I should have mentioned this, at least in the footnote you quote. That sounds right. According to my cursory reading of the literature, psychopathy and all other Dark Tetrad traits are characterized by low affective empathy. While all Dark Tetrad traits except for narcissism also seem to correlate with low cognitive empathy, the correlation with diminished affective empathy seems substantially more pronounced (Pajevicc et al., 2017, Table 1; Wai & Tiliopoulos, 2012, Table 1).[1] As you write, people on the autism spectrum basically show the opposite pattern (normal affective empathy, lower cognitive empathy (Rogers et al., 2006; Rueda et al., 2015). We focused on the Dark Tetrad traits because they overall seem to better capture the personality characteristics we find most worrisome. Low affective empathy seems a bit too broad of a category as there are several other psychiatric disorders which don’t seem to pose any substantial dangers to others but which apparently involve lower affective empathy: schizophrenia (Bonfils et al., 2016), schizotypal personality disorder (Henry et al., 2007, Table 2), and ADHD (Groen et al., 2018, Table 2).[2] Of course, the simplicity of a unidimensional construct has its advantages. My tentative conclusion is that the D-factor (Moshagen et al., 2018) captures the most dangerous personalities a bit better than low affective empathy—though this probably depends on the precise operationalizations of these constructs. In any case, more research on (diminished) affective empathy seems definitely valuable as well. ---------------------------------------- 1. Though Jonason and Krause (2013) found that narcissism actually correlates with lower cognitive empathy and showed no correlation with affective empathy. ↩︎ 2. This list is no
Interesting! Reading your comment, I realised one statement of mine may have been unclear. I wrote: By that I just meant that, in terms of those two components of empathy, that might be the most concerning pattern. I didn't meant to imply that that's the key thing we should be concerned about in relation to personality traits more broadly - the idea that Dark Tetrad traits are a better focus seems reasonable to me (though I don't bring much independent knowledge to the table on that point).

Thanks for writing this post, very interesting! I haven't read all of the comments but wanted to share one point that came to me over and over again while reading the post. Apologies if it has already been mentioned in another comment.

It seems like you assume a strong (and relatively simple) causal relationship from genetics to malevolent traits to bad behavior. I think this view might make the problem seem more tractable than it actually might be. Humans are complex systems that are nested in other complex systems and everything is driven by complex and i

... (read more)

Thanks for this!
I see you referenced Matthews et al. (2018), which I haven't read, and wondered if you had also seen the Authoritarian Ruling Elites Database, compiled by  Matthews (2019): “a collection of biographical and professional information on the individuals who constitute the top elite of authoritarian regimes.” Each of the project’s 18 datasets focuses on a particular regime, such as the military dictatorship that ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990. The biographical data-points include gender, occupation, dates of birth and death, tenure among th

... (read more)

applause. thx for this highly interesting (and important) article.

while reading i thought about a lot of commenting, but you already considered most of these things…

still some minor comments:

as to narcissism (maybe (?) the least important "dark tetrad trait"): as for narcistic personality disorder, there is a reason why (some) of these people are trying to gain power. a huge lack of self-esteem etc. and some narcistic people are trying to fill this lack with a successful career etc., still it does not gets filled this way, so (some of th... (read more)

Thanks for commenting! I agree that early detection in children is an interesting idea. If certain childhood behaviours can be shown to reliably predict malevolence, then this could be part of a manipulation-proof test. However, as you say, there are many pitfalls to be avoided. I am not well versed in the literature but my impression is that things like torturing animals, bullying, general violence, or callous-unemotional personality traits (as assessed by others) are somewhat predictive of malevolence. But the problem is that you'll probably also get many false positives from those indicators. Regarding environmental or developmental interventions, we write this in Appendix B: Perhaps improving parenting standards and childhood environments could actually be a fairly promising EA cause. For instance, early advocacy against hitting children may have been a pretty effective lever to make society more civilised and less violent in general.

Thanks for a very thorough and interesting report! 

It seem plausible that institutional mechanisms that prevent malevolent use of power may work well today in democracies. I think that the comparison is very important for understanding the value of the suggested interventions. You have briefly touched this - 

Overall, it seems plausible that many promising political interventions to prevent malevolent humans from rising to power have already been identified and implemented—such as, e.g., checks and balances, the separation of powers, and democracy

... (read more)

It seem plausible that institutional mechanisms that prevent malevolent use of power may work well today in democracies.

I agree that they probably work well but there still seems to be room for improvement. For example, Trump doesn't seem like a beacon of kindness and humility, to put it mildly. Nevertheless, he got elected President. On top of that, he wasn't even required to release his tax returns—one of the more basic ways to detect malevolence.

Of course, I agree that stable and well-functioning democracies with good cultural norms would benefit substantially less from many of our suggested interventions.

Also, the major alternative to reducing the influence of malevolent actors may be in the institutional decision making itself, or some structural interventions. AI Governance as a field seems to mostly go in that route, for example.

Just to be clear, I'm very much in favor of such "structural interventions". In fact, they overall seem more promising to me. However, it might not be everyone's comparative advantage to contribute to them which is why I thought it valuable to explore potentially more neglected alternatives where lower-hanging fruits are still to be picked.


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Somewhat related – US college students have been growing more narcissistic (or maybe just gaining higher self-esteem) since the 1980s: https://flightfromperfection.com/college-students-more-narcissistic.html

Here is an interesting paper related to using machine learning to identify language patterns in psychopaths if people are interested. https://egrove.olemiss.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1445&context=etd

Regarding neurological measurements - there is actually really significant fMRI work which demonstrates lack of empathy and fearlessness. I would recommend reading some of the work by Prof. Abigail Marsh  

Another type of intervention that could plausibly reduce the influence of malevolent actors is to decrease intergenerational transfer of wealth and power. If competent malevolence both (i) increases one's capacity to gain wealth and/or power and (ii) is heritable, then we should expect malevolent families amass increasing wealth and power. This could be one reason that the global shift away from hereditary monarchies is associated with global peace (I sense that both of these things are correct, but am not positive).

For example, North Korea's Ki... (read more)

It seems like a strange claim that both the atrocities committed by Hitler, Stalin and Mao were substantially more likely because they had dark triad traits and that when doing genetic selection we're interested in removing the upper tail, in the article it was the top 1%. To take this somewhat naively, if we think that the Holocaust, and Mao and Stalin's terror-famines wouldn't have happened unless all three leaders exhibited dark tetrad traits in the top 1%, this implies we're living in a world world that comes about with probability 1/10^6, i.e 1 in a m... (read more)

Thomas Kwa
I think an implicit assumption of the article is that people with dark triad traits are more likely to gain power. If unstable politics can create a 99:1 selection effect toward the Hitlers and Maos in the top %ile of dark triad, then they come to power in half of the nations with unstable politics. I can imagine this being true if people with dark triad traits are way more power-seeking and this is what matters in unstable political climates.
So the model is more like, during the Russian revolution for instance it's a 50/50 chance that whichever leader came out of that is very strongly selected to have dark traid traits, but this is not the case for the contemporary CCP.   Yeah seems plausible. 99:1 seems very very strong. If it were 9:1  means we're in a 1/1000 world, 1:2 means an approx 1/10^5. Yeah, I don't have a good enough knowledge of rulers before they gained close to absolute power to be able to evaluate that claim. Off the top of my head, Lenin, Prince Lvov (the latter led the provisional govt' after Feb revolution) were not dark triady.  The definition of unstable also looks important here. If we count Stalin and Hitler, both of whom came to power during peacetime, then it seems like also should count Soviet leaders who succeeded Stalin, CCP leaders who succeeded Mao,  Bashar al-Assad, Pinochet, Mussolini. Sanity check from that group makes it seem more much like a 1:5 than 1:99. Deng definitely not Dark Triad, nor Bashar, don't know enough about the others but they don't seem like it?  If we're only counting Mao, then the selection effect looks a lot stronger off the top of my head, but should also probably be adjusted because the mean of sadism seems likely much higher after a period of sustained fighting given the effect of prison guards for instance becoming more sadistic over time, and gennerally violence being normalised.  Don't know enough about psychopathy or machivallianism.  It's also not completely clear to me that Stalin and Mao were in the top 10% for sadism at least. Both came from very poor peasant societies. I know at least Russian peasant life in 1910 was unbelievably violent and they reguarly did things which we sort of can't imagine. My general knowledge of European peasant societies - e.g crowds at public executions - makes me think that it's likely that the average Chinese peasant in 1910 would have scored very highly on sadism. If you look at the response of the Chin

Thanks for the post! Really well reasoned on the broad impact of malovelence.

1. It seems that any research on manipulation proof measures for detection for malevolence, would help the development of tools that would be useful for a totalitarian state.

2. I'm sceptical of further research on malevolence being helpful in stopping these people being in positions of power. At first glance I don't think a really well developed literature on malevolence, would of changed leaders coming to power in 20th century.

3. In terms of Public engagement, I am al... (read more)

Thanks, these are valid concerns. My guess is that not all research on manipulation-proof measures of malevolence would pose such dangers but it’s certainly a risk to be aware of, I agree. In itself, a better scientific understanding of malevolence would not have helped, agreed. However, more reliable and objective ways to detect malevolence might have helped iff there also had existed relevant norms to use such measures and place at least some weight on them. Bioethicists sometimes influence policy though I generally agree with your sentiment. This is also why we have emphasized the value of acquiring career capital in fields like bioinformatics. I agree that this is plausible—though also far from certain. I’d also like to note that (very rudimentary) forms of embryo selection are already feasible, so the issue might be a bit time-sensitive (especially if you take into account that it might take decades to acquire the necessary expertise and career capital to influence the relevant decision makers).

I think the main solution is to develop strong and resilient institutions. Areas for improvement could be:

  • Distributing power over more individuals rather than less
  • Making office-holding unappealing for people with narcissistic or sadistic intentions or tendencies by increasing penalties for abuses of office
  • More transparency in government to make it harder to abuse the office
  • More checks and balances
  • Educating the electorate and building a healthier society so that people don’t want to elect a narcissist

A core 'hole' here is metrics for malevolence (and related traits) visible to present-day or near-future neuroimaging.

Briefly -- Qualia Research Institute's work around connectome-specific harmonic waves (CSHW) suggests a couple angles:

(1) proxying malevolence via the degree to which the consonance/harmony in your brain is correlated with the dissonance in nearby brains;
(2) proxying empathy (lack of psychopathy) by the degree to which your CSHWs show integration/coupling with the CSHWs around you.

Both of these analyses could be done today, ... (read more)

A minor copyediting suggestion (adding the words in bold):

Factor 1—characterized by cruelty, grandiosity, manipulativeness, and a lack of guilt—arguably represents the core personality traits of psychopathy. However, scoring highly on factor 2—characterized by impulsivity, reactive anger, and lack of realistic goals—is less problematic from our perspective. In fact, humans scoring high on factor 1 but low on factor 2 are probably more dangerous than humans scoring high on both factors (more on this below).

It's not a big deal, but it took me a minute to understand why you were saying it's both less problematic and more dangerous.

Thanks! Added your suggestion.

Thank you very much for the breathtaking analysis. I think that malevolent humans will best be prevented from gaining influence if benevolent humans outcompete them at influential posts.

Thank you. The section “What about traits other than malevolence?” in Appendix B briefly discusses this.
Thank you. I see. Then, I wish you the very best of luck in making an effective impact with your actions. I hope that you will succeed in preventing many decision-makers from promoting malevolent leaders.

Presumably, the same argument applies to banning scientific progress.

In case it's needed, I haven't made that argument, but have instead made this argument.


It's easy to say you're not calling for violence, but I don't see any way you could adopt this without violence, even if you had the technology to allow for it.


Ok, I accept your report that YOU don't see this.   That's completely normal.   There's a lot of it I don't see either.    But once we TRY to see, some possibilities can emerge.

I agree that within the current group consensus, a "world without men" proposal will be widely, if not universally, rejected.   I've been writing about this for years now, and that is what the e... (read more)

Many longtermist effective altruists think that shaping transformative artificial intelligence, and in particular solving the alignment problem, is a particularly good lever to improve the long-term future.


What will happen is what always happens.  The good people will use emerging technologies for well intended  purposes, and the bad  people will use emerging technologies in service to their agendas.

What seems to be missing from commentary on these subjects is  the insight that as the scale of such emerging powers grows, the room ... (read more)

Prima facie, this looks like a thoroughly researched innovative piece recommending an important focus area. The notions of preventing malevolent actors from causing harm if they rise to power by developing robust institutions, advancing benevolent frameworks to enable actors join alternatives as they are gaining decisionmaking leverage, and creating narratives which could inspire malevolent actors to contribute positively while keeping true to their beliefs are not discussed. Thus, using this framework for addressing malevolence can constitute an existential risk.

Could you expand on this? Are you suggesting that it could take attention away from solutions ("inspiring malevolent actors to contribute positively while keeping true to their beliefs") that would reduce x-risk more? By "keeping true to their beliefs", do you mean their malevolent views? E.g. we want a non harmful or less harmful outlet for their malevolence? Or, just working with their beliefs without triggering their malevolence on a large scale? If the latter, what kinds of beliefs do you have in mind?
Yes, if the community focuses on preventing people with the specified personality traits from gaining influence, it may become unpopular among prominent circles (not because leaders would necessarily possess these traits but because they may seek to present in agreement with the thinking, in order to keep their authority). Non-decisionmakers could be hesitant to publicly support frameworks which target actors which can be understood as threats, due to the fear of negative consequences for them. Thus, I am suggesting that while it is important to advance global good, this should be presented in a less conflicting manner. By "keeping true to their beliefs" I mean fundamental righteousness/honorable behavior convictions. Yes, we would want an opportunity where they can be truly welcome and acknowledged for their actions. Or, working with their beliefs without triggering their malevolence on a large scale, since all decisions may have some costs in addition to their benefits – this is also meant by developing robust institutions that prevent powerful malevolent actors from causing harm. An example can be a dictator who favors their own tribe. Then, if they can agree to their fundamental conviction as benefiting their own persons, and be excited about the modern legal personhood research, then they can gain satisfaction from skillfully manipulating their forces to achieve their objectives, being admired for that, and hurting their interlocutors in debates. If the dictator does not agree with interpreting their beliefs in a modern way, then prospects of the economic and geopolitical benefits of taking measures which consider different individuals to their own tribe can be introduced and less harm is caused.

I find a far simpler insight to be useful.

The marriage between violent men and an ever accelerating knowledge explosion is unsustainable.

  1. Violent men
  2. Knowledge explosion
  3. Pick one

I'm afraid the solution may require us simply making a choice between men and knowledge.   I realize that academics may find such unsophisticated simplicity unsatisfying, but the reality may actually be simple.  That's worth considering at any rate.   Sometimes we invent complexity in the attempt to avoid hard choices that we don't wish to make.

To my knowledge, no socie... (read more)

Jay Bailey
The argument you're making seems strange to me. I'm going to talk purely about the logistics here. You say that no society in history has figured out how to keep peaceful men without the violent ones, and therefore this means it probably can't be done. Presumably, the same argument applies to banning scientific progress. But the same argument can be applied to a society without men at all! No society in history has managed to do it. In fact, the obstacles are far greater - men are still biologically necessary, there are billions of men already on the planet, and most of them wouldn't agree with you that their gender should be phased out. It's easy to say you're not calling for violence, but I don't see any way you could adopt this without violence, even if you had the technology to allow for it. Finally, it occurs to me that if your ideal-but-untenable solution is to keep peaceful men and not violent men, then your solution is anti-correlated with what you want - what kind of man would willingly permit his own gender's extinction for the greater good of humanity? Certainly not a violent one. It seems to me like you've correctly identified a large problem that lurks behind several EA causes (The exponentially advancing state of knowledge resulting in existential risk) and a compelling analogy for it (The ever-increasing speed of a conveyor belt) which is a very useful question worth exploring. But then, having successfully identified this as a hard problem, you've then shied away from the difficulty of the problem, which is actually solving the problem. If you propose an unworkable solution, and then people ignore it, you at least get to say that you tried, and other people are to blame for denying your vision. In other words, you are Trying To Try. In short - you've proposed a solution that would almost certainly fail in real life. It is in fact much more difficult than lesser impossibilities like "Remove the tendency for violence in men/humans" or "Halt all sci
Phil Tanny
Thank you very much for engaging my comment Jay.   I almost missed your reply, and am thankful I didn't. Given that ideas widely accepted by the group consensus have utterly failed to cure the rampant human (mostly male) violence which has long permeated our world, my goal is to encourage explorations in to ideas outside of the current group consensus.   The reasoning here is simple.   If ideas within the group consensus could solve this existential threat, the problem would likely already be solved. One of the challenges we will face in conducting such "out of the box" investigations is that many or most of those who make their livings doing intellectual work are not in a position to participate, at least not publicly.   As example, if I was a philosophy professor working at a university, I would not be able to post about a "world without men" without fear of damage to my reputation, and thus my salary, my mortgage, and my children's college fund.   As evidence, I've already been threatened with being banned from this forum simply for mentioning a "world without men" might be an option worth exploring.  Sorry to say, fear abounds in academia.   You are right.  The challenges involved in a "world without men" proposal are vast.   But then so is every other plan for saving our civilization from male violence.  To me, it seems useful to be simple and clear minded in identifying the source of the threat, men. Men will soon no longer be biologically necessary, as science is learning how to make sperm and egg cells from skin cells.  To my limited knowledge such work is already well underway in mice, but not in humans.    In any case, it's already true that a tiny number of men can  impregnate a vast number of women.  So while a world totally without men may not yet be an option, a world with far fewer men  is.   Critics of my posts never seem to get this far, because they invest all of their energy in to rejection, rejection, rejection, which obscures their own comm
Jay Bailey
First off - this isn't necessarily true. There are ideas within the group consensus that could at least take steps towards solving nuclear war (advocate for nuclear disarmament), climate change (advance the state of carbon capture technology), and reduce global poverty. (Basically everything GiveWell does) The reason we haven't solved them yet is that executing these ideas is still very hard due to problems around logistics, co-ordination, and they simply require a hell of a lot of work. That said, I do agree with you that looking at the root cause of exponentially increasing x-risk capable technologies is not an idea that is currently discussed much. But that should actually move you towards thinking inside the box - if people aren't thinking about it, there's low-hanging fruit to be picked, and you don't need to go straight to the most radical idea you can think of. Maybe there are some good ideas within the Overton window that haven't been popularised yet, just waiting to be found! No, that's not what's being said. What I am saying is that you've shied away from solving the problem. "Solving the problem" means coming up with a solution that has a chance of actually working giving the constraints of the real world. In the real world, I cannot see any sort of realistic path towards your solution, and coming up with such a path is a requirement for a valid solution. It is not enough to describe a possible state of the world that solves a problem - you have to have some path to get from our current world to that world.   I also gave you two ideas for the limitation of knowledge development - ban all research in any areas deemed to be prone to existential risk, and find a way to remove the tendency for highly aggressive men to seek power in world-threatening ways. Don't get me wrong, these still don't count as solutions in my definition above, but they seem at least as plausible as removing the male gender entirely. It seems "probably impossible" rather than "defin
Phil Tanny
Hi again Jay, I'm enjoying your responses, thanks. Your point is taken on climate change and poverty.  Nuclear war seems an example of conventional thinking which has failed. Thanks for seeing that.   If I can change that a little bit, it's worth a try.   Like everybody else, I'm just doing what little I know how to do.    That's true.  But it is that radical idea that engaged your interest, so sometimes it works.  I'm not claiming to have the perfect engagement system etc, again, I'm just doing what I know how to do. What I see is that many of my readers often come to hard fixed opinions on what is possible after reading two paragraphs of one of my posts, on a subject they've never really thought about.  And then all their further effort goes in to defending those positions.   You've helped me think of an example from the real world that seems somewhat relevant to the "world without men" idea.  China's one child policy.   To the best of my knowledge that was pursued with financial carrots and sticks, not violence (not totally sure about this).    In the real world a great many people around the world have been prioritizing male babies over female babies for centuries.   This demonstrates that when people have some population or gender agenda, they can take steps that move them towards their goals. How long have you been trying?  Today and yesterday?   I do agree that the world without men proposal faces a very large pile of challenges, I really do.  But what proposal for radically reducing human violence doesn't?   What you, and most readers, are not focusing on are the enormous game changing benefits that a world without men can credibly be said to offer.   That's not a good enough reason to immediately agree, but is does seem a good enough reason to explore further.  That's all I want.  Let's explore further. I'm receptive to that discussion.  Let's explore that too.  I'm modestly optimistic on the first, less so on the second.   My optimism will increas
Jay Bailey
The idea that engaged my interest was that of the exponential knowledge explosion. I thought there was a good idea there, and I replied since I had seen a lot of your posts recently and nobody else was replying to them. I replied in spite of, not because of, the proposed solution. I imagine it's quite likely that others decided not to reply because of the proposed solution as well. I apologise for misleading you there - I'll focus just on the exponential knowledge explosion side of things to help correct that. The above line by me was an invitation for you to share a path. You're right - my inability to see a path after five minutes isn't a strong indication that no such path exists. On the other hand, you've had this idea for years - if you don't have a path forward, that's much stronger evidence for the idea's untenability. If you do have a path forward, this would be a good thing to add to your argument. This sentence was referring entirely to the EA Forum - people tend to be more tolerant of weird ideas here than in most places on the internet.
Phil Tanny
  Ok, great, thanks.  As you can now see, I'm obsessed with this.    The knowledge explosion idea and world without men idea are somewhat linked in my mind.  Meaning, if violent men weren't creating havoc all over the planet, there would be less reason  to worry about the knowledge explosion.  If there was no knowledge explosion, there'd be less reason to worry about violent men. I do have a plan for moving forward on the world without men concept.    The plan is to recognize that no single human being, certainly not me, can meet such an enormous challenge, so it's necessary to engage many bright minds to work on the issue.  That is, I have faith that once many bright minds are engaged, progress can be made.   I'm asking readers to have as much faith in themselves as I have in them.  Instead of chanting "we can't" we might instead choose to start believing that we can. I have a few detail ideas, such as financial incentives to reward female babies etc.  Admittedly I am no where near a complete solution.  I'm puzzled as to why anyone would think that I was, should be, or could be. My main contribution, as I see it, is to boil down all the endless complexity in to a simple verifiable truth.  The overwhelming vast majority of violence is committed by men.  It's not human violence that we're talking about, it's male violence.  Being clear on this creates a target of opportunity.    The other thing I hope to contribute is to articulate the revolutionary positive benefits that would flow from radically reducing male violence.   If this problem could be solved, the pay day would be almost beyond imagination.   The bumper sticker version is this: The marriage between violent men and an ever accelerating knowledge explosion is unsustainable.   One of them has to go. Well, you'll probably need to buy a big truck to get  all that on the bumper.
Jay Bailey
I think our core crux here is that if this is true, I would rather tackle it from the "ever accelerating knowledge explosion" side or the "violent" side rather than the "men" side. Good luck with your ideas, man. You've certainly given me a new idea to think about (knowledge explosion) and I hope I've done the same. 
Phil Tanny
  Ok, that's cool.   To each their own of course.  But we don't really have to choose, we can investigate both at the same time.  Should you start writing about the knowledge explosion side of things you will find it just as challenging as the "world without men" side.   Search for my article "Our Relationship With Knowledge" on this site, it's been down voted like crazy, no engagement at all.   That's pretty normal. The science community in particular (those who have the most cultural authority on such issues) will view your writing on limiting the knowledge explosion much the same way the Catholic Church viewed atheists in the 12th century.   You will be dismissed, ridiculed, scorned, deleted, banned etc.   But probably not burned at the stake, so that's good.  :-) If I was pressed to choose, I'd probably agree the "world without men" idea makes people more hysterical.  But a notion that we can't have never ending unlimited goodies from the knowledge explosion does not exactly delight people, to say the least. Both of these ideas are wildly ambitious.   Neither has much of a chance until MAYBE after some large historical event which undermines the assumption of the group consensus that we can somehow magically have our cake and eat it too, radical change for the better, without radical change.
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