Reducing risks from malevolent actors
How can individuals with particularly dangerous personality traits be prevented from gaining power?

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This profile is tailored towards students studying biological sciences, history, philosophy and ethics, and psychology and cognitive sciences, however we expect there to be valuable open research questions that could be pursued by students in other disciplines. 

Why is this a pressing problem?

The Dark Tetrad is composed of four correlated personality traits: machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy and sadism. It’s been proposed that the core of these traits could be defined as ‘the general tendency to maximise one’s individual utility – disregarding, accepting, or malevolently provoking disutility for others – accompanied by beliefs that serve as justifications.’

In this research, researchers David Althaus and Tobias Baumann argue that individuals high in these traits are more likely to instigate large scale atrocities when in positions of power, and take other actions that lead to highly negative outcomes. While history is shaped by systemic forces, including economic, cultural and institutional factors, it seems that the personality traits of leaders are also influential, particularly in autocratic regimes.

This is particularly concerning given dark tetrad traits seem to be over-represented among individuals in powerful positions relative to the general population. Leaders high in dark tetrad traits seem particularly likely to spread dangerous ideologies, increase the risk of international conflict, form totalitarian regimes, make dangerous decisions and undermine social cooperation and coordination. Powerful individuals high in these traits could pose a greater danger as technologies such as artificial intelligence are developed, as they may be more likely to use technologies to do enormous harm or disregard the importance of safe development.

Further research in this area could explore how testing for dark tetrad traits could inform who is appointed to powerful positions; identify circumstances in which individuals high in these traits are likely to gain power; or seek a greater understanding of the genetic correlates of dark tetrad traits. Interventions in this area could also raise ethical questions, and further research is needed to understand risks associated with possible interventions.

Explore existing research

Read the full post this profile is based on for more information and further reading.

Magnus Vinding’s Reasoned Politics includes an exploration of the political interventions that could decrease the likelihood of individuals high in dark tetrad traits rising to power.

Find a thesis topic

If you’re interested in working on this research direction, below are some ideas on what would be valuable to explore further. If you want help refining your research ideas, apply for our coaching!

If genetic engineering leads to increasingly intelligent individuals being born in the future, it could be particularly important to select against dark tetrad traits in those individuals, as they may be unusually capable of causing large-scale harm. It may be valuable to better understand the genetic correlates of dark tetrad traits in preparation for this possibility. However, it is also important to seriously consider the bioethical questions raised by this kind of research – see the section on philosophy below.

Further research on how leaders high in dark tetrad traits gained power in the past would be valuable to better understand which traits and external factors are most predictive and how they can be combated.

If genetic enhancement results in the birth of increasingly intelligent and capable humans in the future, it may be particularly important to select against the genetic correlates of dark tetrad traits. At the same time, numerous atrocities have been committed in the name of creating ‘better’ humans. Promoting personality testing of individuals who want to be in powerful roles also raises ethical issues related to discrimination. Therefore more research is needed into the ethical implications and risks of these interventions.

  • Research on dark tetrad traits often focuses on individuals who are highly aggressive and impulsive, however individuals who are better at strategically acquiring power may be capable of a much larger negative impact. Identifying the most relevant constellations of traits from this perspective and developing ways to measure them could be valuable.
  • Most measures of dark tetrad traits take the form of either interviews or self-reports. Exploring the possibility of physiological or neurobiological measures based on methods like EEG or fMRI might therefore be useful, as these would be less vulnerable to manipulation.


The research agenda ‘Psychology for Effectively Improving the Future‘ suggests several research questions related to this research direction, including:

  • How can we prevent malevolent leaders from manipulating minds (e.g., via misinformation, conspiracy beliefs, alarmist beliefs, promoting radical means-to-ends thinking)?
  • What leads individuals to support such malevolent leaders, and how can we prevent this?

Research could also explore how to select leaders who are particularly likely to make good decisions by exploring questions such as:

  • Could nominators who report on other people’s moral character, attitudes and tendencies help to identify people interested in effectively improving the future?
  • Can we develop assessment tools (e.g. standardized measures) to identify such people, e.g., by measuring the psychologically predictive factors?
  • How can we measure rational thinking attitudes (or epistemic virtues), such as truth-seeking, intellectual honesty, intellectual modesty, nuanced reasoning, actively open-minded thinking, ‘Scout mindset’ (Galef, 2021)? How can such measures be improved to be more accurate and precise? For example, can behavioral measures be developed? Can measures be developed that are accurate even in competitive contexts (e.g., when respondents are incentivized to perform well)?

Further resources

Apply for our coaching and we can connect you with researchers already working in this space, who can help you refine your research ideas. You can also apply to join our community if you’re interested in meeting other students working on this research direction.

Apply for our database of potential supervisors if you’re looking for formal supervision and take a look at our advice on finding a great supervisor.

If you want to work on this research direction, consider reaching out to the Center on Long-term Risk for support.

Our funding database can help you find potential sources of funding if you’re a PhD student interested in this research direction.

This list of programs may be helpful if you’re studying psychology.

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Some other approaches to mitigating risks posed by powerful individuals can be found in our profiles on: preventing great power conflict; governance of artificial intelligence; improving voting methods and improving institutional decision making.


This profile was last updated 14/07/22. Thanks to David Althaus and Tobias Baumann for help with creating this profile. All errors remain our own. Learn more about how we create our profiles.

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