Prompt-Driven LLM Safeguarding via Directed Representation Optimization

Published on Jan 31


Prepending model inputs with safety prompts is a common practice of safeguarding large language models (LLMs) from complying with queries that contain harmful intents. However, the working mechanisms of safety prompts have not yet been fully understood, which hinders the potential for automatically optimizing them for improved LLM safety. Motivated by this problem, we investigate the impact of safety prompts from the perspective of model representations. We find that in models' representation space, harmful and harmless queries can be largely distinguished, but this is not noticeably enhanced by safety prompts. Instead, the queries' representations are moved by different safety prompts in similar directions, where models become more prone to refusal (i.e., refusing to provide assistance) even when the queries are harmless. Inspired by these findings, we propose a method called DRO (Directed Representation Optimization) for automatic safety prompt optimization. DRO treats safety prompts as continuous, trainable embeddings and learns to move the representations of harmful/harmless queries along/opposite the direction in which the model's refusal probability increases. We demonstrate that DRO remarkably improves the safeguarding performance of human-crafted safety prompts and outperforms strong baselines, as evaluated on out-of-domain benchmarks, without compromising the general model capability.


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