Computer mouse movements may reveal appetite for risk-taking

The ways a person moves a computer mouse can predict how they make decisions, according to new research. Photo by kaboompics/Pixabay
The ways a person moves a computer mouse can predict how they make decisions, according to new research. Photo by kaboompics/Pixabay

Nov. 24 (UPI) -- A person's proclivity for risk-taking can be sussed out of the subtle movements of a computer mouse, according to a new study published Tuesday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

For the study, researchers tracked the movement of the computer mouse as study participants selected between two possible gambling bets, one safe and one risky.


How participants moved their mouse prior to making their selection allowed researchers to accurately predict how the participants would respond to similar risk choices.

The researchers found participants who moved their mouse toward the safe bet before selecting the riskier play were more risk-averse than their choice suggested.

Similarly, participants who nudged the mouse in the direction of the risky bet before playing it safe were found be surprisingly willing to take on risk.

"We could see the conflict people were feeling making the choice through their hand movements with the mouse," said lead study author Paul Stillman said in a news release.


"How much their hand is drawn to the choice they didn't make can reveal a lot about how difficult the decision was for them," said Stillman, who conducted the research while earning a doctorate degree in psychology at Ohio State University.

Typically, single gambling decisions have relatively little predictive value. But when researchers analyzed cursor movements, they were able to more accurately predict the willingness of participants to take risks during subsequent gambling scenarios.

The mouse tracking data showed some users dragged their cursor directly to one choice or the other, suggesting some degree of confidence in their choice, while others were more hesitant, as revealed by their slow-moving mouse.

"Choice data is not very useful for many purposes. You don't know the strength of a person's preference or how close they were to making the other choice," said study co-author Ian Krajbich.

"And that's what the mouse-tracking measure can give us," said Krajbich, an associate professor of psychology and economics at Ohio State.

After studying the mouse movement data, researchers successfully predicted which of those who had taken the safe bet would make a riskier decisions during followup bets.

"We could very nicely differentiate between people, even when they made the same choice," said Stillman, now a postdoctoral researcher at Yale University. "It gives us a much richer picture of risk aversion and loss aversion in people."


Stillman and Krajbich also instructed some participants to contemplate their gambling decisions like a stock trader would consider trades, worrying less about individual wins and losses and more about building a successful portfolio.

"When we told them to think like a trader, we could see from the mouse tracking that they were less conflicted when they accepted gambles and more conflicted when they rejected them -- just as we would expect," Krajbich said.

The researchers suggest their approach could be used to study the decision making of phone users by analyzing scrolling patterns.

"What we're measuring is a physical manifestation of hesitation. Anything like that, such as scrolling, could yield a similar glimpse of this internal conflict," Krajbich said. "Scrolling on a phone may also provide information on how people are making a decision."

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