Science

Computer mouse movements ‘reveal whether you’re a risk-taker’, study says

A person’s secret impulse to take a risk can be spotted simply by the way they move a computer mouse across a screen, a new study shows.  

In computerised gambling experiments, US participants had a choice of either clicking on a ‘safe’ option or a ‘risky’ option as they built up monetary rewards. 

Researchers say that someone whose mouse drifted toward the safe option on the computer screen – even when they ended up taking the risky bet – are more risk-averse than their final choice indicated. 

Meanwhile, those who moved the mouse toward the risk before accepting the safe option may be more open to risk than it seems. 

People who ultimately click on the safe option are unlikely to be bigger risk-takers than those who ultimately choose the risk – but the subconscious mouse-tracking experiments does reveal hidden impulses. 

For example, a big city trader whose cursor flits towards a safe bet online may not be as cut out for their job as they seem. 

Meanwhile, online gamblers who engage in lots of mouse movements when they have to make a key decision could be feeling ‘internal conflict’. 

Mouse movements could reveal secrets and ‘internal conflict’ regarding how much you like to take risk

‘We could see the conflict people were feeling making the choice through their hand movements with the mouse,’ said study author Paul Stillman at Ohio State University.

‘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.’

While this study looked at mouse trajectories, the experts suggest other motor movements might also provide information about our decision-making.

‘Scrolling on a phone may also provide information on how people are making a decision,’ said Dr Ian Krajbich, Associate Professor of psychology and economics at Ohio State.

‘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.’ 

For their experiments, researchers measured the mouse movements of 652 people as they made 215 decisions on various gambles. 

On a computer screen, participants could either take a ‘safe’ option or a ‘risky’ option as part of their monetary gamble. 

Each gamble was different, with some being bigger risks than others, and each participant’s mouse always started at the bottom centre of the screen. 

Each trial began with two boxes appearing on the top left and right corners of the computer screen. 

One box offered them a 50/50 gamble – for example, a 50 per cent chance of gaining $10 and a 50 per cent chance of losing $5. 

Online gamblers who engage in lots of mouse movements when they have to make a key decision could be feeling 'internal conflict'

Online gamblers who engage in lots of mouse movements when they have to make a key decision could be feeling ‘internal conflict’

The other box contained a certain option that was usually equal to $0. Both boxes were marked as such – either safe or risky – so they knew what they were choosing.

In some cases, participants’ cursors took a relatively straight path from where they started to the choice they eventually made. 

This was an indication that the person was confident about their choice from the start and didn’t have much internal conflict.

However, sometimes they veered toward one option or the other before settling on the other choice, suggesting they did feel some conflict. 

In another round of experiments, researchers tested whether they could manipulate how much risk participants were willing to take – and whether it would be visible in their mouse trajectories.

Researchers told some participants to treat the experiment like a stock trader would, by not to focusing so much on individual gambles, but to see if they could build a ‘portfolio’ of winning choices.

Scrolling on a phone may also provide information on how people are making a decision - and whether or not it's easy

Scrolling on a phone may also provide information on how people are making a decision – and whether or not it’s easy

‘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. 

Mouse-tracking is a very useful tool for tracking people’s decision-making processes, providing a real-time feed of how close they are to making a choice. 

In gambling experiments usually, asking what choice a participant would go for wouldn’t reveal their subconscious conflict regarding how they arrived at a decision. 

And that’s where tracking the mouse cursor comes in handy – it can reveal the strength of a person’s preference or how close they were to making the other choice.  

‘In many cases, we could accurately predict how people would behave in the future after we observed them just once choosing to take a gamble or not,’ Krajbich said.

‘It is rare to get predictive accuracy with just a single decision in an experiment like this.’

The study has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences


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