Is it all in our mouse movements?

My specialty over the years, first as a professional chess player and then after switching to poker, has been the psychological side of these fascinating games – particularly the latter. Indeed, with ‘Psychology’ being half of the title of one of the books I’ve written, I sometimes pretend I’m a bit of an expert, although that self-flattery can quickly evaporate after trying to second-guess an opponent on the Flop only to find myself having been outmaneuvered by the River…

Anyway, a recent study about suggested psychological conflict in the decision-making process when faced with a choice between risk and safety has me intrigued.

Research in the US measured the mouse movements on a computer screen of 652 people as they made 215 decisions on numerous gamble-related choices. The aim of the experiment was to gauge the significance of a cursor’s movement during a participant’s thought process, and whether the data can be used to predict future decisions.

Each trial featured a box in the top left corner of the screen which offered a 50/50 gamble (Risk), and another in the top right corner with a safe option typically equating to $0 (Safe). While each gamble was different, with varying degrees of risk, the two opposing options were nevertheless clearly defined. Meanwhile, the cursor started at the bottom center of the screen for each part of the test.

As can be expected, it wasn’t unusual to find someone’s cursor heading for a specific choice, the route essentially a straight line from the start point to one of the boxes. This, of course, indicated confidence regarding the choice, suggesting a definable preference that ruled out any meaningful internal conflict.

But it’s where there was movement first in one direction and then the other once the final choice was made that it became interesting. Note that this isn’t necessarily wavering between the two options, rather spending considerable time on Safe, for instance, before ultimately opting for risk.

This might not seem important but were the experiment stripped down to take into account only the actual choice while ignoring the potential implications of the mouse movements, then that would risk the results in comparison being too simplistic, with no insight into the conflicts experienced. Instead the experiment highlighted that while someone might have chosen Risk in the case above, for example, the amount of mouse movement around the Safe option suggests a level of risk aversion that can’t be ignored. Someone else going for Risk might arrive at that end point without the slightest hesitation, yet without this additional information we could be mistaken for concluding that both have the same risk-taking approach.

What’s this got to do with online poker, you might ask. Well, the results and conclusions certainly make intriguing reading for anyone interested in the psychology of gambling. And, given that mouse movement does indeed seem to be a window into how we might be thinking when faced with various options that range from safe to varying degrees of risk, perhaps we could glean some valuable information about ourselves by at least noticing our own habits.

For example, how often do we initially place the cursor over the Call button before eventually opting to fold? Or, on the other hand, do we find ourselves practically ready to click on Call but suddenly become inspired to raise? Or just before folding we instead call?

There’s a clear and not insignificant distinction to be made here between the players who barely deviate from what are perhaps very well defined notions and thoughts during the short period that online poker affords us to make decisions, and those who tend to be torn by internal conflict. And is it better if we come to the table armed with specific pre-set theories or instead be capable of making more diverse choices? Is the former decisive and an example of a clear thinker, or simply one-paced, inflexible and, ultimately, predictable? Does the latter have a more elastic and fluid thought process or are they merely indecisive?

Personally, it’s not unusual for me to find myself moving the cursor all over the place when making decisions or during the contemplative moments while waiting for my turn to act. I might send the cursor in a zig-zaggy route across the screen, map out a specific pattern or even circle the avatar of a player continuously. This morning, if asked my thoughts on the significance of such onscreen mouse meanderings, I’d have said there is none, but now I might have to turn the mirror on myself for a change…

Have fun, and try looking at what your mouse gets up to.



AngusD switched from pro chess to poker two decades ago and has been professionally involved in the game on numerous levels since the very beginning of online poker, including playing as a poker ambassador both online and at major festivals around the globe. He has written much about the game over the years, and brings to YPD a wealth of experience in all aspects of the poker industry. Meanwhile, his many years on the pro chess circuit (he’s an International Master and prolific author) afford him an interesting perspective on the psychology of poker.

· Published 25.11.2020 · last updated 30.11.2020