How to Change the Scrolling Direction on Your Mac

The Mouse or Trackpad Preference Pane Controls the Scrolling Direction

Scrolling direction in OS X
Screen shot courtesy of Coyote Moon, Inc.

With the advent of OS X Lion, Apple began merging features of iOS and OS X. One of the most notable, simply because it was obvious to any Mac user who upgraded to any of the later versions of OS X, was the change to the default behavior of scrolling within a window or application. Scrolling is now performed using what Apple calls a "natural" scrolling method. Based on how multi-touch iOS devices scroll, the method will seem backward for Mac users who have mostly or only worked with indirect pointing devices, such as mice and touchpads.

With multi-touch devices, you use your finger directly on a screen to control the scrolling process.

In essence, natural scrolling reverses the standard scrolling direction. In pre-Lion versions of OS X, you scrolled down to bring information that was below the window into view. With natural scrolling, the direction of scrolling is up; in essence, you are moving the page up to view the content that is below the view of the current window.

Natural scrolling works very well in a direct touch-based interface; you grab the page and pull it up to view its contents. On a Mac, this may seem a bit perverse at first. You may even decide that being unnatural isn't such a bad thing.

Thankfully, you can change the default behavior of OS X scrolling, and return it to its unnatural state.

Changing Scrolling Direction in OS X for the Mouse

  1. Launch System Preferences, by clicking the System Preferences icon in the Dock, selecting System Preferences from the Apple menu, or clicking the Launchpad icon in the Dock and selecting the System Preferences icon.
  1. When System Preferences opens, select the Mouse preference pane.
  2. Select the Point & Click tab.
  3. Remove the check mark next to "Scroll direction: natural" to return to the "unnatural," but historical, default scrolling direction. If you prefer the iOS multi-touch style scrolling system, make sure there is a checkmark in the box.

    Changing Scrolling Direction in OS X for the Trackpad

    These instructions will work for a MacBook product with a built-in trackpad, as well as the Magic Trackpad Apple sells separately.

    1. Open System Preferences using the same method outlined above.
    2. With the System Preferences window open, select the Trackpad preference pane.
    3. Select the Scroll & Zoom tab.
    4. To return the scrolling direction to the unnatural method, that is, the older method used in earlier Macs, remove the check mark from the box labeled Scroll direction: natural. To use the new iOS-inspired scrolling method, place a check mark in the box.

    If you selected the unnatural scrolling option, your mouse or trackpad will now scroll the same way it did in earlier versions of OS X.

    Natural, Unnatural, and User Interface Choices

    Now that we know how to configure our Mac's scroll behavior to meet our individual likes, let's take a look at how the natural and unnatural scroll systems evolved.

    Unnatural Came First

    Apple calls the two scrolling systems natural and unnatural, but really, the unnatural system is the original system used by both Apple and Windows for scrolling a window's content.

    The interface metaphor for displaying the content of a file was that of a window, which gave you a view of the file's content.

    In many cases, the window was smaller than the content, so a method was required to either move the window to see more or move the file content to have different parts of the file appear in the window.

    Obviously, the second idea made more sense, since the idea of moving a window around to see what's behind it seems a little awkward. To go a bit further in our viewing metaphor, the file we're viewing can be thought of as a piece of paper, with all of the file's content set down on the paper. It's the paper we see through the window.

    Scroll bars were added to the window to provide a visual indication of how much more information was available but hidden from view.

    In essence, the scroll bars indicated the position of the paper seen through the window. If you wanted to see what was further down on the paper, you moved to a lower area on the scroll bars.

    This scrolling down to reveal additional information became the standard for scrolling. It was even reinforced by the first mice that included scroll wheels. Their default scrolling behavior was for a downward movement of the scroll wheel to move down on the scroll bars.

    Natural Scrolling

    Natural scrolling isn't all that natural, at least, not for any indirect scrolling system, such as the Mac and most PCs use. However, when you have a direct interface to the viewing device, such as an iPhone or iPad's multi-touch user interface, then natural scrolling makes a great deal of sense.

    With your finger directly in contact with the display, it makes so much sense to view content that is below the window by pulling up or dragging up the content with an upward swipe. If Apple had instead used the indirect scrolling interface then in use on the Mac, it would have been a ludicrous process; placing your finger on the screen and swiping down to view content would not seem natural.

    However, once you move the interface from a direct finger on the screen to an indirect mouse or trackpad that is not at all in the same physical plane as the display, then the preference for a natural or unnatural scrolling interface really comes down to a learned preference.

    Which to Use…

    While I prefer the unnatural scrolling style, it's mostly because of interface habits learned over time with the Mac.

    If I had first learned the direct interface of iOS devices before having a Mac, my preference might be different.

    That's why my advice on natural and unnatural scrolling is to give them both a try, but don’t be afraid to scroll like it's 2010 again.