The study of visual perception has largely been completed without regard to the influence that an individual’s emotional status may have on their performance in visual tasks. However, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that mood may affect not only creative abilities and interpersonal skills but also the capacity to perform low-level cognitive tasks. Here, we sought to determine whether rudimentary visual search processes are similarly affected by emotion. Specifically, we examined whether an individual’s perceived happiness level affects their ability to detect a target in noise. To do so, we employed pop-out and serial visual search paradigms, implemented using a novel smartphone application that allowed search times and self-rated levels of happiness to be recorded throughout each twenty-four-hour period for two weeks. This experience sampling protocol circumvented the need to alter mood artificially with laboratory-based induction methods. Using our smartphone application, we were able to replicate the classic visual search findings, whereby pop-out search times remained largely unaffected by the number of distractors whereas serial search times increased with increasing number of distractors. While pop-out search times were unaffected by happiness level, serial search times with the maximum numbers of distractors (n = 30) were significantly faster for high happiness levels than low happiness levels (p = 0.02). Our results demonstrate the utility of smartphone applications in assessing ecologically valid measures of human visual performance. We discuss the significance of our findings for the assessment of basic visual functions using search time measures, and for our ability to search effectively for targets in real world settings.
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