The ability to swiftly detect and prioritize the processing of relevant information around us is critical for the way we interact with our environment. Selective attention is a key mechanism that serves this purpose, improving performance in numerous visual tasks. Reflexively attending to sudden information helps detect impeding threat or danger, a possible reason why emotion modulates the way selective attention affects perception. For instance, the sudden appearance of a fearful face potentiates the effects of exogenous (involuntary, stimulus-driven) attention on performance. Internal states such as trait anxiety can also modulate the impact of attention on early visual processing. However, attention does not only improve performance; it also alters the way visual information appears to us, e.g. by enhancing perceived contrast. Here we show that emotion potentiates the effects of exogenous attention on both performance and perceived contrast. Moreover, we found that trait anxiety mediates these effects, with stronger influences of attention and emotion in anxious observers. Finally, changes in performance and appearance correlated with each other, likely reflecting common attentional modulations. Altogether, our findings show that emotion and anxiety interact with selective attention to truly alter how we see.
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