The question of how emotions influence recognition memory is of interest not only within basic cognitive neuro-science but from clinical and forensic perspectives as well. Emotional stimuli can induce at “recognition bias” such that individuals are more likely to respond “old” to a negative item than to an emotionally neutral item, whether the item is actually old or new. We investigated this bias using event-related brain potential (ERP) measures by comparing the processing of words given “old” responses with accurate recognition of old/new differences. For correctly recognized items, the ERP difference between old items (hits) and new items (correct rejections, CR) was largely unaffected by emotional violence. That is, regardless of emotional valence, the ERP associated with hits was characterized by a widespread positivity between 300 and 700 msec relative to that for CRs. By contrast, the analysis of ERPs to old and new items that were judged “old” (hits and false alarms [FAs], respectively) revealed a differential effect of valence by 300 msec: Neutral items showed a large old/new difference over prefrontal sites, whereas negative items did not. These results are the first clear demonstration of response bias effects on ERPs linked to recognition memory. They are consistent with the idea that frontal cortex areas may be responsible for relaxing the retrieval criterion for negative stimuli so as to ensure that emotional events are not as easily “missed” or forgotten as neutral events.

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