The assumption was tested that familiarity memory as indexed by a mid-frontal ERP old–new effect is modulated by retrieval orientation. A randomly cued category-based versus exemplar-specific recognition memory test, requiring flexible adjustment of retrieval orientation, was conducted. Results show that the mid-frontal ERP old–new effect is sensitive to the manipulation of study-test congruency—that is, whether the same object is repeated identically or a different category exemplar is presented at test. Importantly, the effect pattern depends on subjects' retrieval orientation. With a specific orientation, only same items elicited an early old–new effect (same > different = new), whereas in the general condition, the old–new effect was graded (same > different > new). This supports the view that both perceptual and conceptual processes can contribute to familiarity memory and demonstrates that the rather automatic process of familiarity is not only data driven but influenced by top–down retrieval orientation, which subjects are able to adjust on a flexible basis.

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