Event-related potentials (ERPs) were recorded while subjects made recognition judgments on high- and low-frequency words, half of which had previously been presented in an incidental study task. Compared to high-frequency items, low-frequency words were associated with superior recognition performance, and attracted a higher proportion of confident judgments. In the case of the low-frequency words only, the region of the ERPs post-500 msec evoked by correctly classified, previously studied (old) words was more positive-going than was the same region of the EWs to nonstudied (new) words. These “old/new” ERP differences were larger from electrodes over the left than over the right hemisphere. This old/new by frequency interaction held when EWs were formed only from words that attracted confident judgments. It is argued that these data are consistent with the ideas that (1) post-500 msec “old/ new” EW differences in recognition memory tasks reflect differences in old and new words' levels of relative familiarity, and (2) the recognition memory advantage for low-frequency words results, at least in part, from the higher level of relative familiarity engendered at test by previously studied low-frequency items. The data are interpreted as providing support for “two-process” models of recognition memory.

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