We recorded event-related potentials (ERPs) as individuals made source monitoring decisions in a paradigm in which the influence of item familiarity and goal relevance could be separately evaluated. Younger and older adults read a list of words and subsequently distinguished these words from foils in a running recognition test in which some foils were repeated after a lag of 6 items, creating familiar lures. Behaviorally, older and younger adults performed equally well in the recognition of study words and the rejection of singly presented foils. However, older adults were more likely to respond to the familiar lures as though they had come from the study list, thus producing the expected group difference in source-monitoring error. For younger adults the ERPs elicited by the targeted study words were maximal at posterior sites and significantly greater than those elicited by either familiar lures or foils. Older adults generated far less differentiated ERP waveforms but with a markedly greater amplitude at frontal sites. We interpret this frontal maximum in the context of poorer source monitoring as suggesting that older adults are more dependent on controlled processes to make discriminations that seem to occur much earlier and more automatically for younger adults. © 2002 Elsevier Science (USA).
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