After previously encoding lists of related words (e.g. bed, rest, awake, etc.) associated with one critical word (e.g. sleep), participants frequently falsely recognize critical words as having been previously presented. Past research indicates that warning participants of this memory illusion can reduce false recognition of critical words. However, the memory processes responsible for this reduction are not known. We investigated whether the increase in critical-word memory performance reflects changes that are specific to the processing of critical words, or alternatively, changes that are applied generally to processing in all conditions. Different participants were warned (in two different ways) or not warned before encoding, and recognition sensitivity for critical words, related words and unrelated words was tested. The warnings increased memory performance equally across all conditions, not just for critical words. These results help to more effectively conceptualize false recognition and reductions in false recognition in this paradigm. Copyright © 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.