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Sleep deprivation adversely affects the ability to perform cognitive tasks, but theories range from predicting an overall decline in cognitive functioning because of reduced stability in attentional networks to specific deficits in various cognitive domains or processes. We measured the effects of sleep deprivation on two memory tasks, item recognition (“was this word in the list studied”) and associative recognition (“were these two words studied in the same pair”). These tasks test memory for information encoded a few minutes earlier and so do not address effects of sleep deprivation on working memory or consolidation after sleep. A diffusion model was used to decompose accuracy and response time distributions to produce parameter estimates of components of cognitive processing. The model assumes that over time, noisy evidence from the task stimulus is accumulated to one of two decision criteria, and parameters governing this process are extracted and interpreted in terms of distinct cognitive processes. Results showed that sleep deprivation reduces drift rate (evidence used in the decision process), with little effect on the other components of the decision process. These results contrast with the effects of aging, which show little decline in item recognition but large declines in associative recognition. The results suggest that sleep deprivation degrades the quality of information stored in memory and that this may occur through degraded attentional processes.