Abstract Performance asymmetries in divided visual field studies may be ascribed either to hemispheric differences in processing efficiency or to the costs of interhemispheric transfer towards the superior hemisphere. In order to distinguish between these alternatives, event-related potentials (ERPs) were recorded while subjects had to recognize laterally presented faces or words. As expected, behavioural left- and right-field advantages were observed for faces and words, respectively. Regardless of stimulus type, the ERPs displayed a sustained temporo-parietal negativity over the hemisphere stimulated directly via the contralateral hemifield. Both this hemifield-dependent negativity (HDN) and the performance asymmetries diminished to insignificance when the same stimuli were presented but subjects simply made a left-right decision about stimulus location. We conclude that the HDN is no obligatory, stimulus-bound ERP component but depends on lateralized cognitive processing. The stimulus-unspecific and time-invariant topography of the HDN might indicate that it relates to the allocation of processing resources to the directly stimulated hemisphere. The findings suggest that both faces and words were processed predominantly in the directly stimulated hemisphere, supporting an efficiency explanation of the performance asymmetries.