Event-related potentials (ERPs) have been proven to be a useful tool to complement clinical assessment and to detect residual cognitive functions in patients with disorders of consciousness. These ERPs are often recorded using passive or unspecific instructions. Patient data obtained this way are then compared to data from healthy participants, which are usually recorded using active instructions. The present study investigates the effect of attentive modulations and particularly the effect of active vs. passive instruction on the ERP components mismatch negativity (MMN) and N400. A sample of 18 healthy participants listened to three auditory paradigms: an oddball, a word priming, and a sentence paradigm. Each paradigm was presented three times with different instructions: ignoring auditory stimuli, passive listening, and focused attention on the auditory stimuli. After each task, the participants indicated their subjective effort. The N400 decreased from the focused task to the passive task, and was extinct in the ignore task. The MMN exhibited higher amplitudes in the focused and passive task compared to the ignore task. The data indicate an effect of attention on the supratemporal component of the MMN. Subjective effort was equally high in the passive and focused tasks but reduced in the ignore task. We conclude that passive listening during EEG recording is stressful and attenuates ERPs, which renders the interpretation of the results obtained in such conditions difficult.