As originally posited, dissonance theory contained no specification of the temporal aspects of dissonance reduction. Dissonance-theory researchers have acted on this lack of specificity in that the possibility of sequential effects has been universally disregarded, save for a handful of exceptions to be discussed here. Throughout the history of research on cognitive dissonance there has been an implicit assumption that dissonance reduction ensues immediately after dissonance arousal, and is measurable at virtually any interval following that arousal, whether that interval be a few seconds or a couple of months. In fact the range of measurement times is approximately that-a few seconds in many experiments to approximately two months in a study by Freedman ( 1965c).
Since dissonance reduction has been obtained at widely varying arousal- measurement intervals it is appealing to conclude that time makes no difference whatsoever. But does such a conclusion make any sense theoretically? What basis is there for thinking that time intervals would make any difference? We might begin by imagining dissonance theory to be a nonmotivational theory. That is, suppose dissonance theory were a notion about judgmental processes, requiring only that the subject perceive certain stimuli and draw a logical conclusion based on his scrutiny of the stimuli (see Chapter 16). If this were the case, "dissonance reduction," which would be the logical outcome of the person's calculations, would proceed approximately as fast as the mental calculations could be performed. If the person were dull, sleeping, or inept at logical thinking, the time for dissonance reduction would be increased. But granting a moderately intelligent and alert group of subjects, and not too difficult a cognitive "problem," dissonance reduction should take place rapidly and the outcome should not change once the person has arrived at his "solution." This chain of events assumes that dissonance theory is simply a judgmental theory and has no motivational components. But in contrast, what conclusion do we find if we consider the theory as it has been stated by Festinger?