Sinlung /
16 March 2021

Do You Experience Secual Regret?

Experiencing sexual regret doesn’t appear to result in less regrettable behavior in the future. New research explores why women tend to regret engaging in casual sex while men tend to regret passing up such opportunities. Sexual regret does not appear to serve an adaptive function.

Experiencing sexual regret doesn’t appear to result in less regrettable behavior in the future

New research explores why women tend to regret engaging in casual sex while men tend to regret passing up such opportunities

Sexual strategies theory posits that women are less likely to seek casual sexual encounters than men are. This is because, as child-bearers, the cost of casual sex with an uninvested partner is greater for women than it is for men. It has been proposed that these different mating strategies might explain why men and women show different forms of regret concerning casual sex. These regret differences could be adaptive in that they may cause men and women to change their future sexual behaviors accordingly.

As researchers Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair and his colleagues say, no studies have yet explored whether sexual regret appears to be adaptive or not. The researchers say that sexual regret could also reflect stable individual differences in sociosexual attitudes — that is, attitudes toward uncommitted sexual relations. If this is the case, sexual regret should not change behavior.

“We have been collaborating with David Buss for a long time. He co-authored a paper on the evolutionary psychology of short-term sexual regret (Galperin et al., 2013), and suggested that we ought to consider whether the sex difference also existed in the more gender egalitarian and sexually liberal (compared with the US) Norway,” explained Kennair, a professor of psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

“We did and published a replication of the original findings in 2016: men more than women regret passing up short-term sex, while women more than men regret having had short-term sex. We also considered some of the proximate mechanisms proposed by Galperin. We replicated these findings in two new papers the next years in collaboration with Buss’ lab, considering among other differences between the US and Norway on sexual liberal attitudes and religiosity and other proximate mechanisms.”

“The research confirmed the predictive power of Sexual Strategies Theory,” Kennair said. “However, no research had throughout the years considered the ultimate function proposed by Galperin et al.: That short-term regret should improve future sexual choices / adaptive behavior.”

For their new work, the researchers conducted a longitudinal study to examine whether men’s and women’s current sexual regret would predict changes in their future behavior and their future regret. Students between the ages of 18 and 30 completed online questionnaires that addressed their thoughts and behaviors concerning their most recent casual sex encounters. At Time 1, 399 students participated. Around 5 months later, 222 of these respondents completed the questionnaire again.

In line with previous research, the results showed that women regretted having had casual sex significantly more than men did, while men regretted having missed opportunities for casual sex more than women did. However, the researchers found little evidence to suggest that sexual regret served an adaptive function, as it did not appear to affect the participants’ behavior.

First, regret for having had casual sex reported at Time 1 was not linked to a smaller number of sexual partners at Time 2. Regret for having missed out on casual sex reported at Time 1 was not linked to a greater number of one-night stands reported at Time 2.

“An important aspect of a functional emotion is that it should produce change in behavior, and thus reduce the necessity of experiencing the emotion . . . It was therefore surprising, from a functional perspective, that regret as counterfactual cognitive-emotional process was both continuous and relatively stable across different one-night stands for the same participants,” the researchers wrote in their study.

Instead, the findings supported the idea that sexual regret reflects either stable, individual factors or contextual factors. Across both waves, sexual disgust was a consistent predictor of casual sex regret. Subjects’ attitudes toward uncommitted sex were also linked to casual sex regret, but only at the first assessment and not at Time 2. Finally, respondents who rated their latest casual sex partner higher in terms of attractiveness as a short-term partner, and respondents who reported having taken the initiative to engage in casual sex showed lower regret at Time 1.

“I believe Edith Piaff sang the best summary: She regrets nothing,” Kennair told PsyPost. “Most people regret a legion of different choices. Maybe we actually regret bad choices we repeat, such as bad lifestyle and health behavior choices. And we keep making those bad choices. Regretting these might not change our behavior. Maybe instead of reducing our mood, in an indirect attempt at motivating future behavioral change, we should focus on changing behavior directly, here and now.”

The researchers added that their study is preliminary, but the findings cautiously suggest that regret does not offer an adaptive function that changes behavior in any logical way, offering no evidence for mating strategy shifts.

“Galperin et al. did not specify what more adaptive future sexual behavior might be,” Kennair explained. “While maybe inaction regret resulting in less inaction (i.e. saying yes to the sex next time it is on offer) is maybe an obvious behavioral change, it is not completely clear. Also, despite being an unusual longitudinal study, we might need to repeat measures more times and across a longer time period. It is surprising how many people find regret to be adaptive, but how little research actually tests whether it really is adaptive.”

“We are evolutionary psychologists,” Kennair added. “So in general we test hypotheses based on evolutionary theory and describe mental adaptations. However, all our manifest behavior is not adaptive or the result of adaptations. Some phenomena like regret and rumination may not be adaptive.”

The study, “The Function of Casual Sex Action and Inaction Regret: A Longitudinal Investigation”, was authored by Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair, Trond Viggo GrĂžntvedt, and Mons Bendixen.


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