Emily met Gregg at a party last Saturday. They flirted for hours, building up incredible sexual tension. Gregg was hot—but Emily also knew he definitely wasn’t boyfriend material. They spent the night at her place, and he was gone before she woke up.
Afterward, Emily was disappointed. Gregg was self-absorbed, and the sex just wasn’t as great as she’d imagined it was going to be. She felt a lot of regret, and she resolved never to let herself be seduced into a one-night stand again.
Josh was also at a party Saturday night. He started a conversation with Chloe, who kept touching him and laughing at his jokes. Chloe was hot—but definitely not girlfriend material, at least not the type he could introduce to his family and friends. He’d had a traditional upbringing, and he still believed sex should be reserved for committed relationships.
He went home alone that night, but images of him and Chloe having passionate sex kept racing through his mind. In the morning, he felt a lot of regret, and he resolved to never let another opportunity for a one-night stand slip through his fingers again.
The Psychology of Sexual Regret
According to the functional view of emotions, we experience regret when we’ve learned a hard life lesson. In other words, the pain of regret motivates us not to repeat behaviors that turn out not to be in our best interests, just as the pain of a burned finger motivates us to be careful around a hot stove. But does sexual regret lead us to change our sexual behaviors? This is the question that Norwegian psychologist Leif Kennair and colleagues explored in an article they recently published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology.
It’s well established that men, on average, have higher sex drives than women. They also tend to be more open to casual sex, and they typically want to start having sex earlier in a new relationship than women do. Evolutionary psychologists maintain that this difference in sexual inclination comes about because women bear most of the burden of reproduction.
Across sexually reproducing species, the female incurs biological costs in producing and rearing offspring, while the male’s contribution is just a bit of sperm. This means that females have to be picky about who they mate with, and they tend to want to delay sex as long as possible to make sure they’re getting the best father for their baby. In contrast, males can afford to spread their seed far and wide, the only cost being time spent looking for willing females.
Thus, when it comes to feelings of sexual regret, we find different patterns for men and women. On the one hand, women are more likely to feel regret having a one-night stand, as they’ve risked pregnancy to have sex with a man who won’t stick around to provide for their child. Such was the case with Emily and Gregg above.
On the other hand, men tend to regret missing out on a casual affair, since they could potentially have gotten an extra offspring without having to provide for it. This was the case for Josh and Chloe.
Psychologists propose that we experience sexual regret to reinforce the fact that we’ve made a bad decision—from an evolutionary perspective, at least—so that we won’t make such a mistake again in the future. If that’s the case, Kennair and his colleagues reasoned, then people who have experienced sexual regret should change their behaviors to avoid such regret in the future. Over time, then, men should become less likely to miss out on opportunities for casual sex, while women should become more careful about engaging in one-night stands. To date, however, this hypothesis has never been tested.
Study of Sexual Regret
For this study, Kennair and colleagues recruited over two hundred college students from a Norwegian university to take part in a longitudinal study of sexual regret. When they were first recruited, the participants responded to a series of questionnaires that assessed their recent sexual activities. Then four months later, they responded to these same questionnaires again.
Each time, the participants were asked to report on their most recent opportunity to have casual sex. They indicated whether they’d followed through or not and whether they’d had any regrets about the decision they’d made. Those who’d gone through with the opportunity reported on the quality of their partner, whether they’d initiated or not, how gratified they were, and whether they’d felt any disgust with the experience.
The participants also answered questions that assessed characteristics of their personality. The first was sociosexuality, that is, openness to casual sexual experiences. Those with a restricted sociosexual orientation prefer to have sex only within the context of a committed relationship, whereas those with an unrestricted sociosexual orientation are open to casual sex. The second personality characteristic was neuroticism, or the tendency to experience anxiety or depression.
Does Sexual Regret Change Our Sexual Behavior?
If sexual regret motivates people to avoid poor sexual decisions in the future, we should see higher levels of regret at the first time that the survey was administered compared to the second time four months later. More specifically, we would expect women to be less inclined to engage in casual sex again after having done so once and feeling regret. Likewise, we would expect men to be more inclined to engage in casual sex after having missed an opportunity and feeling regret.
But this isn’t what the researchers found. Instead, the data suggest that people are consistent in their sexual behaviors, whether they regret them afterward or not. In terms of our opening examples, Emily is likely to hook up again in the near future and regret it the day after. Similarly, Josh is likely to let the next opportunity for casual sex slip through his fingers, and he too will likely regret it afterward.
The data that Kennair and colleagues collected suggest that sexual regret does not teach us life lessons after all. Rather, our sexual behaviors are largely driven by our sociosexuality. That is, some of us have an unrestricted tendency toward short-term relationships, whereas others of us have a restricted tendency to only have sex within committed relationships.
Furthermore, the researchers found that the best predictor of sexual regret—for both men and women—depended on their level of neuroticism, or tendency toward anxiety and depression. In other words, neurotic women tended to regret their one-night stands, whereas neurotic men were more likely to feel regret for missed opportunities to have casual sex.
Finally, the data suggested that women may also feel sexual regret when the sexual encounter wasn’t all that gratifying or if they’d felt disgust afterward. Perhaps if Gregg had been a better lover, one who attended to her sexual needs, Emily wouldn’t have regretted hooking up with him.
In conclusion, we may regret falling for seduction or missing out on an opportunity. But this feeling of sexual regret, when it occurs, does little to help us improve our future behavior. It seems that in sex, as in other aspects of life, we are creatures of habit who find it hard to change our ways.