Sex Ed

We Don’t Learn From Our Regrets: Sexual Regret Doesn’t Change Future Behavior

April 21, 2021 by Justin Lehmiller

When asked to describe a memorable regret, the things people mention most often involve love, sex, and romance [1]. For example, common regrets include lost opportunities (like “the one that got away”), cheating and infidelity, and one’s first sexual experience. It’s also not uncommon for people to regret their choice of a past partner, or to regret a one-night stand or other casual sexual experience.

So what happens when we experience sexual regrets? Specifically, do we actually learn from them and change our future behavior so as not to experience even more regrets later on?

A longitudinal study published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology suggests that we don’t—and that, more broadly, regret doesn’t appear to be an adaptive emotion in the sense of stimulating meaningful behavior change [2].

In this study, researchers surveyed hundreds of Norwegian college students (all heterosexual) at two different points in time, separated by 4.5 months on average. In total, 399 students took the initial survey, while 222 also responded to the second. Most participants (about two-thirds) identified as women, most were not involved in a committed relationship at the outset of the study, and all participants were between the ages of 18 and 30.

In the first survey, participants were asked about regrets relating to casual sex—specifically, casual sex they had, as well as casual opportunities they passed up. They were also surveyed about their sexual attitudes and history, as well as certain aspects of personality.

In the second survey, participants were asked about their casual sexual behaviors since the previous survey.

What the researchers found was that regret did not predict changes in casual sexual behavior. Specifically, people who regretted missing out on opportunities for casual sex did not have more partners in the ensuing months. Likewise, those who regretted casual sex that they actually had did not experience a reduction in number of new partners over time. The pattern of results was similar for men and women.

Interestingly, the more regret people felt about casual sex during the first survey, the less likely they were to enter a committed relationship by the second survey.

These findings are, of course, limited in the sense that they were based on a study of young, heterosexual adults that only spanned about 5 months. Thus, it’s possible that as people age and over much longer periods of time that they learn from their regrets or make more efforts toward changing those behaviors going forward. Also, it’s possible that other types of regrets—beyond the context of casual sex—are more predictive of behavior change.

That said, these results suggest that regrets about casual sex don’t necessarily function in an intuitive fashion. In other words, they don’t necessarily seem to prompt us to make changes in our lives that will reduce subsequent feelings of regret.

In the words of the study’s authors, “what we find is that regret largely is a dynamic gauge of whether the casual sex being evaluated was good or bad.” Thus, sexual regret seems to tell us mostly how people feel about the past sexual decisions they’ve made, not how they’re going to approach sex differently in the future.

I suspect that many people will be able to relate to these findings. I mean, how many of us have done things that we’ve regretted—sexually and otherwise—only to find ourselves repeating the same behaviors again and again?

An interesting question for future research might be to explore when and for whom regret does serve an adaptive function. Perhaps some people are more sensitive to regret or more motivated to actively regulate negative mood states.

It’s also possible that the researchers weren’t looking at the right outcomes in this study for tapping into sexual behavior change. For example, maybe regrets about casual sex don’t change whether or not people continue to have casual sex—instead, perhaps they change the ways that people approach casual sex. This could involve, for example, making more effort to communicate with partners and ask for what you want, which could have the effect of limiting future regret.

As always, while these findings are fascinating, there’s much more work to be done!

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[1] Morrison, M., Epstude, K., & Roese, N. J. (2012). Life regrets and the need to belong. Social Psychological and Personality Science3, 675-681. doi:10.1177/1948550611435137

[2] Kennair, L. E. O., Grøntvedt, T. V., & Bendixen, M. (2021). The Function of Casual Sex Action and Inaction Regret: A Longitudinal Investigation. Evolutionary Psychology19(1), 1474704921998333.

Image Source: Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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