TRONDHEIM, Norway — It’s not unusual for a moment of passion to turn into instant regret the morning after. However, a new study finds those who have taken the “walk of shame” will probably do it again sometime soon. Researchers in Norway say regret over a one night stand doesn’t end up teaching men or women much at all. In fact, both sexes will likely repeat their decisions about casual sex regardless of how much they regret their last encounter.
“For the most part, people continue with the same sexual behavior and the same level of regret,” says Professor Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in a release.
Prof. Kennair and his team examined whether sexual regret actually contributes to changes in human behavior. Participants in their experiment answered a questionnaire about sexual regret twice, just under five months apart. The results show that while men and women experience sexual regret, they often regret very different choices.
Researchers find women tend to regret having a one night stand more than men. Conversely, men often regret passing up on a chance for casual sex more frequently than women.
“We wanted to examine if their level of regret contributed to a change in behavior the next time around,” explains Professor Mons Bendixen.
“A lot of emotions are functional, like disgust that protects against infection and fear that protects against danger. An evolutionary approach has helped us understand anxiety by understanding the function of fear: fight-flight-freeze is about avoiding danger and defending ourselves against it,” adds Kennair.
Do emotions really help people learn from bad experiences?
Psychologists assume regret, like many emotions, serves a function. Specifically, they believe emotions push people to change their behavior so they experience different outcomes from their choices. Simply put, many psychologists think a situation producing negative emotions will keep someone from doing that thing again.
“Researchers have found that most people believe this is true for regret. They assume that regret is actually a helpful negative feeling. People assume it guides them not to repeat what they regretted,” postdoctoral fellow Trond Viggo Grøntvedt says.
However, if regret really works that way, wouldn’t more men jump on their next chance for casual sex? Moreover, wouldn’t more women run from a potential one night stand after their last unsatisfying fling? While that may sound logical, the study finds that’s not what’s happening when it comes to sex.
Why aren’t more people learning from their bedroom mistakes?
The Norwegian team contends that people keep having one night stands because behavior depends on personality. They add this is a much more complex variable to change than a brief or even long-term feeling of regret. Kennair says most people simply are who they are and, when they’re in the mood, they’ll do the same thing they did last time.
“We are not that surprised,” the study author admits. “If regret helped, would not most sinners eventually become saints? What do you regret the most often? Has it changed your behavior?”
Researchers and psychologists agree that regret is an adaptive emotion. This flexibility means it changes according to the conditions of someone’s experiences.
“We have repeated that regret is adaptive in all our articles on the subject in recent years. And now we have tested it,” Kennair continues. “Maybe it would be smart instead to think about what we regret in everyday life, and what we actually do so often that we get ample opportunity to regret it.”
The study appears in the journal Evolutionary Psychology.