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Sex-Related Regrets Don't Change Future Behavior, Study Shows

illustratoin of one night stand regret

Verywell / Joshua Seong

Key Takeaways

  • A recent study found that feelings of regret regarding encounters of casual sex fail to influence future behaviors.
  • Unresolved regret can amplify symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  • Mindful decisions and values-based actions can help individuals to evade this complex emotion.

Humans are sexual beings, and this sexuality can manifest in a number of ways. One common experience is the one-night stand, which offers an outlet for sexual pleasure without necessarily involving future commitments. But this no-strings-attached interaction can sometimes involve or precede some complicated emotions.

A recent study focused on feelings of regret regarding instances of casual sex and found that, while men and women both share this emotional experience, they regret very different things.

Leif Edward Ottesan Kennair, PhD

I have asked: If it actually does work to improve us, why do not all sinners become saints? Many of the things we continue to regret are our lifestyle disordered behaviors that include unhealthy eating, exercise, drink, smoking, etc... There is scant evidence that regret does anything positive for us.

— Leif Edward Ottesan Kennair, PhD

The Research

A group of researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's department of psychology set out to determine whether feelings of regret can lead to behavioral changes. The study, published in Evolutionary Psychology, focused on feelings of regret surrounding casual sex encounters.

Participants between the ages of 18 and 30 answered a web-based questionnaire on uncommitted sex, then were invited to answer a second questionnaire about 4.5 months later. The questions asked participants to report on feelings of regret related to casual sexual incidences, as well as opportunities for casual sex that they might've passed up and levels of initiative, disgust, gratification and intoxication.

Researchers hypothesized that action and inaction regret should lead to adjustments in future behavior. However, results of the study showed no increase in sexual activity for participants that reported inaction regret. Similarly, results showed no decrease in short-term sexual partners for participants that reported action regret.

Interestingly, the results showed women were more likely than men to regret having had casual sex, while men were more likely than women to regret passing up a casual sex opportunity by either turning down a proposition or failing to follow-up with a potential suitor.

"However such signals are often ambiguous, and men also overestimate their chances," says lead researcher Leif Edward Ottesan Kennair, PhD. "But that is not important, really, as what they are regretting is not dependent on whether their estimate of how likely it was that they were going to be successful is correct or not."

Judy Ho, PhD

[Regret] causes people to over-worry and ruminate on their choices, causing chronically elevated stress, depression symptoms and anxiety when it goes on for too long without being resolved.

— Judy Ho, PhD

The Function of Regret

If blaming ourselves for a negative outcome doesn't lead to changes in future behavior, then what purpose does this serve? While some researchers view some negative emotional processing as beneficial, Kennair doesn't necessarily believe emotions must always serve a purpose in this way.

"I have asked: If it actually does work to improve us, why do not all sinners become saints?" he says. "Many of the things we continue to regret are our lifestyle disordered behaviors that include unhealthy eating, exercise, drink, smoking, etc... There is scant evidence that regret does anything positive for us."

The negative thought pattern of regret typically involves a sense of loss or questioning around choices that we've made, says Judy Ho, PhD, a neuropsychologist and associate professor of psychology at Pepperdine University. This can lead to further troubles when it doesn't influence our behavior or help us make sense of the world.

"It causes people to over-worry and ruminate on their choices, causing chronically elevated stress, depression symptoms and anxiety when it goes on for too long without being resolved," Ho says.

To avoid this and more easily recover from negative events in your sex life or otherwise, it's important to consider the root of these feelings of regret to potentially prevent them in the future.

Judy Ho, PhD

Instead of pushing negative emotions away, ask yourself, 'What is this emotion trying to tell me?'

— Judy Ho, PhD

Getting Past Regret

Feeling regret regarding a sexual encounter can have a special sting. But it's important to keep in mind that stigma and other cultural factors can feed this feeling in a superficial way. Thankfully, we are not defined by our sexual experiences. Keeping this in mind can help to quell the anxieties that often accompany regret.

With that in mind, we can also examine these feelings of regret to better understand ourselves. Emotions can generally serve as guides that reveal our psychological needs, Ho says.

"Or they prompt us to take some physical action to ensure our physical and psychological survival," she says. "Instead of pushing negative emotions away, ask yourself, 'What is this emotion trying to tell me?'"

This is to say, we can learn from our regrets or perceived mistakes, which can serve us in the future. In order to prevent regret, Ho recommends practicing mindfulness when making important decisions.

"People are sometimes easily distracted by other people’s opinions and voices or other things they have to do, and that takes away from the mindful decision-making that will help reduce regret," Ho says.

By tuning out distractions and evaluating the choices in front of us with thoughtfulness and care, we can potentially avoid making a decision that could lead to regret later.

Ho also touches on the importance of aligning our actions with the values that are true to our core.

"They are not things you can check off like goals, rather, they are important directions that you want your life to be full of," Ho says. "For example, integrity, adventure, spirituality and community are some values people ascribe to."

Prioritizing more mindful decision-making and values-based actions can foster a greater self-acceptance and potentially prevent future regrets or, if they do arise, act as a buffer against them.

What This Means For You

While we can try our best to make smart and healthy decisions, it's important to keep in mind that you are not defined by your sexual encounters. Entertaining feelings of regret around these experiences does not benefit your mental health.

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  1. Kennair L, Grøntvedt T, Bendixen M. The Function of Casual Sex Action and Inaction Regret: A Longitudinal InvestigationEvolutionary Psychology. 2021;19(1):147470492199833. doi:10.1177/1474704921998333