I have read the Galperin et al. study
* (in evolutionary psychology) which argues that it has found evidence for evolved
sex differences in sexual regret.
Read that again. The crucial word in both the title of this post and in the above sentence is "evolved." Keep that in mind.
What that little word means is the assumption that the different reactions men and women might have, on average, are not
because societies, in general and certainly during most of recorded history, have punished women much more severely for casual sex than they have punished men. What that little word also means is the assumption that the different reactions men and women today might have, on average, are not
because women and men are quite aware of the fact that the possible costs of casual sex, even today, are different for the two sexes. Women can get pregnant when pregnancy is not desired, women are more likely to be the victims of violence in a sexual encounter with a stranger than men and women are much more likely to be called sluts or whores if they engage in casual sex than men do.
Those are not
the things the authors mean when they talk about "evolved" differences. What they mean is that in some sense women are "hard-wired" (pardon the term) to regret having had casual sex and that men are "hard-wired" to regret not having had casual sex.
If that is the case, then why have societies all over time and place punished women more for casual sex (both legally and in terms of ostracism) than they have punished men? Is it that our evolved differences concerning it are somehow not strong enough?
In any case, the authors' theses are based on such an evolved difference about casual sex and say nothing about the societal differences in the treatment of men's and women's promiscuity:
The logic described above suggests that there will be sex differences in the regrets women and men have concerning their past sexual decisions and the regrets they anticipate having in hypothetical future decisions. We examined two hypothesized differences between men and women. First, women more than men will regret poorly chosen sexual actions (doing something and later wishing they had not). Second, men more than women will regret poorly chosen sexual inactions (not doing something and later wishing they had).
For men, who are not obligated to invest in pregnancy and raising offspring, choosing the‘‘wrong’’ sex partner might often have been associated with little negative impact on fitness. Although failing to invest may entail a decrement in offspring survival if the woman lacks kin or another investment partner, it nonetheless frees up the man’s resources and effort to devote to alternative uses, including securing additional mating opportunities. Thus, women on average have more to lose from casual sexual actions and consequently could regret them more than men do. This logic leads to our first hypothesis: Compared to men, women will have more numerous and stronger sexual action regrets, particularly those involving ‘‘casual’’ sex.
Because every sexual encounter with a fertile woman in the ancestral past could have led to a viable offspring, sexual inactions for men amounted to missed opportunities to reproduce. Along the same lines, the time that a man spent in a relationship without having sex could have been spent on a different, sexually active relationship in which reproduction was more likely. The cost of delaying sex was not necessarily as high for a woman, who could actually have benefitted from some additional time spent assessing a man’s value as a reproductive partner, including his long-term commitment to her and her potential children (Wachtmeister & Enquist, 1999). These differences in costs suggest that men will tend to regret missed sexual encounters and‘‘delayed’’sex more than women do. This logic leads to our second hypothesis: Compared to women, men will have more numerous and stronger sexual inaction regrets, particularly those involving missed opportunities for casual sex or not leaving a sexually inactive relationship.
Emphasis is mine.
These are the usual arguments of Evolutionary Psychology (EP). The sexually "good" evolutionary strategy for men is to spread their seed widely and then bolt (where? Remember that these people probably lived in small kin-based nomadic tribes), the sexually "good" evolutionary strategy for women is to look for the high-quality provider (usually interpreted as a man with resources, whatever that might have meant in a nomadic kin-based small tribe in some hypothetical area of evolutionary adaptations) and to try to tie him so that he won't bolt. That looking requires coyness, crossing one's legs and waiting on the woman's part. But the actual prediction all this would give us is that women won't want to engage in casual sex whereas men do.The first problem
I see with these EP hypotheses is that the actual risks of casual sex today are different for men and women, never mind some hidden evolutionary meme in our brains, and that the actual societal condemnation of promiscuous women is very different from the way the same society treats promiscuous men. The second problem
concerns the fact that women in some more recent tribal communities indeed have been found to have casual sex
, and not necessarily only for the reason of finding some better genes in a quick encounter for their future children, but because it makes more men in those tribes the possible fathers of their children and thus offers those children more later assistance.
Thus, the third problem
, for me, in this hypothesis is that it is ultimately based on a simple analogy about the many sperms and the few eggs and the differential resource requirements that men and women must absolutely spend to bring a child to adulthood. How those prehistoric ancestors actually lived when various evolutionary adaptations were assumed to "stick" to us as unchanging aspects of our minds does matter. If, as one of the researchers of this study himself has stated, these adaptations stuck in small nomadic kin-based communities, the ability of the men to spread their seed widely might have been much restricted, and this, in turn might not have rewarded an evolutionary adaptation towards promiscuity as much in men as the simple analogy model assumes.
And that brings me to the fourth problem
with this approach: We have several possible hypotheses about the distant past (which some EP people no longer seem to position exactly in some specific place and time in the Pleistocene), but one (a fairly simple thought model) is privileged over the other. The fact that the evolution of our minds is assumed to have stopped some 30,000 years ago is an opinion, not a proven fact. The stories that are told about the evolutionary past favor some recent data over other recent data.
, and most importantly, we cannot really state, given all this, that a study looking at sexual regret among today's people in some Western countries is evidence for evolved sex differences in regret over casual sex.
It isn't that I mind the approach these authors have taken. It's always worthwhile to see what drops out of the bag when we shake it. But we should be pretty careful in imputing evolutionary explanations for data which can be equally well explained by more proximal causes.The Three Studies in The Galperin et al. Article
The three studies in the article consist of one study (Study 1) done on heterosexual undergraduates (78 men and 122 women), one study (Study 2) done on heterosexual volunteers obtained thorough craigslist.org (156 men and 239 women, with a difference in average age which for men was 40 and for women 33) and one very large study, with 24,230 participants (Study 3), based on people who answered a banner ad at msnbc.com. The third sample, also self-selected, included both heterosexual men (11,203), heterosexual women (11,612) as well as gay men (334), lesbian women (215), bisexual men (359) and bisexual women (507). That sample has the advantage of not focusing only on heterosexual people. The disadvantage of all the studies is that they are not based on random samples.
The first study
consists of asking the participants to list their top five life regrets, top five regrets from the past few years, top five action and inaction regrets, and top five sexual /romantic action and inaction regrets. These data were used to create a questionnaire about regrets for Study 2. The student participants in Study 1 were then asked to rate four vignettes about sexual and romantic action and inaction.
The second study
(the Craig's List one) uses the regret lists created in Study 1. Those were manipulated by the researchers to create a list of 88 sexual regrets, divided into 39 action regrets, 30 inaction regrets and 19 regrets not easily categorized. The study participants were asked to indicate which of those regrets they had experienced, and to set up lists of the five top regrets they regretted the most.
The third study
(the MSNBC one), had two additional goals. It tried to standardize for the base of casual sexual activity by asking about the last time a person had each of the possible experiences linked to having casual sex or having an opportunity for it but not taking that opportunity. It also included sexual preference as a further category.
The authors argue that the overall results provide support for the evolved role of sex differences. More correctly, perhaps, the evidence supports the view that women are more likely to report having regretted casual sex than men and that men are more likely to report having regretted missed opportunities for casual sex.
Even the data on gay, lesbian and bisexual respondents supports it, they argue, because within each category (gays vs. lesbians, bisexual men vs. bisexual women) women report more regret for having casual sex, men more regret for not having it. On the other hand, within the category "women" lesbian and bisexual women are less likely to regret casual sex than heterosexual women and more likely to regret missed opportunities for casual sex. This, to me, suggests that the very real proximal explanation of pregnancy, say, could be an important part of the real-word explanation.
Where I Got Stuck
It is the first of these studies (Study 1) which halted my review work.
Here's why: The authors state that each study participant was given four vignettes, stories which depicted regret caused by either action or inaction. Two of the stories were about casual sex (regret for having it or regret for not having it), two the authors regard as having been regret about romantic action or inaction.
The participants were asked to rate how strong the regret of the person described in the scenarios might be and also how strong their own regret in a similar situation might be.
According to the authors, the results showed that men regretted inaction in casual sex more and women regretted action in casual sex more. Rather astonishingly, to me, there were few gender differences with respect to romantic action or inaction. My surprise comes from the fact that the basic simple EP model used would certainly predict those! Men should almost overwhelmingly show more regret for romantic action, because that is about longer-term mating with a single partner, and the model used here privileges the casual sex model of ancient prehistory for men.
Got all that? Now note this (from the article):
The actor in the scenario matched the sex of the participant and participants rated their beliefs regarding the regret experienced by the actor, followed by their own anticipated regret if they found themselves in this scenario on a 9-point scale (1 = No Regret at All; 5 = Moderate Regret; 9 = Extreme Regret).
The primary goal of Study 1 was to examine differences in men’s and women’s anticipated regret intensity in response to hypothetical scenarios of sexual versus romantic (non-sexual) actions and inactions. The sexual scenarios focused on events that women (one-night stand) and men (missing a one-night stand opportunity) were predicted to regret more strongly compared to the other sex. The primary goal was to
examine differences between men and women and not differences across scenarios, so the scenarios were allowed to vary in ways that permitted a vivid and specific depiction of casual sex actions and inactions.
As predicted by Hypothesis 2, men anticipated finding the casual sex inaction scenarios more regrettable than did women when rating their own anticipated regret, t(192) = 7.40, p\.001, and the presumed regret for the actor, t(192) = 5.41, p\.001. Although the action and inaction vignettes in this study differed in a number of ways, such as overall length, these differences did not confound the critical comparison by sex of rater because men and women rated identical scenarios. Such factors therefore cannot account for the sex differences observed here.
Bolds are mine. If I understand the above correctly, men and women were given different
vignettes. But the version of the study I have gives only the sexual action and inaction vignettes given to men.
So I asked the study authors for the female sexual action and inaction vignettes. I have not received a response.
This point is pretty important. The authors tell us that the way the vignettes differed didn't matter because men and women rated identical scenarios? I would like to see all the vignettes and the statistical work which shows that there was no confounding effect.
A Few Comments on The Study Findings
This possible problem doesn't necessarily make the other two studies meaningless. But I find myself reluctant to proceed without understanding what those vignettes for women are, and thus I only have a few scattered comments to make about the three studies and their findings which usually are that men regret not having casual sex more than women, and that women regret having casual sex more than men.
When a finding appears to go counter to the simplest EP theories, those theories are fleshed out more, as is done here (about Study 2):
Women’s top regrets also included having sex with a physically unattractive partner and women (17 %) were more likely than men (10 %) to list this as one of their strongest regrets. This result might seem somewhat counterintuitive, given the expectation that men place a greater premium than do women on physical attractiveness in potential mates (Buss & Schmitt, 1993). However, this result is consistent with two other replicable findings. First, women substantially increase their standards for attractiveness for casual sex partners (Buss & Schmitt, 1993; Kenrick et al., 1993; Li & Kenrick, 2006), possibly to gain genetic benefits for offspring. Second, men dramatically lower their standards in short-term mating contexts, including standards for physical attractiveness, and hence are less likely to regret casual sex with an unattractive partner. Although men do value physical appearance in potential mates, a low-cost sexual encounter with an unattractive partner historically would have still afforded a valuable reproductive opportunity that might offset collateral costs such as reputational damage.
Or here, about Study 3:
Men and women reported similar rates (56%) of having engaged in casual sex. Men (66 %) were somewhat more likely to report passing up a casual sex opportunity than were women (59 %), v2(1, N = 24,230) = 148, p\.001, a counterintuitive result that could stem from a reporting bias rooted in other evolved sex differences: men’s misperception of women’s sexual interest or sex differences in defining what constitutes an ‘‘opportunity.’’
Evidence indicates that men tend to overestimate women’s interest (Haselton & Buss, 2000; La France, Henningsen, Oates, & Shaw, 2009). In addition, women might consider some situations in which they technically could have had sex so undesirable that these situations do not register as sexual ‘‘opportunities,’’ whereas the same situations might ‘‘count’’ as such for men. Men could therefore perceive casual sex opportunities in circumstances where women do not, leading to the biased result of men providing higher estimates than women of opportunities they passed up or did not act on.
Note also the sentences I bolded.
Or the explanation is brought in from elsewhere, without necessarily appearing to refute the basic hypotheses, such as is the case here, about Study 2:
We highlight the regrets that were most often reported in the ‘‘top five’’ by women (Table 1) and by men (Table 2). Few of the top regrets overlapped between women and men and the top regrets that showed no sex difference (e.g., having unprotected sex) were those for which we did not have predictions about sex differences. A noteworthy and common regret that showed no significant sex difference was cheating on one’s partner, with 23 % of women and 18 % of men listing it as one of their five strongest regrets. Possibly, the lack of a sex difference here is a consequence of the fact that discovered infidelity carries extremely high costs for both sexes, including the possibility of relationship dissolution (Betzig, 1989).
And in this case, about Study 2:
Notably, none of the 39 sexual action regrets were more common for men than for women and only one of the 30 sexual inaction regrets was more common for women than for men. This regret was ‘‘not engaging in sexual activity with someone only because I did not want to appear promiscuous’’; 16 % of women in comparison to 8 % of men reported this regret, v2(1, N = 395) = 6.23, p = .014. This difference possibly reflects the fact that women are more likely than men to worry about appearing promiscuous (Crawford & Popp, 2003). Because women are more likely than men to face negative consequences to their reputation for engaging in casual sex, they may make more sexual decisions in which reputational concerns are an issue.
It is partly in this manner that the article succeeds in firmly concluding for evolved sexual differences, I believe, though the bigger problem lies in the fact that the evidence supports at least as well the other two obvious theories about what might be going on: First, the fact that casual sex has higher costs for women now, and not only in some evolutionary murky deep time, because it is women who can get pregnant when they don't wish to do so and because the risk of sexual violence from stranger partners is greater for women, based on body strength differences. Second, the societal sanctions for casual sex still are, and certainly have been, much greater for women than men.
Regret and anticipated regret enhance decision quality by helping people avoid making and repeating mistakes. Some of people’s most intense regrets concern sexual decisions. We hypothesized evolved sex differences in women’s and men’s experiences of sexual regret. Because of women’s higher obligatory costs of reproduction throughout evolutionary history, we hypothesized that sexual actions, particularly those involving casual sex, would be regretted more intensely by women than by men. In contrast, because missed sexual opportunities historically carried higher reproductive fitness costs for men than for women, we hypothesized that poorly chosen sexual inactions would be regretted more by men than by women. Across three studies (Ns = 200, 395, and 24,230), we tested these hypotheses using free responses, written scenarios, detailed checklists, and Internet sampling to achieve participant diversity, including diversity in sexual orientation. Across all data sources, results supported predicted psychological sex differences and these differences were localized in casual sex contexts. These findings are consistent with the notion that the psychology of sexual regret was shaped by recurrent sex differences in selection pressures operating over deep time.
Note the new practice of replacing the view that evolutionary adaptations came to stick to us about 30,000 years ago, in Pleistocene, with the diffuse concept of "deep time."
**You might also be interested in the anger and hysteria post
about this study