If you’re familiar with The Big Bang Theory, you’ve probably found yourself pondering the attraction between Leonard and Penny. Seriously, how did a geeky scientist and a Cheesecake Factory hottie ever find themselves together? For a show focused on evolutionary principles, their union always brings to my mind the lyrics, “Is she really going out with him?” or at least leads me to anticipate one of Sheldon’s well-timed, sarcastic taunts of “Bazinga!” My personal explanation…the Ambush Date!
What is an “ambush date”, and why have you never heard of it? Well, I made up the expression. I do that sometimes when there isn’t scientific terminology to explain a real experience, particularly one as intriguing as the dating equivalent of a flash mob. Although the name may be new, you are probably familiar with the experience. Or, perhaps you’ve even been ambushed at some point in the past. It’s the awkward situation that occurs when you think that you are going out with a group of friends, only to find that you are all alone with one particular friend who (to your chagrin) has finally worked up the courage to profess his or her previously hidden feelings. One minute you are minding your own business, and then…BANG…you realize that you’re on a date!
Although their relationship is currently on hiatus, you may remember that Leonard and Penny’s courtship began with an ambush. Back in 2007, after learning of Penny’s recent break-up, Leonard mustered the courage to ask her to dinner. Under the guise of an evening with the group, Penny agrees and before she knows it they are on their “first date.” As we watch the comic wackiness unfold, it becomes clear that while Penny is wondering when the others will arrive, Leonard is happily thinking to himself, “Our babies will be smart and beautiful!”
This episode led me to consider that my own experience with this phenomenon may not be an isolated incident, but rather, “ambush dating” may be an actual, viable dating strategy. Why is it that attraction may spring up, where at least for one partner, it was previously nonexistent? I think the answer may lie in the power of reciprocity.
The fundamental idea is simple: we like those who like us.1 Partner selection isn’t all that mysterious. When we find someone who is rewarding, we want to be around them. However, when the costs outweigh the benefits, we steer clear. In this case, learning that someone has feelings for us is incredibly rewarding and leads us to reciprocate with similar feelings of attraction.
So go forth, my friends, and ambush! You may be surprised at how successful the tactic can be. On the other hand, if like Penny, you find yourself romantically waylaid, you may want to give that person a shot. Just because you haven’t previously considered him or her as a partner doesn’t mean you won’t find the outcome of their “sneak attack” to be a highly rewarding experience.
1Kenny, D. A., & Nasby, W. (1980). Splitting the reciprocity correlation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38, 249-256.
Dr. Sadie Leder – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Leder’s research focuses on how people balance their desires for closeness and protection against rejection, specifically during partner selection, goal negotiation within established romantic relationships, and the experience of romantic love, hurt feelings, and relationship rekindling.