It shouldn’t work, should it? The thought of putting fruit on a pizza seems to defy all good sense, and yet the Hawaiian has become a staple of modern cuisine. When Sam Panopoulos first mixed pineapple and ham in the 1960s, he had no idea that it would spark a culinary debate that still rages decades later.
Whether you’re a fan of the fruit or not, there’s something to be said for pairing opposites together. Chefs have long understood the importance of balancing sweet with savoury, and they’re not alone. Fiction has been doing it for years; pairing brash characters with quiet ones, bookworms with simpletons, do-gooders with Machiavellis. In music, genre fusions have given birth to whole new styles like Blues or Electro Swing. In love, we’re told that opposites attract. And yet despite all of this, we’re more inclined to associate with people whose opinions and backgrounds are similar to our own. Even with the knowledge that great things can come from opposition, we seek out the familiar, we cling to the tried and tested, and the reason for this may lie in our genetics.
A hundred thousand years ago, our ancestors thrived thanks to their ability to work together and strive towards a common goal. Early humans would forage together—one pulling down a branch while another plucked the fruit, for example—then share the food between them. Hunter-gatherers formed tight-knit social groups to keep each other safe, raise children and dramatically improve their hunting capabilities, which was made possible by the intense loyalty that they felt towards the rest of their tribe.
While this quality ensured their survival, its legacy puts us at a distinct disadvantage in the modern age. Humanity no longer exists in small, isolated pockets; through technological innovation we are now more connected to each other than we have ever been before. In an ideal world, this would bring us closer to people with disparate ideals or upbringings, but our brains are still hardwired to feel solidarity towards the tribe, meaning that we struggle to identify with anyone who appears outside of our tribe as a result.
Studies have shown that human decision-making is often rooted in emotion, where loyalties and perceived biases can take precedence over the rational point of view. For example, one American case in 1954 interviewed Princeton and Dartmouth students after watching a particularly dirty Princeton vs. Dartmouth football game, revealing wildly different opinions on which side had produced more fouls. When we assign emotive value to a particular group or ideology, any opposition to it is perceived as a threat to our own existence, evoking a similarly emotional response. This is why, in an argument where someone’s opinions are challenged, they tend to double down on their original point of view, closing their mind off to different perspectives as if they were literally under attack. It’s also why someone might struggle to rationalise a bigoted point of view that they hold, because it represents their emotional ties to a specific group, rather than a conclusion that they’ve reached through cold, hard logic.
And while our tribes may have gotten bigger—whether it’s favourite sports teams, nationality, ethnicity, gender, or even political and religious beliefs—the gulfs that divide them have grown larger as well. The rise of social media serves to exacerbate this problem, allowing us to seek out people of our own tribe and silence those we disagree with behind the all-powerful ‘unfollow’ button. You don’t need to look far to see the inherent danger in online echo chambers, and it’s clear from the potent emotional reactions following events like the Syrian refugee crisis, Brexit or the election of Donald Trump, that people will quickly abandon rational thought and attack those who oppose their tribe’s point of view.
So, when reflecting on the impact of tribalism in modern society, perhaps we should take some inspiration from the humble Hawaiian pizza. It might seem unpleasant at first, but if we ignore the emotional hunter-gatherer inside of us and engage our rational mind, it becomes clear that opposition really can be beneficial, especially when it’s sweet, crispy and covered in a large helping of mozzarella.