Waiting for the Flu: Cognitive Inertia and the Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918--19


This study looks at public awareness and understanding of the Spanish flu in the United States between June 1918, when the flu became "œSpanish," and the end of September when the deadly second wave reached the majority of the country. Based on an extensive reading of local newspapers, it finds a near universal lack of preparation or panic or other signs of personal concern among those in the unaffected areas, despite extensive and potentially worrying coverage of the flu's progress. The normal reaction to news of the inexorable approach of a pandemic of uncertain virulence is anxiety and action. The Spanish flu produced neither in the uninfected areas for a month. The most likely reason appears to be cognitive inertia"”the tendency of existing beliefs or habits of thought to blind people to changed realities. This inertia grew out of the widespread understanding of flu as a seasonal visitor that while frequently unpleasant almost never killed the strong and otherwise healthy. This view of the flu was powerful enough that it blinded many in the unaffected regions to the threat for weeks even in the face of daily or near daily coverage of the pandemic's spread.



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Journal of the history of medicine and allied sciences