The ‘placebo’ in medicine is the sugar pill—the non-remedy against which a real medicine is compared. But the placebo can cure, as well: A certain number of patients will get better because they believe their pill has the power. Though they don’t realize it, their cure comes entirely from within.
Cut to a dojo in a western town, where children’s class is going on. The kids are looking weak and lazy, whining about how tired they are. They aren’t, of course, whining out loud; they wouldn’t dare. But you can see the whine in their faces and body language.
I kid with the children sometimes, and now is a good moment. “Did I ever tell you about the children I saw practicing martial arts in China?” This is all true: On a martial arts-based tour several years ago, we saw kids as young as 6 lined up on fields by the hundreds, performing intricate sets, with great intensity, in perfect unison. “Those kids practice four or five hours a day. Every day. And that’s after five or six hours of school. Maybe you guys should practice four hours a day. Can you imagine how good you’d be by now?”
There is general disbelief and shaking of heads. They can’t imagine how they’d have time to practice that much, with their busy lives.
I continue, “And you know what happens if a student gets lazy, or doesn’t feel like it, or isn’t doing their best stances?” Our tour-guides were quite matter-of-fact about this; the kids get smacked, spanked, hit with a stick. The word ‘beaten’ was used—which conjures a terrible image in the western mind, so I’ll stick with the more colorful ‘smacked.’ But one thing is certain: Not all cultures regard corporal punishment as a bad thing. And our guides believed the results spoke for themselves.
“No! No!” the children cry, but they are also laughing and giggling. Corporal punishment has been so far out of favor for so long in our culture, the kids just assume it is a joke. (Once in awhile I’ll see a child turn red and look scared when I suggest it, and I’ll have to wonder what goes on in their home.)
I go pick up my tambo (rattan stick) and begin tapping it menacingly against my other hand. “Alright, guys, let’s see some better effort here, and much better stances!” They giggle and smirk, but when practice starts again, with me walking around tapping my stick, they suddenly look ten times sharper. They’re showing their best effort again—better even than I expected. The threat gets results—and that’s even though they know I’m not going to follow through.
It’s “Placebo Discipline.” Now if we could just get them to do it without the sugar pill.