Why You Should Lie to Your Karate Students (Occasionally)

Shiranu ga hotoke”

(“Not knowing is Buddha.”)

Once upon a time, during the 1970’s, professor Ellen Langer of Harvard University conducted a couple of truly brilliant scientific studies on the human mind.

These studies, which carried on for several years, went under such cool topics as ‘the illusion of control’, ‘decision making’, ‘aging’ and ‘mindfulness’ – to name a few. And, while most of these studies were pretty fascinating in general, there is one study in particular that I want to share with you today.

One that I think will have a surprising impact on your view of Karate knowledge and its process of transmission.

In this particular study, prof. Langer conspired with the university librarian to shut down all of the photocopy machines in an exceptionally busy wing of the Harvard library… except one.

Obviously, this quickly resulted in a long line behind the single working photocopy machine.


Because now, over the course of several days, Langer had assistants approach the person at the front of the line with a simple request to “cut” in line.

The assistant’s request was carefully worded in different ways:

  • In the first condition, the assistant said; “Excuse me, may I use the Xerox machine, because I’m late to class?”. This question (request plus reason), resulted in a 94% compliance rate. In other words, if you gave a sensible reason for cutting in line, 94% of the people would let you. Pretty neat.
  • In the second condition, the assistant asked, “Excuse me, may I use the Xerox machine?”. The structure of this question, a simple request followed by no supporting reason, resulted in a much lower compliance rate of only 60%.

No surprise, right?


So, let’s leave that study for a second, and let me get to the real point of this post:

Are you a black belt holder?

Or perhaps even a Karate teacher (sensei)?!

Well, then you’re probably aware that people will inevitably ask you a lot of questions during Karate class.

As an advanced Karate student (or sensei), the immeasurable honor of being an unlimited source of divine, all-encompassing, Karate wisdom seems to be on top of our job description. But, although students’ questions can range from perfectly normal ones (“What is the meaning behind this move?”) to the more obscure ones (“How do I harden my nuts?”), the one thing every question has in common is the need for an answer.

And that answer, my dear friend, has to be provided by you.


Because, well, you’re… you’re wearing a ragged black belt right?!

So, automatically, knowledge-hungry Karate-ka of lower levels will always look up to you in search for divine Karate wisdom.

My question, then, is:

Are you ready for this role? Do you really know everything there is to possibly know about Karate? The history? The techniques? The culture? The styles? The katas? The masters? The terminology? The minutiae?


Whatever you’re about to tell me, hold that thought.

Because I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t matter.

That’s right.




In order to assume the role of black belt fountain of wisdom, whether intentionally or not, you really don’t have to know as much as you think you do. That’s what the surprising last part of professor Langers fascinating study at Harvard University tells us… which I am about to reveal right now.

You see, in order to demonstrate the truly irrational manner in which most people operate, the professor added a third form of the request to her assistant’s repertoire:

  • “Excuse me, may I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make some copies?”


That’s right.

“…because I have to make some copies.”

What kind of dumb reason is that?! Why else would a person be at the copy machine if it weren’t to make copies?

Well, stupid or not, here’s the truly mind-blowing part: This bogus request actually matches the pattern of a legitimate request! In this condition, the assistant gained compliance 93% of the time, (just 1% less than with the legitimate request.)

Let me rephrase that:

Giving people an straight answer, or a reason, no matter if it’s actually sensible or not (purely in order to satisfy curiosity/anxiety) is almost as important as WHAT that answer or reason is!

And that, dear reader, is why I sometimes lie to my students.

And you should too.

Now, listen: Misunderstand me right here. I’m not saying you should run around and lie to people. Of course not. That’s immoral and immature. I’m just suggesting that if somebody asks you WHY, it is far better to give them SOME REASON (even if you’re not sure it’s 100% correct), than to provide them with NO REASON.

Get what I’m saying?

I do this all the time.

In 9 times out of 10, if I don’t know the answer to a certain question, I will seriously make something up on the spot.

I won’t even blink.

Of course, I’ll go and look up the real answer as fast as I possibly can – if it is important. Always. I’m not an ignoramus, I love learning as much as you do. Then, if the truth deviates significantly from my answer, I’ll come straight back to you, saying: “Sorry buddy, I was wrong. I looked it up and here’s the real answer.”

Because here’s the thing you need to know:

As a Karate teacher, most questions you get aren’t really questions.

Far from it.

They’re “questions” (air quotes).

Although they are disguised as questions, they’re actually “questions” – coming from people deliberatey seeking attention or confirmation. And, as such, providing an unnecessary and elaborate accurate answer (rather than providing a positive and satisfactory “answer”) could even be regarded as a sign of weakness on the part of the instructor; who now falls in the trap of showing off his ego rather than using his time and knowledge on things that truly matter.


Is this the best approach for you, as a black belt holder in Karate?

As a sensei?

As someone who gets asked questions now and then?

  • Geez, I don’t know…
  • But…
  • For me it is.
  • And science backs it up, baby.

In my humble opinion, the immediate satisfaction and relief I provide by giving somebody a neat “answer” on the spot (even if I know it’s not totally correct) far outweighs the possible benefits of not giving an incorrect answer at all.

Which is why I think any sensei worth his salt should not be afraid to occasionally lie to his students.

Because ignorance is bliss.

Shiranu ga hotoke”

(“Not knowing is Buddha.”)


  • Boban Alempijevic
    You just made my day Jesse-san. Now it feels just that little less worrying to put on a belt I dont feel I deserver... especially since lower belters might start asking me questions... that I my self want to have an answer to :) Then again I am most of the time to blunt and straightforward..... maybe it will serve me better to try the Sometimes small white lie :)
    • Cinzia
      I feel ya! I noticed they expect us to be confident, and feel lost when we aren't. I usually give them as an answer what i think is more logic, then check it out with the Sensei asap!
      • Sounds like a sensible and practical approach, Cinzia-san! Thanks for chiming in :)
    • Keep fighting, Boban-san! Being blunt is the Finnish style ;)
  • Fatih-san
    Great post, Jesse.I have many quotes but I think for right now my favorite would be; "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”(Abraham Lincoln) The truth hurts so we lie... Regards,
    • Fatih-san, thanks for that great (and relevant) quote by Abe Lincoln. Sometimes it's a thin line, but as long as we keep the greater cause in mind it's all good.
  • Mike Noga
    rationalization: to ascribe (one's acts, opinions, etc.) to causes that superficially seem reasonable and valid but that actually are unrelated to the true, possibly unconscious and often less creditable or agreeable causes. Did you just read about a cool experiment conducted by a Harvard professor and then decide to include it in a blog post no matter how silly it sounds. Or do you really think that the results of this experiment condone lying? Isn't trust part of the student/teacher relationship? How could I ever trust in anything you ever tell me is true? have you lied in your blog posts before? How would I know?
    • Cinzia
      He doesn't write the blog as a consequence of a sudden question any of us come up with. He has all the time to study and provide us with articles of value, no need to answer randomly, for god's sake, it's a blog!
    • Cinzia
      "Now, listen: Misunderstand me right here. I’m not saying you should run around and lie to people. Of course not. That’s immoral and immature. I’m just suggesting that if somebody asks you WHY, it is far better to give them SOME REASON (even if you’re not sure it’s 100% correct), than to provide them with NO REASON." Did u read this paragraph? :)
      • Leo
        Is karate about pleasure or about a way? Seeking reason where none is, seems human. But suggesting reason to get rid of annoying questions seems to lead towards illusion. Hitotsu, makoto no michi o mamoru koto.
    • Mike-san: "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." - Aristotle.
  • Te'o
    Jesse! Great post and I agree with you 100%! As a language teacher in high school I get lots of questions. If they are not of the utmost importance, I will come up with a great answer. Pretty much a half truth that satisfies their curiosity. In karate class I do the same thing. However...when there is a legitimate question that is really important; and I don't know the answer; I will generally say to the student, "I don't know, but I'm going to research that and get you an answer." This shows the student they are worth my time; their question is important; and that I keep my word....that I have integrity. So I guess sometimes...."Not knowing is Buddha" or maybe "Ignorance is bliss."
    • Indeed Te'o-san, I sense that one has to be a teacher in order to truly appreciate the subtleties of the article. Thanks for the great comment!
  • Cinzia
    Blue belts joined our brown-black belt classes this year and they look upon us all the time....this really reassures me, Jesse-san. As a brown belt who deals with questions on the same insecurities i still have, and as a future sensei, cause that's what i dream of doing. XD
  • Barbara Hesselschwerdt
    I have often answered with something like "this is my understanding of it......... but I will look into it or I will check with Sensei X tomorrow and confirm it with you next class". They need some sort of answer now. You can fill in the details later if they are still interested (assuming it's a legitimate question). As for attention seekers, I answer in a way that lets them know that I know they are attention seekers.
    • "As for attention seekers, I answer in a way that lets them know that I know they are attention seekers." - Snap! :D
  • Kai-ru
    This was a fun post though i am not sure I can get behind it all the way. Lying in Karate is one of the reasons we have so many mixed up beliefs. Like how a great KarateKa should be able to strike some one down with one strike therefor we should only train for that one perfect moment etc. I do how ever see what your getting at with giving an answer is better than non at all. However I may suggest you prime your potentially false answer with something along the line of; I think.. I heard.. I was told.. you know just to save your tail in the case your answer turns out to be false.
  • Jason Stanley
    Nice article Jesse...reminds me of the saying, "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is King" =)
  • Jeff Riggs
    The artical is well written and well researched. I like the way you took the information and applied it to something relivant to your readers. But I am afraid you got a bit off point going for the "Grab" in your title. Your title seems to indicate that there is an appropriate time to lie to a student. The tenets of Karate and morality in general contradict this. You recognise that by insisting that they be minimal and researching an answer with expidious corrections if needed. Ther real point here is "How to respond to a student's question when your usure of or don't know the answer". The cited study doesn't address morality, it addresses human behavior, and I noticed the 3rd response, "I need to make a copy" was not a lie, but merely an answer that held no information, it was an evasion, but it was a sufficient one. This study tells me that you can take a question that you are unsure about, answer it to the best of your ability, even by turning the question itself into an answer that gives no deeper understanding and satisfy most students untill you can look up the information you need. On matter of Karate, where much is subjective, it is always good to "Qualify" an answer with "As I understand it" or by advising that there are different lines of thought on the issue, when there are. I don't neccessarily think your methodology crosses the morality line regarding a lie, but the title leaves your readers the perseption that you do. (Notice the qualification, "I don't neccessarily think"?)
  • Samir
    Jesse-san, I don't agree with you this time and I'd like to share some reasons for my thinking. You suggest that when we "lie" (see that I understand your nuance) we can make the situation more generally satisfying, providing a better result for everyone. But first, if I understood you right, you base your point in the fact that most questions are, in truth, "questions". Not to mention that this is by default underestimating the students, but what if you get the rare question that has no quotes? If you provide a "lie", your credibility can go down the hill. I remember having made those kind of questions, and I also having seen people making "questions" that to me were real questions. And my confidence in some instructors went away after listening to the answers. Even if the "lying" to the students can be accepted sometimes, it is very hard to always make a distinction of when it's a time for a lie or not. There are occasions when lying is definetely a bad option. But if the instructor gets used to lying, that moment easily go unnoticed. Moreover, even if at all times a lie wouldn't bring damage to the instrutor (and the student and their relationship), I still think the following: relationships are not made to be perfect and answers are not made to be always answered. A healthy relationship goes better with mutual confidence than with complete agreement. The scientific study you mentioned tested the effect of giving any kind of answer. But did they test the effect of saying "honestly, I don't know" in the confidence between the interlocutors? In my own experience, the effect is better, and showing that sometimes you're not completely sure is enough to make some people prefer you instead of other teacher -- because they prefer having the truth. And we can survive not always giving a perfect answer: the student won't jump out the window -- if he/she does it, probably the case was already lost previously. Also, when you become a teacher, I think you have to do your homework, meaning you have to ask yourself about what you teach. There was a time when we teached so many things completely for sake of tradition, but now we're having more and more answers. Finally, to be honest, it's rare fo me to have someone question me and I don't have at least *some* answer. I'm sure the answer is not always perfect (and sometimes there's just not enough time to explain properly or the student doesn't know enough to understand), but I'm also not perfect, and instead of hoping my students to think I am, I'm satisfied with having them thinking I am really good.
    • Thanks for your valuable opinion Samir-san!
  • Dod
    Like your articles, but I'm not sure about this: I have come back to karate after almost two decades because I came across more believable explanations for some of the basics I spent blood, sweat, tears, and money learning (OK, no blood, or tears, but really sore fingers). There must be other ways of dealing with people who ask because they want attention?
  • Karato
    I belive lying is the wrong path. Because the lie hinders yourself searching for the truth. A small story: One day a novice asked a famous Taoist master what the truth was. The master replied nothing but took him for a walk. The novice insisted: "Tell me please what the truth is, why are you withholding the truth from me?" Finally the master smiled and pointed at a flower: "Do you see that flower?, he asked. "Yes", the bemused disciple answered. "Then I haven't withheld the truth from you", the master said.
  • I can relate! I am a karate teacher (sensei) and I get all kinds of questions. I have strengths and weaknesses in answering, just like everyone else. Some answers roll off my tongue, others are difficult. I always provide an answer (and will double check, like you, if necessary) because I am, after all, the wise and all-knowing sensei. Hey, can I cut in line? I have an important question to ask the teacher....
  • Is one who just practice hard in karate hardening his/her extended knuckles, spear-hand fingers, fore knuckles. Do intensive impact training on his fist and chops , only trained 4 kicks:front, side, round and turning kick and trained his shin withstand reasonable impact and uses a medicine ball to drop on his stomach and solar plexus. but he does not spar as he trained alone, can he able to defend himself in a real fight? Does he have to be a champion to be able to defend himself in real fight?
  • Josie
    Lying is wrong. Always. No matter what.
  • Kieron Dunning
    Agree with the comment that lying is wrong. Did a pre 1st kyu gading practice session and asked a few people if they would join me to practice together. A little yellow belt guy just turned up. We were warming up on the heavy bags and stretching and just out of the blue he asked what technique would I use in a street fight. I was a 23yo brown belt! I stood up, headbutted, then wrapped myself around the heavy bag and bit it several times. It was a total reaction and I still dont know why I did it.

Leave a comment