60 Minutes/Vanity Fair Poll: Lying

Americans are far more likely to forgive Bill Clinton than Bernie Madoff. The theme of this month's poll is about truth and lies

Welcome to the 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll for February 2014. "Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive." More than 200 years later, Walter Scott's words are truer than ever. Americans know what it is like to be lied to and they don't like it.

Families, friendships and marriages can be torn apart by lies. Most people have heard the old joke, how do you know when a politician is lying? His lips are moving. Many national politicians know how much trust is lost when their lies or deceptions are discovered and Watergate taught us that trying to cover them up is even worse.

The theme of this month's poll is about truth and lies. It is a topic as old as man and has been the cause of some of the greatest events in history and some of the worst. Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? "You should always tell the truth under every circumstance." We look forward to hearing your opinions, and now the results.

True or False?

 Fifty-six percent of Americans agree that "you should always tell the truth under every circumstance" and 42 percent disagree. It is a virtuous aspiration in principle but a very high bar in practice. On the one hand, many saints and philosophers agreed that there was no ethical basis for lying under any circumstance. On the other hand, they might not have had to truthfully answer certain difficult questions such as, "Darling, does this dress make me look fat?" 

Lie to Me

 Fifty-seven percent of Americans say they CAN handle the truth and want to hear it straight while 42 percent say they have been in a situation in which they would have preferred it if someone had lied to them. Behind door number one is the blunt, unvarnished and often unpleasant truth. Behind door number two is something known as TMI (too much information) that can be especially burdensome if it does not directly concern you. Behind door number three is constructive criticism, where you can pull a punch and offer selected truths that people can learn from and in door number four is something called a "white lie" that can be used to prevent hurt feelings. There are probably 50 more "shades of grey" that could be listed, but the need to be totally honest all the time may not be as virtuous as it sounds.

Film Fiction

 Nearly half the Americans that were asked (48 percent) correctly identified the memorable line, "You can't handle the truth" as being featured in "A Few Good Men". Speaking of men, they were able to identify the right movie by a margin of nearly 3 to 2 versus the ladies. Three out of 10 people said they did not know. Nine percent picked "The Godfather" followed by Men of Honor (eight percent) and two other classic courtroom dramas, "To Kill a Mockingbird"(four percent ) and "12 Angry Men"(two percent). The writer Aaron Sorkin who adapted the screenplay from his play of the same name, knew it was a good line but when it had the good fortune of being belted out by Jack Nicholson in the movie, that's when it became iconic.


Forty-three percent of Americans would not be tempted to lie about any of the aforementioned personal details. Twenty percent would be most tempted to lie about their past, followed by salary 13 percent, age 11 percent, relationship six percent and job four percent. It is tempting to stretch or embellish the truth when trying to impress someone, but being caught in a lie is much worse than being perceived as a little older or less accomplished.

Lies, Lies, Lies

 Forty-two percent of Americans said they do not lie to any of these important people in their lives. Of those that do occasionally fib to them, it is pretty evenly spread out between their significant other 13 percent, doctor 13 percent, and boss 12 percent. But the winner and still champion is mom with 17 percent. Thinking back to younger days, it was sometimes necessary to hide the truth from mom (or flat out lie to her) and it appears that old habits die hard. For those aged 18-34 they die even harder, 30 percent of them still lie to mom the most.

White Lies

From the list of well-known lies, the least justifiable one -- with 22 percent of the vote --  is the classic "I'll call you." Whether it's about a job, a woman letting a guy down "easy" or a guy giving a woman false hope it can be hurtful. Next up is the puerile excuse "the dog ate my homework" with 21 percent followed by the dishonest "the check is in the mail" (19 percent), the ingratiating "you've lost weight" (14 percent) and the innocence feigning "I thought I was going 55" (14 percent).


 Three out of 10 Americans said they have given out a fake phone number at some point in their lives. About one in three women and one in four men say they have done it. It could be an age related thing with 46 percent of 18-34 year olds and 38 percent of 35-44 year olds admitting they've slipped a bogus number to someone. With technology and social networking changing at lightning speed, the days where this evasion will work may be numbered.

Sharing Stories

If they could sit down with their parents and hear the truth about their entire lives, a third of Americans would want to know everything. One in four would choose to hear more, but not everything. Three out of 10 feel they know enough already and eight percent said they wish they knew less (file under too much information). Knowing your family's history is important, and it is tempting to want to know more, but beware of the old adage, "be careful of what you wish for... you might get it."



If served an awful meal at a big family gathering, 42 percent of Americans would throw up...their hands and say they didn't like it. Thirty-four percent would keep their mouth shut (figuratively) and force it down. Thirteen percent would disguise their distaste by pretending that they were on a diet and eight percent would slip it to the dog (what makes them think he'll like it any better?) It comes down to whether you think the cook would be hurt by your opinion or accept it as constructive gastronomic criticism. If in doubt, silence is golden.


 Alexander Pope's famous quote, "to err is human: to forgive, divine" reflects the well-known American propensity for forgiveness. From the list of those caught lying, 43 percent of Americans are most able to forgive Bill Clinton. Sure he lied about cheating on his wife with an intern, but he did a lot of good and to paraphrase Senator Al Franken, darn it, people like him. Next up with 22 percent is disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong whose career crashed and burned when he confessed after years of denying that he was doping. Tricky Dick Nixon gets only 12 percent from an ungrateful nation that had to endure his tarnished presidency. Even though "our long national nightmare" has been over for nearly 40 years, not many people are in a hurry to forgive him. And the big winner, or rather the biggest loser with only three percent is the notorious swindler of clients, friend and family, Bernard Madoff.