Lloyd Johnston

By Susan Rosegrant
January 2010
[Updated in March 2014]

Teenage drug use, once assumed to be a temporary aberration borne of a particular time and place, has settled in as one of society’s chronic ills—one that waxes and wanes over time. For 40 years, the Institute for Social Research (ISR) has tracked those ups and downs in an annual government-sponsored survey, Monitoring the Future, considered the gold standard in social science circles. Presiding over the study—and sometimes playing the unpopular role of bad news messenger—is Lloyd Johnston, the distinguished senior research scientist and Angus Campbell Collegiate Research Professor who has, through a combination of resolve and diplomacy, managed to keep Monitoring the Future on track and funded through six administrations.

Lloyd JohnstonEach year’s results, released in December, are tensely awaited by the administration. When the news is especially good, the president may even announce the results personally. When the news is bad, minimal publicity and damage control are the order of the day. Johnston understands that reality. “I try not to embarrass the sitting administration,” he says. On the other hand, he adds, “we’re not a government agency.” The figures are what they are, they’re public—and Johnston has always been comfortable talking truth to power.

In fact, Johnston got some early practice at that, taking on the University of Michigan Psychology Department when he first arrived in 1966 to begin his Ph.D. At the time, the department required candidates to study a foreign language. Johnston didn’t see the point—English was the language in common use for his research—but the requirement was firmly embedded. So Johnston took aim at the social scientists with the tools of social science research. He put together a survey on the applicability of foreign languages to the professional work of psychologists, distributed it to the faculty and graduate students in the department, gathered and analyzed the data, and with colleagues produced a report that concluded—as he had anticipated—that foreign language skills were largely irrelevant. The result? The department dropped the requirement, and eventually so did a number of other departments. Jerald Bachman, a senior research scientist and long-time collaborator with Johnston, was a witness to the episode: “I said, ‘I always want to be on the same side as that guy!’ That was the moral of the story for me.”

Johnston, with his swept-back mane of hair and understated charm, exudes the steady confidence of a scholar who knows his stuff. But early on, it took a few false starts before he found his path to ISR and the role of world expert on teen drug use. Johnston was raised outside of Boston, the only child of a homemaker and an executive in a plumbing and heating supply firm. After his father’s premature death, his family tried to lure him into the family business, but Johnston resisted. “I had an early interest in doing something that would make a contribution to society and the welfare of people,” he says.

How to do that was less clear. First he studied economics at Williams College, and then earned an MBA from the Harvard Business School. Neither of those degrees seemed to be leading him in the right direction, but while at Harvard, Johnston developed an interest in organizational behavior, and took as many social science and psychology courses as he could. By the time he graduated from business school, he was convinced that social psychology was his real calling, and he spent the next year taking graduate-level courses at Harvard and MIT with top scholars in the field. One of those was a visiting professor, Robert Kahn, an ISR founder and renowned social psychologist. Johnston was immediately taken by Kahn and his work, and Kahn encouraged him to consider Michigan for his Ph.D. “Usually when you enter a doctoral program, you’re not thinking about working at the place where you’re going for your training,” Johnston says. “But in this case, I came to Michigan because ISR was here and because I wanted to do the kind of work you can do at ISR.”

Johnston came, he conquered, and he never left. As a graduate student, Johnston began working with Kahn and Bachman, the co-principal investigators of Youth in Transition, a study primarily focused on the causes and effects of young men dropping out of high school. In redesigning the survey, the three added a number of questions about a new problem emerging toward the end of the 1960s—drug use. Johnston’s book about those results, Drugs and American Youth, was published in 1973, the same year he completed his dissertation on the organization of the American high school.

Meanwhile, Johnston and Bachman had begun designing a study of young people far broader than Youth in Transition. “There were a lot of social problems by the beginning of the ’70s,” Johnston says. “Race relations, cities were burning, gender roles were changing, drug use was burgeoning, and there was a lot of alienation from government and the older generation as a result of the Vietnam War. We thought we could make a contribution—to measure and better understand the behaviors, values, and attitudes that underlay these problems and the kinds of people most likely to exhibit them.”

But the researchers couldn’t find anyone to sponsor a broad, nationwide study of the problems of youth. That’s when Johnston thought of Robert DuPont, the drug czar under President Richard Nixon. DuPont had invited Johnston to his office to make a presentation after reading his new book on youth and drugs, and the two had stayed in touch. “I said to Jerry, ‘Maybe what we need to do is make this worthwhile to one sponsor interested in a specific subject,’” Johnston recalls. “‘And then maybe they’ll let us carry a lot of the other subjects along.’”

DuPont was about to become the founding director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), and Johnston and Bachman decided NIDA would be the perfect sponsor. They redesigned their study to home in on an issue that was growing in urgency and still little understood: the prevalence of substance use and abuse among youth—who was using what drugs, how much, and why? They made their pitch, DuPont and his colleagues at the White House and NIDA said yes, and Monitoring the Future was born.

From the start, Johnston and Bachman envisioned Monitoring the Future as an ambitious longitudinal study—an annual study that would run for years and that would follow a subset of each year’s graduating high school seniors as they aged. They combed through existing surveys and crafted largely new questionnaires that were comprehensive and would not become dated over time. “We had to write all the questions about a host of subjects that we weren’t experts at, so we had five doctoral students from different disciplines who were bringing in a great deal of relevant material,” Johnston says. “We did this in a year.”

In 1975, Johnston, as principal investigator, oversaw the first nationwide survey of about 16,000 seniors in more than 130 public and private high schools, recruiting all of the high school principals himself. To complete the survey took students about 45 minutes, or one class period, just as it does today. Questions targeted a broad swath of values and behaviors, ranging from political beliefs to educational and occupational plans to incidents of stealing. Including additional topics made the survey more valuable to researchers—both because of the data provided in other areas and for how that data might relate to drug use—and also helped ease acceptance of the study, Johnston says. “It makes it more palatable to principals, parents, and students, and it makes it more interesting and relevant for the kids.”

But substance use remained front and center. Have you ever smoked cigarettes? On how many occasions (if any) have you used marijuana during the last 12 months? Have you ever tried to stop using alcoholic beverages and found that you couldn’t stop? According to Johnston, he and Bachman, soon joined by ISR researcher Patrick O’Malley, did not begin with a specific policy agenda. Rather, they wanted to increase the understanding of teen substance use so that policymakers would have good information and guidance upon which to base their actions. “It was pretty obvious that it was an important set of issues, especially when you take alcohol and tobacco into account,” Johnston says. “Tobacco is the leading preventable cause of death and disease in the country, and much of that behavior is established in adolescence or before.”

Johnston had one hypothesis that he particularly wanted to test—that if young people saw a drug or other substance as dangerous, they would be less likely to use it. Nowadays, that might sound self-evident, but that’s largely as a result of this study. “When we started in this field, the common wisdom was that this is not a rational behavior and you don’t look for rational determinants,” Johnston says. Given the assumed immaturity of the population and the range of factors thought to be motivating teens to use drugs—including rebellion against authority—most policymakers didn’t think educating teens about risks would have much impact.

To explore this relationship, Johnston and his colleagues included a number of questions designed to measure the perceived risk of different drugs. The results, he says, were eye opening. Intensive media coverage of rising marijuana use and its consequences in the late 1970s, showing in particular the potential dangers of regular use, caused the perceived risk of using the drug to rise sharply. Shortly after, marijuana use began to drop. Johnston calls the demonstration of this causal relationship “one of the most important theoretical contributions we’ve made. We now can provide an early warning of things to come and a means to deal with them.”

The cycle that Johnston observed in the 1970s—increasing drug use, followed by increased perception of the dangers, followed by a drop in drug use—repeated itself in the 1980s and 1990s. After a surge of attention in the mid-1980s, when the ravages of crack cocaine shook neighborhoods and grabbed headlines, an overall decline in substance use pushed drug abuse off the front burner again. From 1989 to 1992, Johnston says, media coverage dropped dramatically; Congress put less money into prevention programs; the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, lacking pro bono support from the media, ran fewer ads; school prevention programs diminished; and parents weren’t talking to their kids about drugs as much. It was, Johnston says, as though people thought you could conquer substance abuse once and it would stay conquered for the next generation of young people coming of age.

Not surprisingly, he says, by the early 1990s, Monitoring the Future found another sharp uptick in substance use. The findings were front page news, commentators lamented, and the country mobilized to contain drug abuse once again. “This is not the kind of problem you can leave unattended,” Johnston says. “There’s always generational replacement taking place. Just because the last generation learned how to read doesn’t mean the next one knows how to read if you don’t teach them.”

Rapidly identifying upswings in substance use, including new substances arriving on the scene, and documenting the benefits of intervention are among Monitoring the Future’s major achievements, Johnston believes. Nor is the study and its impact limited to illegal drugs. Perhaps the study’s single greatest contribution to date, Johnston says, was to call the nation’s attention in the early ’90s to a spike in cigarette smoking among teens. “We had a 50 percent increase within a few years, and no other study was documenting this,” he says. The ensuing government mobilization—involving President Clinton, the Congress, and the FDA Commissioner—contributed to the landmark Tobacco Settlement of 1998, whose provisions included restricting the marketing of cigarettes to youth. (Even before the settlement, a lawsuit sparked by rising concerns about youth smoking forced R.J. Reynolds to drop its popular and child friendly Joe Camel mascot.) The size of the settlement also drove tobacco companies to hike cigarette prices, making them less affordable to young people. Teen smoking has since dropped to historically low levels, a trend documented by the study.

Raising public concern about rising substance use is one issue. Figuring out the most effective way to convey the risk to potential users is another. “It’s the $64,000 question,” says Johnston, who for years has offered pro bono advice to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America on its ad campaigns. One of the most widely recognized: “This is your brain on drugs,” an ad featuring an egg sizzling in hot grease. News events can also alter perceptions. When Len Bias, a young basketball player with extraordinary promise, died in 1986 after what was allegedly his first use of cocaine, it “got the attention of an awful lot of kids,” Johnston says. But some efforts fail or even backfire. Bombarding teens with messages when they already perceive a drug to be dangerous won’t further cut use, Johnston says. And making claims that are false or exaggerated is the fastest way to lose credibility with young people.

In the last few decades, Johnston has played a seminal role in developing national studies like Monitoring the Future in countries across the world. Meanwhile, in addition to the annual data on secondary school students (which has included 8th and 10th grade students since 1991), he and his colleagues track a subset of each year’s Monitoring the Future 12th grade respondents as they age; members of the first cohort recently turned 55. The studies have shown the relative importance of birth cohort, historical period, and age in determining substance use. They also have shown that substance use changes in response to role and environmental transitions, such as when young people leave the parental home, get married, get divorced, or enter military service. (Colleagues Bachman, O’Malley, and John Schulenberg have done much of the work on these panel studies.)

For the past 17 years, Johnston also has been principal investigator of Youth, Education, and Society. The study, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is aimed at understanding how different aspects of the school environment—in particular, beverages, foods, and exercise opportunities—may contribute, positively or negatively, to the growing problem of childhood obesity. Obesity is the second greatest threat to public health after cigarette smoking, Johnston notes, and he sees the work as necessary and important.

And Johnston continues to make sure that Monitoring the Future “survives and thrives,” despite periodic threats. It’s grown harder to persuade schools to participate, as they face an ever-increasing raft of government requirements, assessments, societal demands, and budget cuts. The study—at about $7 million annually—is also expensive, particularly for the social sciences, and always at risk for cost cutting. It undergoes peer review at the NIH every five years. “I never assume that the next review is going to be successful,” Johnston says, “since the team of reviewers always changes.” In addition, an institutional review board rigorously evaluates the study’s treatment of human research subjects annually, and each year standards evolve. Johnston has twice testified before Congress to oppose bills that would have required Monitoring the Future and other in-school studies to get written parental consent from every parent. Such a requirement, he says, would destroy this and other studies. Participation would plummet because many parents wouldn’t respond, and the samples would become unrepresentative, with kids at higher risk even less likely to participate. Indeed, the study would no longer be comparable with past results.

For now, though, all is well. The annual survey reaches nearly 50,000 secondary school students in some 400 schools, and more than 45,000 individuals have returned many thousands of surveys in the years after graduation. NIDA executives remain committed: “I like to think that they view it as one of the jewels in their crown,” Johnston says. And countless scholars and government agencies rely on the results. “I eagerly await the release of the new data every year,” says Frank Chaloupka, distinguished professor of economics and public health at the University of Illinois-Chicago, who collaborates closely with Johnston on the Robert Wood Johnson project. “Lloyd’s always thinking of the big picture and trying to figure out a way to do things that will be most strategic and have the biggest impact on the health of kids.”

At age 74, Johnston could be thinking about retirement. He’s developed a mild obsession with seashells, and collects them both by walking beaches and scanning the internet; a recent find came from China. A bowl of them rests on his table at ISR and many more specimens adorn his home, somewhat to the chagrin of his wife, Janet. He and his sixteen-year-old step-daughter also lavish attention on her new Maltese puppy, Princeton. “God, we love this little critter!” Johnston exclaims. But in truth, Johnston is nowhere near ready for retired life. “I really enjoy my work,” Johnston muses. “It’s a central part of my identity. It’s something that I would miss a great deal if I wasn’t engaged in it.”