UK psychologist wins British Academy’s prestigious Wiley Prize in Psychology

29 September 2015

Professor Peter Fonagy has been awarded the Wiley Prize for lifetime achievement in Psychology. The British Academy awards the prize every two years to an outstanding international scholar. Previous winners were Professors Martin Seligman, Michael Tomasello and Anne Treisman – it has never before been awarded to a British academic.

Professor Fonagy is being recognised for ground-breaking work that has had a major impact on social policy on early childcare, adoption and fostering. His research has demonstrated that having a secure attachment to a parent or caregiver helps children to develop the ability to understand their own and others’ thoughts and feelings. This capacity, which he termed ‘mentalization’, is uniquely characteristic of humans but individual differences have been shown to influence personality development and mental health in both the short and longer term. He has shown that these abilities are passed from caregiver to child, not genetically but via the quality of childcare.

This research into mentalization has also been extended to psychotherapy for patients with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). This group, characterised by difficulties with emotion regulation and impulse control, and unstable relationships and self-image, were previously often seen as ‘untreatable’. With Anthony Bateman, Senior Consultant Psychiatrist at St Anne’s Hospital, London, Professor Fonagy developed and evaluated mentalization-based treatment (MBT), which has had a major impact on clinical practice for the treatment of patients with BPD in the UK (NICE CG 78) and internationally. It has also been used with other common mental health problems, including eating disorders and substance misuse, and in a range of clinical settings.

As well as being an academic at University College London, Professor Fonagy is Chief Executive of the Anna Freud Centre, a pioneering children’s mental health charity. The Honourable Michael Samuel, Chair of Trustees of the Centre said: 'We are delighted that Peter has received this recognition. He has been an energetic and exceptionally successful academic leader of the Centre and has overseen its growth from a local mental health provider to a national centre for child mental health'. 

The charity is currently leading a push for a step-change in the way services for children and adolescents with mental health problems are delivered. The Duchess of Cambridge visited the Anna Freud Centre two weeks ago to find out more about this work.

Professor Fonagy said: 'Naturally, I feel deeply honoured to receive this award which I feel recognises my many collaborators over nearly four decades of research whose contribution I am delighted to join in celebrating.'

- Read our ‘One on One’ with Professor Fonagy, and read more about his work in our archive.