Strategy for Psychology Optional for UPSC

Psychology is one of the optional subjects offered by the UPSC for the civil services mains examination. Psychology is defined as the scientific study of the human mind and its functions, especially those affecting behaviour in a given context. The tricky thing about psychology is that it is considered to be a natural science, a social science and also a life science subject. This makes the study and writing answers for UPSC, a somewhat dicey affair. But, with focused study and the correct guidance, this optional can be aced as many toppers in the past have proved.

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How many take Psychology optional?

As per the UPSC’s annual report, in 2018, 193 candidates had opted for the psychology optional out of which 21 cleared the exam in CSE 2017, giving the subject a success rate of 10.9%. Let us take a look at the psychology optional’s success rate through the years 2010 to 2017 in the following table.

Psychology optional Success Rate

Year No. of candidates appeared No. of candidates cleared Success Rate (%)
2017 193 21 10.9
2016 1061 116 10.9
2015 238 28 11.8
2014 373 59 15.8
2013 348 34 9.8
2012 1163 92 7.9
2011 1365 143 10.5
2010 1139 93 8.2

Psychology optional toppers

There have been many successful candidates with psychology as their optional subject. Dr. Shena Aggarwal topped the UPSC IAS exam of 2011 with psychology as one of her optionals, the other one being medical science. The following table gives the names of a few more toppers.

Name Year Rank
Anurag Jain 2018 24
Manish Kumar 2017 61
Anuj Malik 2016 16
Mittali Sethi 2016 56
Anvesha Reddy 2016 80
Joseph K Mathew 2016 574
Annapurna Garg 2015 68
Ashis Panda 2014 276
Ankita Singh 2014 664
Prabhav Joshi 2013 23
Ravi Ranjan 2013 92
Shena Aggarwal 2011 1
Shubhra Saxena 2008 1
Adapa Karthik 2007 1

Is Psychology a good optional for IAS?

Psychology is optional subject that can reap many benefits for the IAS exam. However, there are both positives and negatives associated with the subject as in any other optional for IAS exam. If you are considering psychology as your optional subject for UPSC mains and are unable to decide, you can go through the list of pros and cons that we have given below. After that, you should assess your own strengths and weaknesses and then come to a conclusion. Do remember there are ups and downs in any optional. It is your own approach to studying it and your interest in the subject that will decide your fate.

Psychology Optional Pros

  • It is generally considered a highly interesting subject and most people are fascinated by the inner workings of the human mind. So, sustaining interest in the subject throughout your preparation might be really easy.
  • Good study material is readily available for this subject.
  • It can be scoring because you can use a lot of examples from real life to substantiate your answers.
  • Anyone can take up this optional – you need not be a graduate in this subject. It is also a good option for doctors who do not wish to take up medical science as their optional subject.
  • Psychology can help in the Ethics paper because at times, the psychology tends to get philosophical. Ethics is an abstract paper, and psychology can help fine-tune the abstract nature of ethics and help you write better answers.
  • Psychology can also help in certain portions in GS I (social issues) and the essay paper also.

Psychology Optional Cons

  • If you are really not interested in studying this subject, you better keep off it as it can come across as vague.
  • For people with a different academic background, psychology may be a tad hard to follow, especially if you stick to only foreign-authored textbooks.
  • There is very little overlap with the general studies papers.
  • The syllabus for psychology optional is considered relatively vast.

Psychology Optional Syllabus

Let us take a look at the syllabus for psychology for the UPSC mains exam.

There are two optional papers in the UPSC exam pattern. Both the papers are for a total of 250 marks each, making the total optional marks to 500

UPSC Psychology syllabus PDF download:- Download Syllabus PDF

Psychology Optional Strategy

Before starting off with the paperwise optional strategy, let us first look at the basics of studying psychology for the IAS exam. There are four aspects which you should keep in mind while studying and also while writing answers. They are:

  1. Basic concept – this includes the definitions and the underlying concept.
  2. Experimental studies – include these in your answers with names preferably. These studies are very important to the field of psychology and include them as a fundamental aspect of your preparation. Since psychology is not an exact science, there is a thin dividing intuition and research-proven facts. So, be extra careful while preparing this aspect.
  3. Real-life examples – these boost your score. They are also applied part of psychology. Include examples from different walks of life. More importantly, use examples from India itself more, because, at the end of the day, you want to be an Indian civil servant!
  4. Flowcharts – this helps you understand many concepts and also, of course, boosts your score, not to mention saves time during the exam.
  5. Practice Psychology previous year question papers UPSC – last but not least, practice UPSC previous year questions paper of psychology and apply the above techniques/strategies and test yourself.

General Tips for Psychology Optional

  • Stick to a minimum number of books for this optional which covers about 95% of the syllabus. Do not try to read ten different books and get overwhelmed.
  • Some answers in this optional can be written using your intuition also.
  • NCERTs are very important for this subject, especially if you are learning psychology for the first time.
  • It is advisable to finish the whole syllabus for psychology at least once before your prelims exam. And, do your revision from the same sources.
  • You have to take care not to write answers like you would in the GS papers. Sometimes, the questions can be like GS questions, but in the optional, you must write like a specialist.
  • It is also very important to form linkages between the topics in the syllabus. For example,  you can use the concepts of memory, learning, intelligence, motivation, etc. (which are present in Paper I) to write answers in Paper II (which deals with applied psychology).

Aspirants can refer to the below links to know more about the psychology subject as an optional paper in UPSC Mains:

Paper I Strategy

Paper I in psychology is more theoretical in nature. The portions can be divided into:

Foundations of Psychology, Cognitive Psychology, Personality and Contemporary Psychology.

  • You must develop a strong foundation in Paper I because this is going to be your base on which to build answers in Paper II (which is basically applying the concepts in Paper I into practice).
  • The chapter ‘Research Methods’ is increasingly becoming popular with the UPSC and many questions are being asked from it.
  • A few topics are repeatedly asked and you should be absolutely thorough with them so that these marks are assured. They are working memory, intrinsic motivation, personality, attitude, values and interests, and issues in modern psychology.
  • The book to follow for the paper-I is Psychology by Robert Baron. Alternatively, you can use Psychology by Saundra Ciccarelli.
  • Example questions are given from 2018 and 2017 psychology papers (paper I) for illustration:
    • “Human memory is not like information stored in a tape recorder or compact disc.” Critically evaluate the statement. (10 marks, 2018)
    • Demonstrate the importance of the shallow and deep levels of processing in remembering. With the help of daily life examples, explain how retrieval cues enable us to remember. (15 marks, 2018)
    • Why do we forget? Differentiate between anterograde and retrograde amnesia. (20 marks, 2017)
    • Explain the differences in information processing at various levels of memory. In what way is recall affected by initial processing of information? (15 marks, 2017)
    • Why is the principle of random assignment of participants used in the experimental method? How do experimenter effects and demand characteristics influence participants’ behaviour in experimentation? What procedures can be adopted to minimize such pitfalls? (20 marks, 2018)
    • What are the assumptions underlying ANOVA? Discuss the conditions when two-way ANOVA is applied and how the results are interpreted with a hypothetical example. (20 marks, 2018)
    • Which research design would you apply to prove that a particular method of teaching yields best results? (20 marks, 2017)
    • “Creativity refers to novel ideas that address some problems in a useful way.” Critically examine the statement and discuss how creative insight can be explained. (15 marks, 2018)
    • Creative people usually have high IQ scores but those with highest IQ scores are not necessarily the most creative people. Explain. (10 marks, 2017)

Paper-II Strategy

Paper-II deals with applied psychology. This paper is more application-oriented and requires extra effort and answer writing practice.

  • Develop your answers rooted in the concepts of psychology that you learnt in Paper I.
  • Give a lot of examples to support your answers and make sure you quote a majority of Indian examples.
  • Sometimes, the UPSC asks unconventional questions in paper II.
    • For this, you have to be armed with a ready-made framework of answer writing because time is a scarce commodity in your mains exam.
    • This framework can go like this – take the basic issue asked in the question (for instance, behavioural change needed for Swachch Bharat, or the problem of teenage drug abuse).
    • Then, divide your answer into sections such as society, institutions, education/awareness, role-models, reinforcement, and finally recent developments if applicable.
    • In this framework of answers, incorporate principles like operant conditioning, social psychology, modeling, persuasive communication, etc.
  • For paper II, you should use Applied Psychology by Smarak Swain.
  • Example questions are given from 2018 and 2017 papers:
    • In what specific ways can psychologists work for empowering the communities that have been marginalised by society? (10 marks, 2018)
    • How is disadvantage related to a social structure of hierarchy and discrimination? What is its relationship with capability deprivation and poverty? (15 marks, 2018)
    • Explain the psychological, socio-cultural and economic consequences of belonging to a disadvantaged group. Suggest steps to educate and motivate disadvantaged groups towards development. (20 marks, 2017)
    • Explain how mass media contribute to acquisition and learning of aggressive and violent behaviour. Examine the relationship between exposure to erotica and aggressiveness. (15 marks, 2018)
    • Explain the role of mass media in value development. How can the mass media and information technology be used for promoting pro-social values? (15 marks, 2017)
    • Discuss the relationship between sex-role stereotyping, self-fulfilling prophesy and glass ceiling effect in Indian society. (15 marks, 2018)
    • Discuss the challenges and opportunities offered by multiculturalism and diversity in today’s organisations. (10 marks, 2017)

UPSC Psychology Books

  1. Psychology by Robert A Baron
  2. Psychology by Saundra Ciccarelli
  3. Understanding Psychology by Robert S. Feldman
  4. Tests, Measurements and Research Methods in Behavioural Sciences by A K Singh
  5. Psychology – Classes XI & XII NCERT textbooks
  6. Applied Psychology by Smarak Swain

Other relevant links:

Daily News


  1. Can I choose psychology as optional If i am from commerce background ?

  2. which books you suggest for psychology .

  3. Sir I m confused whether to choose sociology and psychology ,I m pretty inclined towards psychology out of my curiosity to fathom dis subject tho I have never read this subject before but problem lies in popular vs unpopular subject since sociology is considered one of the safest and scoring subject at one side while psychology is neglected by many aspirants as their optional ( I don’t know why which being novice restricts me to some extent choosing dis as my optional) also myth attached to it ,that it is not scoring I don’t know what’s true but I m very confused whether I go merely by interest or think practically or opt for something safe so that I don’t have to regret later on ,also it considers psychology need excellence level of writing skills (which any one who have done masters in particular sub would capable of doing it ) is it true ?

    • The first rule to select any subject as your optional is the underlying interest of the candidate. You can read the syllabus of both the optional and gauze the existence of study material for both. Go through the sociology books of class 11th and 12th. If you find it compelling, you may go for it. Else, you also can go for Psychology. You have to remember that cracking UPSC is your goal, hence, whatever aids your mission, should be your first choice. All the best.

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