UPSC Mains - How to Prepare for Psychology Optional

There has been a steady increase in the number of aspirants opting Psychology optional subject for civil services mains examination. Interest should be the prime criterion while choosing an optional subject. This article briefly covers the syllabus of a Psychology paper, reference books and strategies to tackle the same.

Aspirants would find this article very helpful while preparing for the IAS Exam.

Syllabus for Psychology in UPSC

Psychology has 2 papers like every other optional where direct application of concepts reduces the amount of rot learning. One of the biggest pros of psychology lies in the fact that this subject has lots to offer for implementation in everyday life and one can apply a lot of everyday knowledge in the paper as well. However, like every other optional, psychology has it’s set of cons as well like the syllabus is too lengthy especially in paper 2, the dearth of content in certain topics and the scoring can be a little challenging and unpredictable.

Paper 1 of Psychology deals with the theoretical aspects and covers the basic principles and Paper 2 is all about the application part and its use in various fields. The first step for any aspirant is to go through the syllabus and keep it handy all throughout the preparation because a thorough knowledge of the syllabus gives an aspirant an idea of what exactly UPSC expects. Let’s have a look at the detailed mains syllabus:


Foundations Of Psychology

1.Introduction: Definition of Psychology; Historical antecedents of Psychology and trends in the 21st century; Psychology and scientific methods; Psychology in relation to other social sciences and natural sciences; Application of Psychology to societal problems.

2.Methods of Psychology: Types of research: Descriptive, evaluative, diagnostic and prognostic; Methods of Research: Survey, observation, case-study and experiments; Characteristics of experimental design and non-experimental design, Quasi-experimental designs; Focussed group discussions, brainstorming, grounded theory approach.

3.Research Methods: Major steps in Psychological research (problem statement, hypothesis formulation, research designs, sampling, tools of data collection, analysis and interpretation and report writing) Fundamental versus applied research; Methods of data collection (interview, observation, questionnaire); Research designs (ex-post facto and experimental); Application of statistical technique (t-test, two-way ANOVA correlation, regression and factor analysis); Item response theory.

4.Development of Human Behaviour: Growth and development; Principles of development, Role of genetic and environmental factors in determining human behaviour; Influence of cultural factors in socialization; Life span development – Characteristics, development tasks, promoting psychological well-being across major stages of the life span.

5.Sensation, Attention and Perception: Sensation: concepts of the threshold, absolute and difference thresholds, signal-detection and vigilance; Factors influencing attention including set and characteristics of stimulus; Definition and concept of perception, biological factors in perception; Perceptual organization-influence of past experiences, perceptual defence-factors influencing space and depth perception, size estimation and perceptual readiness; The plasticity of perception; Extrasensory perception; Culture and perception, Subliminal perception.

6.Learning: Concept and theories of learning (Behaviourists, Gestaltalist and Information processing models); The Processes of extinction, discrimination and generalization; Programmed learning, probability learning, self-instructional learning, concepts; Types and the schedules of reinforcement, escape, avoidance and punishment, modelling and social learning.

7.Memory: Encoding and remembering; Short term memory, Long term memory, Sensory memory, Iconic memory, Echoic memory: The Multistore model, levels of processing; Organization and Mnemonic techniques to improve memory; Theories of forgetting: decay, interference and retrieval failure: Metamemory; Amnesia: Anterograde and retrograde.

8. Thinking and Problem Solving: Piaget’s theory of cognitive development; Concept formation processes; Information processing, Reasoning and problem solving, Facilitating and hindering factors in problem-solving, Methods of problem-solving: Creative thinking and fostering creativity; Factors influencing decision making and judgment; Recent trends.

9.Motivation and Emotion: Psychological and physiological basis of motivation and emotion; Measurement of motivation and emotion; Effects of motivation and emotion on behaviour; Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation; Factors influencing intrinsic motivation; Emotional competence and the related issues.

10.Intelligence and Aptitude: Concept of intelligence and aptitude, Nature and theories of intelligence – Spearman, Thurstone, Guilford Vernon, Sternberg and J.P; Das; Emotional Intelligence, Social intelligence, measurement of intelligence and aptitudes, the concept of IQ, deviation IQ, the constancy of IQ; Measurement of multiple intelligence; Fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence.

11.Personality: Definition and concept of personality; Theories of personality (psychoanalytical, sociocultural, interpersonal, developmental, humanistic, behaviouristic, trait and type approaches); Measurement of personality (projective tests, pencil-paper test); The Indian approach to personality; Training for personality development; Latest approaches like big 5-factor theory; The notion of self in different traditions.

12.Attitudes, Values and Interests: Definition of attitudes, values and interests; Components of attitudes; Formation and maintenance of attitudes; Measurement of attitudes, values and interests; Theories of attitude change; Strategies for fostering values; Formation of stereotypes and prejudices; Changing others behaviour; Theories of attribution; Recent trends.

13.Language and Communication: Human language – Properties, structure and linguistic hierarchy, Language acquisition- predisposition, critical period hypothesis; Theories of language development – Skinner and Chomsky; Process and types of communication – effective communication training.

14.Issues and Perspectives in Modern Contemporary Psychology: Computer application in the psychological laboratory and psychological testing; Artificial intelligence; Psychocybernetics; Study of consciousness-sleep-wake schedules; dreams, stimulus deprivation, meditation, hypnotic/drug-induced states; Extrasensory perception; Intersensory perception Simulation studies.

Candidates can go through the links below to prepare for Psychology optional for UPSC exam-


Psychology: Issues and Applications

1.Psychological Measurement of Individual Differences: The nature of individual differences; Characteristics and construction of standardized psychological tests; Types of psychological tests; Use, misuse and limitation of psychological tests; ethical issues in the use of psychological tests.

2.Psychological well-being and Mental Disorders: Concept of health-ill health; Positive health, wellbeing; Causal factors in mental disorders (Anxiety disorders, mood disorders, schizophrenia and delusional disorders; personality disorders, substance abuse disorders); Factors influencing positive health, well-being, lifestyle and quality of life; Happiness disposition.

3.Therapeutic Approaches: Psychodynamic therapies; Behaviour therapies; Client centred therapy; Cognitive therapies; Indigenous therapies (Yoga, Meditation); Bio-feedback therapy; Prevention and rehabilitation of the mentally ill; Fostering mental health.

4.Work Psychology and Organisational Behaviour: Personnel selection and training; Use of psychological tests in the industry; Training and human resource development; Theories of work motivation – Herzberg, Maslow, Adam Equity theory, Porter and Lawler, Vroom; Leadership and participatory management; Advertising and marketing; Stress and its management; Ergonomics; consumer psychology; Managerial effectiveness; Transformational leadership; Sensitivity training; Power and politics in organizations.

5.Application of Psychology to Educational Field: Psychological principles underlying effective teaching-learning process; Learning styles; Gifted, retarded, learning disabled and their training; Training for improving memory and better academic achievement; Personality development and value education, Educational, vocational guidance and career counselling; Use of psychological tests in educational institutions; Effective strategies in guidance programmes.

6.Community Psychology: Definition and concept of community psychology; Use of small groups in social action; Arousing community consciousness and action for handling social problems; Group decision making and leadership for social change; Effective strategies for social change.

7.Rehabilitation Psychology: Primary, secondary and tertiary prevention programmes-role of psychologists; Organising of services for the rehabilitation of physically, mentally and socially challenged persons including old persons, Rehabilitation of persons suffering from substance abuse, juvenile delinquency, criminal behaviour; Rehabilitation of victims of violence, Rehabilitation of HIV/AIDS victims, the role of social agencies.

8.Application of Psychology to disadvantaged groups: The concepts of disadvantaged, deprivation; Social, physical, cultural and economic consequences of disadvantaged and deprived groups; Educating and motivating the disadvantaged towards development; Relative and prolonged deprivation.

9.Psychological problems of social integration: The concept of social integration; The problem of caste, class, religion and language conflicts and prejudice; Nature and the manifestation of prejudice between the in-group and out-group; Causal factors of social conflicts and prejudices; Psychological strategies for handling the conflicts and prejudices; Measures to achieve social integration.

10.Application of Psychology in Information Technology and Mass Media: The present scenario of information technology and the mass media boom and the role of psychologists; Selection and training of psychology professionals to work in the field of IT and mass media; Distance learning through IT and mass media; Entrepreneurship through e-commerce; Multilevel marketing; Impact of TV and fostering value through IT and mass media; Psychological consequences of recent developments in Information Technology.

11.Psychology and Economic development: Achievement motivation and economic development; Characteristics of entrepreneurial behaviour; Motivating and training people for entrepreneurship and economic development; Consumer rights and consumer awareness, Government policies for the promotion of entrepreneurship among youth including women entrepreneurs.

12.Application of psychology to environment and related fields: Environmental psychology-effects of noise, pollution and crowding; Population psychology: psychological consequences of population explosion and high population density; Motivating for small family norm; Impact of rapid scientific and technological growth on degradation of the environment.

13.Application of psychology in other fields:

  1. Military Psychology Devising psychological tests for defence personnel for use in selection, Training, counselling; training psychologists to work with defence personnel in promoting positive health; Human engineering in defence
  2. Sports Psychology Psychological interventions in improving the performance of athletes and sports. Persons participating in Individual and Team Games.
  3. Media influences on pro and antisocial behaviour.
  4. Psychology of terrorism.
  5. Psychology of Gender: Issues of discrimination, Management of diversity; Glass ceiling effect, Self-fulfilling prophecy, Women and Indian society.

Booklist and Sources to Refer

A good hold over psychology will benefit an aspirant not only in optional but also in GS paper 4 – Ethics. Topics like Attitude, Emotional Intelligence, and aptitude which are a part of GS paper 4 are straight out of the syllabus of Psychology. A selective reading from the sources mentioned below should be sufficient to have a wholesome perspective on this subject.

1) NCERT Psychology – Class 11 and 12

2) Psychology – Robert Baron (Paper 1)

3) Introduction to Psychology – Atkinson & Hilgard (Paper 1)

4) Introduction to Psychology – Clifford Morgan and Richard King (Paper 1)

5) Psychology – Saundra K. Ciccarelli (Paper 1)

6) Applied Psychology – Smarak Swain (Paper 2)

The above reference books indeed provide a detailed understanding and enhance your conceptual clarity but it is very essential to be selective while reading these books. It is advised to have an approach where study one book multiple times as opposed to multiple books one time.


  1. Start with NCERT’s as this would help in mastering the basics and develop an overall understanding of the syllabus. Next, proceed to the standard reference books for Paper 1 as mentioned above. A lot of concepts covered in paper 1 can be directly applied to paper 2 and this indeed reduces the amount of mugging required. Paper 2 deals in detail in the book n Applied Psychology by Smarak Swain. This precisely covers all the topics.
  2. The focus should be on having an enhanced conceptual understanding while reading rather than merely memorizing the facts.
  3. It is crucial to have a good hold on concepts in paper 1 as it forms the foundation for paper 2. The chapter on statistics has been a hot favourite of UPSC off late and hence requires extra efforts.
  4. It is important to root your answers in theory for paper 2 and not write in a very generic manner. Instead one should write the psychological concepts or theories from paper 1 to support your argument. One can make their answers more relevant by using contemporary examples from the Indian context. This way you can enhance your answer and fetch more marks.
  5. A standard format should be adopted for answering questions involving attitude and behaviour change. Use principles of operant conditioning, modelling, social psychology, and persuasive communication etc. in the framework and cover every nook and corner of the syllabi. It is advised to skip the questions from the dicey chapters like community psychology and instead answer ones from the topics which have defined course content.
  6. Inclusion of case studies, examples, experiments, issues in newspapers and drawing diagrams hold a lot of value to the answers especially in paper 2. Presenting answers using flowcharts is also a good idea as they are easy to remember and one can fetch more marks easily.
  7. One must aim for effective revision. It is advised to revise what you have already competed regularly rather than collecting new facts every single day. Revise the same material multiple times and also rely on your own concise notes. Having your own notes written in a simple language aids further revision in the later stages as well.
  8. It is essential to develop the ability to interlink paper 1 and paper 2 for effective answer writing.
  9. Effective answer writing can be achieved by answer writing practice on a regular basis. A good answer comprises of 2 parts i.e. content and presentation. Hence it is crucial to address both the aspects. The first step is to read the question and understand what it demands and then jot down the points which you feel are relevant and can add weightage to the answer. Try to solve as many questions as possible and solve from the previous years’ papers. Some questions can be repeated and if not entirely repeated, often the areas remain the same. So one can be well prepared by going through previous papers. One more crucial step here is to get these checked by a mentor or teacher so that you are aware of your mistakes and further improvements can be done.
  10. Joining test series is another way of improving your answer writing skills as critical feedback helps an aspirant to know where he/she stands and can improve. Test series discussion also helps in gaining a better perspective, interactive sessions builds one’s confidence and one can learn how to present an answer in a critical yet concise manner.
  11. Follow some simple rules while writing an answer like underlining the keywords, diagrams which can be well integrated with the answer and concentrate on the structure of the answer. Never lose focus from the central theme else it might lead to negative marking.
  12. Another crucial step in preparation is the effective utilization of the exam time of three hours. It is advised to for the first five minutes, brainstorm a little by going through all the questions and decide which questions you can attempt in the best manner. Then stick to the time limit and divide the time accordingly depending on the marks allotted per question.
  13. Try to stick to the word limit, with some deviation on either side. This time management skill and speed improvement can also be developed with repeated practice.
  14. Lastly, the last few days before the exam should be spent wisely in revising the syllabus covered earlier. Try and do basic revision and don’t burden yourself with any new information.

Candidates can check out the relevant links given below to prepare for the UPSC exam-

The above details would help candidates prepare for UPSC 2021.

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