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Study Psychological and Behavioural Sciences at the University of Cambridge

Psychological and Behavioural Sciences

Fact File

Magdalene Campus code: M
UCAS code: C800
Course duration: Three years – BA (Hons)
Typical offer: A-level: A*A*A, IB: 41-42 points
Essential subjects: None
Useful subjects: Biology, Mathematics

Psychological and Behavioural Sciences (PBS) provides the opportunity to study all aspects of psychology, from Social Relations to Neurological Processes; or from how a child develops emotionally and intellectually to how someone may suffer from the loss of psychological functions due to illness, age, or accident.

Applicants for this course need not have studied psychology before. Learning the subject requires the ability to analyse and understand theories which have their roots in a broad range of subjects in the humanities and sciences. An education which has developed this intellectual flexibility and a passion for the subject matter is what is required.


At Cambridge
At Magdalene
What we are looking for
Subject Requirements
Teaching Staff

The PBS course at Cambridge covers the full range of psychology, including Behavioural and Cognitive Neuroscience, Cognitive Psychology, Developmental Psychology, Social Psychology, as well as the study of atypical development and adult psychopathology.

Psychology shares considerable overlap with disciplines such as anthropology, biological sciences, computer science, economics, linguistics, philosophy, sociology, and many others. It is also of great value in many application areas, for example, traditional clinical concerns; the design of new technologies; criminality; and how we can best educate ourselves to the workings of the economy.

While there are a small number of compulsory psychology papers, you will have plenty of choice with options such as the development of social behaviour, psychopathology, cognitive psychology, language, brain mechanisms, gender, family relationships and influences, personality, and group social behaviour. A research projects or dissertation in third year enables you to study certain topics in greater depth.

You will be taught by lecturers and researchers of international excellence in the subject of psychology, as well as staff in the fields of biological and social anthropology, history and philosophy of science, criminology, sociology and education, should you choose optional papers in these subjects. Seminar programmes throughout the year offer talks from guest speakers. In addition to this academic expertise, you will have access to extensive library and computing facilities.

As you progress through each year, you have more opportunity to specialise, and to undertake larger, research-based pieces of work. A diagram of the course structure and more information can be found on Psychological and Behavioural Sciences website.

PBS students at Magdalene have plenty of opportunity to interact with students from both science and humanities disciplines. PBS engages in diverse approaches including biological, cognitive, social and developmental. Such approaches can be applied to a variety of substantive topic areas, including: Brain Mechanisms, Close Relationships, Cognitive Psychology, Family Relationships, Gender, Intergroup Relations, Language, Perception, Personality, Psychopathology.

Those interested in the biological side of psychology have the opportunity to take papers from the Natural Sciences Tripos (NST) such as Evolution and Behaviour, and Biological Anthropology from the Department of Archaeology.

Those interested in the more socio-cultural aspects of psychology have the opportunity in first year to study subjects from the Faculty of Human, Social and Political Sciences (HSPS) such as Sociology and Social Anthropology.

It is also possible for candidates to combine psychology with papers from subjects such as Archaeology, Mathematical Biology, Neuroscience, and Philosophy.

The College library currently has nearly 400 psychology titles, and this collection is being continually expanded and updated. The librarian schedules library tours in the first week of term to show you how to get the most out the resources available to you.

At Magdalene we normally aim to make three or four offers in PBS each year, and in recent years we have received between four and six applications per place.

As well as the Director of Studies, Dr Catherine O'Brien, other Magdalene Fellows with research interests related to Psychology include Prof Brendan Burchell (Social Psychology), Professor Paul Dupree (Biology), and Dr Hannah Critchlow (Neuroscience).

Is human aggression innate or learnt? Is it affected by the weather? Are emotions a hindrance to rational judgements and decision-making or are they in fact a help? Can we ‘speed up’ children’s cognitive development through teaching them or do we need to wait for their cognitive structures to mature?

We are looking for students who struggle to ‘pick sides’ in any of these debates. Psychology asks that you analyse complexity, navigate between tensions, and appreciate the validity of the different perspectives. Psychology is the study of the interface between mind and body. You should therefore have a good understanding of brain structures and processes, and bodily systems. Equally, you should understand the socio-cultural factors influencing or constituting our behaviour and the meanings we attach to it.

We are looking for those who can think both philosophically and neurobiologically about psychology. To a significant extent, this is a science-based course, therefore you should be prepared to engage with maths, statistics and methodology, and be keen to learn about cellular biology, synapses, neurotransmitters, anatomy, to a relatively in-depth level.

The course develops a variety of skills include critical analysis, and the ability to analyse quantitative data through its engagement with statistical methods and research methods. Popular with prospective employers, such skills enable our Psychology graduates find employment in a very wide range of professions.

Apart from achieving outstanding exam results, you need to be open-minded, curious, engaged and passionate about psychological phenomena and current issues. You should have thought about the connections between psychology and other disciplines, and its applications. You should enjoy writing essays - expressing yourself clearly and combining ideas and empirical evidence in a coherent, lucid and compelling way. Finally, you should have read a good selection of psychology books and articles, which you can discuss enthusiastically and critically.

There are no specific subject requirements for Psychological and Behavioural Studies at Magdalene, but Mathematics and Biology are both considered helpful. Psychology is neither particularly recommended nor a disadvantage. The following super-curricular resources may also be helpful:

Our typical offer conditions are A*A*A at A-level or 41-42 in the IB with 7,7,6 at Higher Level.

IB applicants starting the new IB Mathematics syllabus are expected to take IB Higher Level 'Analysis and Approaches' for any course where Mathematics is a requirement. If this option is not available at your school, please contact the College for further advice and guidance.

Interviews and Written Work

Applicants to Magdalene College are required to submit, prior to interview, two essays written and marked as part of school/college work, of no more than 2,000 words in length each. If you would like to submit an EPQ, we would request that you submit a section of it.

An interviewer might want to ask you questions about the work you have sent in. It is therefore worth reading over a copy before the interview to refresh your memory.

You do not have to send this work before applying. We will write to you after you have applied and let you know exactly what you need to send and when.

Please complete an Essay Cover Sheet for each submitted essay.

Applicants called for interview will normally receive two interviews exploring their interests, knowledge and aptitude for study, amongst other things. Each interview will usually last about 20-25 minutes. Interviews are normally with subject specialists, including the Director of Studies, and sometimes with more general interviewers, such as College Fellows in other subjects. Candidates may be given passages to read and think about before the start of one or both of their interviews.

Applicants to Magdalene for PBS are not required to sit a written admissions assessment.


Dr Catherine O'Brien

College positions: Director of Studies in Psychological and Behavioural Sciences, College Lecturer in Psychological and Behavioural Sciences

Dr Catherine O'Brien is College Lecturer and Director of Studies in PBS at Magdalene. Her teaching and research focus on the fields of social and developmental psychology. In May 2018 she was short-listed for a CUSU student-led Teaching Award as supervisor, one of only 10 such supervisors selected in the school of social sciences.

Read more

Professor Brendan Burchell

College positions: Official Fellow

Brendan Burchell is a Professor in the Social Sciences and President of Magdalene College.

Read more

Recommended reading for PBS

Recommended reading list for PBS 2019-2020

  • Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Damasio, A. (2010). Self comes to mind: Constructing the conscious brain. Vintage Books.
  • Davies, J. (2012). The Importance of Suffering: The Value and Meaning of Emotional Discontent. Routledge.
  • De Botton, A. (2001). The consolations of philosophy. Penguin: New Ed edition.
  • Eysenck, M. W. & Keane, M. T. (2010). Cognitive psychology: A student’s handbook. Psychology Press.
  • Fraser, C & Burchell, B. (2001). Introducing social psychology. Oxford: Polity.
  • Gerrig, Zimbardo, Svartdal & Brennen (2012). Psychology and life. Allyn & Bacon.
  • Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Pantheon Books.
  • Harari, Yuval N. (2015). Sapiens: A brief history of humankind. New York: Harper.
  • Harris, S. (2012). Free will. New York: Free Press.
  • Hogg, M. & Vaughan, G. (2010). Essentials of social psychology. Prentice Hall.
  • Hrdy, S. (2011). Mothers and others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. Harvard University Press.
  • Hughes, C. (2011). Social understanding and social lives: From toddlerhood through to the transition to school (Essays in Developmental Psychology). UK: Psychology Press.
  • Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.
  • Masson, Jeffrey (2003). The assault on truth: Freud’s suppression of the seduction theory. New York: Ballantine Books.
  • Laing, R.D. (1960). The divided self: An existential study in sanity and madness. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  • LeDoux, J. (2003). Synaptic self: How our brains become who we are. Penguin.
  • Nolan-Hoeksema, S., Wagenaar, W., Fredrickson, B. & Loftus, G. R. (2009). Atkinson and Hilgard’s Introduction to psychology. Cengage Learning.
  • Pinker, S. (2011). The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. Viking.
  • Schaffer, H. Rudolph (2006). Key concepts in developmental psychology. Sage.
  • Surowiecki, J. (2005). The wisdom of crowds: Why the many are smarter than the few. Anchor Books.
  • Thaler, R. H. & Sunstein, C. R. (2008). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. New Haven: Yale University Press.