Psychological and Behavioural Sciences

In the 2021 world rankings by the Times Higher Education Supplement, the Cambridge Department of Psychology was ranked first, above Stanford, Princeton, Harvard and Berkeley; and in the 2021 national rankings by the Guardian, the Department was also placed first.  

What is Psychology?

A student in the Department of Psychology prepares an experiment on face perception. The task is to identify which of the three images on the screen contains a human face. Normal people vary considerably in this ability, and the research is designed to discover the genetic bases for these individual differences. Photo by Roeland Verhallen.

A student in the Department of Psychology prepares an experiment on face perception. The task is to identify which of the three images on the screen contains a human face. Normal people vary considerably in this ability, and the research is designed to discover the genetic bases for these individual differences. Photo by Roeland Verhallen.

To study psychology is to study the human brain, because the brain is the organ that underlies all our behaviour and mental experiences. The brain is an information-processing system, and no man-made system can match its remarkable abilities. But Psychology is not simply about reducing behavioural and mental phenomena to neurophysiology. Imagine we had a wiring diagram showing all the connections of the 1011 neurons in the brain and imagine we understood how each type of neuron worked. If our explanation of human behaviour were constructed only in these terms, our account of the brain's operations would miss the most interesting parts—especially if we were trying to explain the powerful social influence that one person may have on another. So there needs to be someone who describes the brain as a system; and that is the role of the psychologist.

It is often assumed that the psychologist is concerned only with pathological or abnormal behaviour. In fact, the more interesting questions are often those of how the normal brain functions—for example, how your brain can analyse spoken words in real time, and (if we are lucky) I can translate semantic structures from my head to yours, merely by the medium of compressions and decompressions of air. Of course, some insight into these amazing processes can be gained from a systematic study of slips of the tongue or of misperceptions of speech, as well as from the more severe impairments of language that may follow brain damage.


Psychological and Behavioural Sciences (PBS)

The University of Cambridge has offered courses in psychology for over a century, and our graduates include many very distinguished psychologists such as Frederic Bartlett, Kenneth Craik, Donald Broadbent, Richard Gregory and Anne Treisman. The Psychological and Behavioural Sciences course, introduced in 2012, is designed to be very flexible, welcoming students who have an interest in social and developmental psychology as well as students who are more focused on neuroscience.

In the first year, the Psychology lecture courses can be combined with lectures in a wide range of other disciplines, such as Evolution and Behaviour, Mathematical Biology, Philosophy, Politics, Social Anthropology and Biological Anthropology. In the second and third years, all students complete core courses in Experimental Psychology and in Social and Developmental Psychology, but also take optional courses that include History of Science, Philosophy of Science, Neurobiology, Sociology, Philosophy and Education. An important part of the third year is a research project, which is often based in one of the many internationally distinguished research laboratories of the Department of Psychology. The University's PBS website provides a detailed account of the course structure. The course is accredited by the British Psychological Society as qualifying students for entry to postgraduate training courses in professional psychology.

Whilst PBS is the University’s only three-year psychology course, it is still possible to study Psychology in the second and third years of the Natural Sciences course. This route also leads to a degree that is accredited by the British Psychological Society as qualifying for postgraduate training. Students who have particular interests in, for instance, Biology of Cells, Genetics, Zoology or Mathematics may like to consider applying to read Natural Sciences—with the explicit intention of specializing in cognitive neuroscience.


Psychology at Caius

Caius has a long tradition of supporting teaching and research in Psychology. As early as 1875, John Venn, the Caian logician celebrated for Venn diagrams, proposed a 'laboratory of psychophysics' to the University. It was another distinguished Caian, Charles Myers, whose organisational talents led to the construction of the first Psychological Laboratory in 1912. Myers was one of the first psychologists to be elected to the Royal Society and was the first to describe “shell shock” in soldiers of the First World War.

Psychology is today represented in Caius by Professor John Mollon, FRS, who is Director of Studies. His research is on human perception and on the genetic bases of individual differences, and he is based in the Department of Psychology - the department that is home to the PBS Tripos. Other members of the College include Professor John Robson FRS, whose research interests are in visual perception, Professor Joe Herbert, who is emeritus professor of neuroscience, and Dr Michelle Ellefson, who is a University Lecturer in Psychology and Education. PBS students who choose the Neurobiology option are taught by Dr Suzanna Forwood, and those who choose the Biological Anthropology option are taught by Dr Charlotte Houldcroft.

Teaching Fellows


There are no required A-levels (or equivalents) for candidates applying to Caius to read PBS. It is explicitly not necessary to have studied Psychology before. Among the science subjects, Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Computer Science all provide useful background for the PBS course. We equally welcome applicants with a background in the humanities who would like to study human behaviour empirically and who would enjoy mastering the neuroscientific aspects of the course. We have found that students with excellent A-levels in academic Arts subjects – and a readiness to adopt a scientific approach to Psychology – are able to excel on the PBS course.  Whatever subjects you are currently studying, we are looking for high academic achievement, a capacity for logical thought and an ability to impose structure on diverse material. Suitably qualified applicants will be interviewed  and will also be asked to sit a written test, which will include summarising a passage of text on a general topic.

Don’t let our pre-admissions test discourage you from applying to Caius: our test is short (1 hour), it requires no preparation, and it explicitly does not require any knowledge of A-level Psychology or of Maths beyond GCSE level. A major part of the test is writing a short summary of a passage of interesting prose. This allows us (and you) to judge how you’d get on in the Cambridge course, which is dominated by the weekly task of reading research papers and digesting them into an essay to present to your supervisor. You can find here an example of a passage that we have used in the past. The test also includes some questions that probe general thinking skills.

If you have any queries about Admissions, please contact