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Insights into UPSC Prelims: How to avoid overthinking

Insights into UPSC Prelims: How to avoid overthinking

Being hyper-critical of the question and overthinking the options are not uncommon among UPSC aspirants, and many aspirants end up marking wrong answers in the exam precisely because they overestimate the depth of a question. Most questions in UPSC (Prelims) do not require you to think very hard; if your impression was otherwise, please consider revisiting it. It is not that aspirants are unaware that they overthink, but often they do not know how to control this tendency. Knit-picking options, hair-splitting the meaning of the question and meta-analysis of the possible answers are sometimes a result of your academic training and sometimes simply an inbuilt personality trait that gets triggered the minute you see a question.

You could be an economist who overanalyses an economy question in Prelims, or you could be a lawyer or a Political science student solving polity questions; most of you may have faced this. Unless you know how to put this over-analysis to rest, it’ll be quite difficult to answer basic questions in UPSC that do not demand anything more than a single step of logical reasoning or inference. This article gives you two hypothetical principles to avoid overthinking in the exam and save some valuable marks.

A. The principles

  1. Logical Close Chain (LCC) Analysis: The first such principle is that, when employing logical reasoning in conceptual questions, you should not move beyond one or two steps of logic. Keep the inference close to the question. For instance, if the questions mentions A, which logically should lead to B, and then to C, and then D and so forth, unless B or C makes no sense, you should stick to them as the answer. In other words, in most cases, you should invariably pick up B or C as the answer because, logically speaking, it is the closest inference that can be drawn from the question A.

For example, high fertility rate (A) leads to higher population (B), which then leads to a scarcity of resources (C), which may lead to unemployment (D) and thus poverty (E).  If there is a question, where you have four options (B, C, D and E) on the implications of high fertility rates (A), invariably pick up B as the answer since it lies the closest in the logical chain.

It is not that other options are wrong, but the other options depend on various other causes and conditions that can render them wrong. If high population growth is also supplemented with high economic growth, none of the implications C, D and E may be correct. The examiners know it, and they try hard to put alternative options that belong to D, E or even F levels of logical inference, so that you can easily pick up B as the answer. 

  1. Primary-Secondary (P-S) analysis: The second such principle is that, when faced with primary and secondary reasons/principles in the options that explain the question statement, you should stick to the primary reasons/ cause/factor that stick closest to the question. The underlying rationale for this is that primary causes are more easily identifiable and are usually less in number than secondary (or tertiary) causes which usually number in tens or dozens.

For example, this was an actual UPSC question on finding out which of the following (DPSP, Fundamental Rights, Preamble and Fundamental Duties) reflects the mind of the Constitution makers? All the options reflect the mind of the constitution makers in some way or the other, such as DPSP reflect the values, FRs reflect the libertarian position etc. But, if you identify the primary factor here, it would be Preamble because it is like an introduction to the Constitution and forms one of first few pages of this holy document. Others, i.e. DPSP, FRs merely elucidate the Preamble in various ways and are therefore secondary factors in the case of this question.


 B. Demonstration

While these two examples help clarify the principles, we would like to demonstrate how these two hypothetical principles can be applied to some of the questions asked in 2013-2018 UPSC GS (Prelims) papers. We have segregated a few of these Qs subject wise. Our experiences says that most of the mistakes due to overthinking are made either in Polity or Economy questions, hence we restrict our treatment to the same. 

B1. Economy questions (2014-18)

Let us analyse economy questions. We will only discuss those options where there might be a confusion.

If the interest rate is decreased in an economy, it will (2014)

(a) decrease the consumption expenditure in the economy

(b) increase the tax collection of the Government

(c) increase the investment expenditure in the economy 

(d) increase the total savings in the economy

Analysis: Option A and D are clearly wrong.

Option B and C both seem valid, but the answer will be option C because logically it lies closer to the question statement (Principle 1 of this article). Let us draw the logical close chain (LCC).

Logical Close Chain (LCC): Interest rate cut -> Cheaper funds and higher borrowing -> Increased investment -> Higher economic growth -> Firms and individuals earn more -> They pay more taxes -> Increased tax collection of the government

Option B is not wrong, it simply lies farther the chain of logic and is a little uncertain. This is because there could be other events such as a reduction in tax rates or tax rebates by the government that may reduce its tax collection. 

Economic growth in country X will necessarily have to occur if (2013)

(a) there is technical progress in the world economy

(b) there is population growth in X

(c) there is capital formation in X 

(d) the volume of trade grows in the world economy

Analysis: B is clearly wrong. A, C and D may cause confusion.

In this case we will need to analyse the chain in the opposite order because the question statement (growth) is an implication rather than a cause (such as lower interest rates in the previous question).

LCC: Option A: Technical progress in the World → Greater production → Technology spills to the local economy → Economic growth in X

LCC: Option C: Capital formation in X → Economic growth in X                                                 

LCC: Option D: More trade in World economy → Income grows worldwide and there is diffusion of know-how → Country X also gets to trade more → Economic growth in X

Option C lies closest in the chain, so the pick becomes easier!

Increase in absolute and per capita real GNP do not connote a higher level of economic development, if (2018)

(a) Industrial output fails to keep pace with agricultural output.

(b) Agricultural output fails to keep pace with industrial output.

(c) Poverty and unemployment increase.

(d) Imports grow faster than exports.

Analysis: All options seem confusing.

You can do both a logical chain analysis and the primary-secondary (P-S) analysis, but it is much easier to stick to the P-S analysis because poverty and unemployment are some of the standard measures (primary factors) of the levels of economic development.

Economic growth does not necessarily connote economic development since the latter is a holistic concept representing the well-being of the population rather than only increased income.

You can try drawing a LC by yourself and understand how A, C or D lie so farther in the logical chain. We will not do it here to keep the article simple, short and readable.



Despite being a high saving economy, capital formation may not result in significant increase in output due to (2018)

(a) Weak administrative machinery

(b) Illiteracy

(c) High population density

(d) High capital-output ratio

Analysis: Option A, B and C are remote to the question statement. To show this, let us do a chain for C.

LCC: Option CHigh population density →  Poor hygiene and shortage of resources →  Diseases and strife →  Lower economic growth (but it is difficult to draw a direct chain to high savings, which is why this option will not be the answer).

LCC: Option DHigh savings →  High investments rate, but give high C-O ratio →  More capital needed to produce the same output →  Less increase in output  (all members of the chain stick very close to each other).

Also, based on Primary-Secondary (P-S) analysis, it is evident that Capital-output ratio is the primary reason for a certain resultant output. You can eliminate all other options.


B2. Polity questions (2016-18)

Let us now look at a few Polity questions.


In India, Judicial Review implies

(a) the power of the Judiciary to pronounce upon the constitutionality of laws and executive orders.

(b) the power of the Judiciary to question the wisdom of the laws enacted by the Legislatures.

(c) the power of the Judiciary to review all the legislative enactments before they are assented to by the President.

(d) the power of the Judiciary to review its own judgements given earlier in similar or different cases.

Analysis: Confusion could be between A and B. The P-S analysis is more relevant here.

Primarily, the judiciary sticks to the procedure established by law as against the due process of law. The former checks the constitutionality of the enactment process and the law itself, whereas the latter goes into the details of the laws and evaluates it is fair, just and not arbitrary. So, option A is more closer to the question statement, since it is the primary factor that explains the question statement.


Out of the following statements, choose the one that brings out the principle underlying the Cabinet form of Government:

(a) An arrangement for minimizing the criticism against the Government whose responsibilities are complex and hard to carry out to the satisfaction of all.

(b) A mechanism for speeding up the activities of the Government whose responsibilities are increasing day by day.

(c) A mechanism of parliamentary democracy for ensuring collective responsibility of the Government to the people.

(d) A device for strengthening the hands of the head of the Government whose hold over the people is in a state of decline.

Analysis: Even though C is a clear answer, some students get confused between A, B and C.

LCC: Option A, B and CCabinet form of government →  Ensures collective responsibility of Ministers →  Also leads to better distribution of work →  Efficient governance →  More satisfied public → Reduces criticism

Options A and B lies farther in the chain and are not the primary principles underlying the cabinet form of government, they are secondary implications or reasons.

Local self-government can be best explained as an exercise in

(a) Federalism

(b) Democratic decentralisation

(c) Administrative delegation

(d) Direct democracy

Analysis: B is the correct answer since in the LCC, others lie pretty far.

LC: All OptionsLocal self-government →  Democratic decentralization →  Delegation of powers to local bodies → Administrative delegation → →→ farther the logical chain resembles the models of federalism, if not direct democracy.

Also, based on the P-S analysis, we know that democratic decentralization and grass roots empowerment are the core guiding principles of local self-government as under 73rd and 74th constitutional amendment. Hence, B is the clear answer. 

Democracy’s superior virtue lies in the fact that it calls into activity

(a) the intelligence and character of ordinary men and women.

(b) the methods for strengthening executive leadership.

(c) a superior individual with dynamism and vision.

(d) a band of dedicated party workers.

Analysis: Both LCC and P-S are relevant. The primary principle of democracy is empowering the nation (group) as a whole, and as a secondary consequence individuals are empowered. Therefore, democracy leans more towards the social than the individual. 

Also, since option C talks about a “superior individual”, it attaches a sense of privilege to selected people, which is against democratic values. It also does not clarify what the dynamism and vision means.  

LCC: All OptionsDemocracy →  Liberty to men and women (as a society) → Greater creativity and exhibition of intelligence → A Superior ‘individual’ with dynamism and vision → Better individuals may strengthen leadership →→→ far down the chain a dedicated band of party workers.



You can employ both these techniques – Logical Close Chain (LCC) and Primary-Secondary Analysis (P-S) – to tame over-analysis in the exams. The reasoning that guides both these hypotheses is that the farther you go in the chain, the more vulnerable the answer becomes. One should pick up the option that lies closest to the question in hand, since an option that lies further in the logical chain cannot always be justified as its fate depends on other causes and conditions as well.

Please also note that you should not be spending more than 1-2 minutes even on a seemingly tough question because there is a high probability is that if you spend more time, you will end up over-analysing the question. Stick to the basics. Understand that this exam tests your basics and range of information, and not your higher order thinking skills.

If you supplement these techniques with some of other suggestions we have mentioned before (article on attempting more questions, on intelligent guessing and on the ideal UPSC paper), you should be able to see a significant increase in your final score that may well decide the line between success and failure. All the best!


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