Emotion Wheel and How to Use it


Written by Hokuma Karimova

On March 12, 2018
Emotion Wheel and How to Use it

Success and mindset coach who utilizes proven techniques of coaching, psychology and mindfulness to navigate you to success.

Can you guess how many emotions a human can experience?

The answer might shock you – it’s around 34,000.

With so many, how can one navigate the turbulent waters of emotions, its different intensities and compositions, without getting lost? The answer – an emotion wheel.

Through years of studying emotions, Dr. Robert Plutchik, an American

psychologist, proposed that there are eight primary emotions that serve as the foundation for all others: joy, sadness, acceptance, disgust, fear, anger, surprise and anticipation. (Pollack, 2016)

This means that, while it’s impossible to fully understand all 34,000 distinguishable emotions, learning how to accurately identify how each of the primary emotions is expressed within you can be empowering. It’s especially useful for moments of intense feelings, when the mind is unable to remain objective as it operates from its older compartments that deal with the fight or flight response. (Watkins, 2014)

What is Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions?

Let’s take a look at each of these emotions. But first, let’s start with a clear idea of what we mean when we use the term ‘emotion’.

If we look at previous studies, we’ll see that “emotion researchers generally view emotions as episodes that are evoked by a variety of stimuli (e.g., Ekman, 1992; Russell, 2003; Scherer, 2009). More specifically, it’s “defined as an episode of interrelated, synchronized changes in the state of all or most of the five organismic subsystems in response to the evaluation of an external or internal stimulus event as relevant to major concerns of the organism”. (Scherer, 1987, 2001)

Above is a table from the International Handbook of Emotions in Education that shows the relationship between these various factors and sub-systems, as well as their presumed functions. (Shuman & Scherer, 2014)

Which are:

1- Emotion Component

This is where an individual simply experiences the feelings. It’s about monitoring the internal universe and recognizing what is being experienced at that time.

2- Action Tendency Component

Once the emotion is identified, the body moves into action. Emotions bestow

certain actions instead of others, which means that while some are beyond our control (and thankfully so), like pulling you hand away from a hot iron, others are within our control, facing the fear to continue with a speech or a presentation.

3- Appraisal Component

By cognitively analyzing the emotion, the individual is able to pick up on the

situations, actions, environments, or individuals that are causing the emotion. This aids the individual with tracking how these stimuli impact their well-being. It’s also invaluable for helping communicate the state of our internal world with others.

4- Motor Component

This is the communicative function of how we express what we are experiencing (facial expressions, hand gestures, body movements, etc.). So it is extremely important on the inter-individual level, as well as that of the individual.

5- Physiological Component

This component supports all others, and is the chemical reaction our body

experiences. For instance, the rush of blood flow to the hands when one

experiences the emotion of anger.

While the components of the emotions we feel might be present in all individuals, their intensity and expression differs from one person to another.

For example, hearing words like: “I am afraid”, “I feel jittery”, “I don’t want to be here”, or “I just don’t have enough time to prepare for the final” are all part of the different components of an emotion.

“The first expression (I am afraid) describes a subjective feeling of fear. The

second example (I feel jittery) refers to the physiological component of an emotion. The third example (I don’t want to be here) indicates an avoidance action tendency, which may or may not be carried out. The fourth examples describes several appraisals of the situation, including goal frustration (I am not prepared) and lack of power (I do not have enough time). Observable motor activities are also associated with emotions. For example, facial expression, such as smiling or frowning, body postures, such as opening the arms or raising the fists, and changes in the voice, such as raised pitch, can be observed in emotional situations.” (Shuman & Scherer 2, 2014)

The Wheel of Emotions

Now that the complex system of emotions, and all its components, is a bit more clear, we can dive into the work of Plutchik and his wheel. (Pico, 2016)

The eight primary emotions that he identified, which are the basis for all others, are grouped into polar opposites:

– joy and sadness

– acceptance and disgust

– fear and anger

– surprise and anticipation

The foundation of his theory stems from the following ten postulates:

(Plutchik, 1980)

1. Animals and Humans

The mid-brain, or the limbic system, of humans is quite similar to that of mammals. This means that animals and humans experience the same basic emotions.

2. Evolutionary History

Emotions came into being as part of the evolutionary process, long before there were apes or humans.

3. Survival Issues

The most influential role of emotions is to help us survive.

4. Prototype Patterns

These are the common identifiable patterns and elements that make up each


5. Basic Emotions

The most basic emotions are the primary ones: trust, fear, surprise, sadness,

disgust, anger, anticipation and joy.

6. Combinations

The adding up of these various primary emotions will produce new ones:

Such as: love = (joy+ trust); guilt = (joy + fear); delight = (joy + surprise)

7. Hypothetical Constructs

Emotions are constructs, or ideas, that help describe a certain experience.

8. Opposites

Like many things in nature, there is a duality with emotions, hence each one has its polar opposite:

– saddens is the opposite of joy

– trust is the opposite of disgust

– fear is the opposite of anger

– surprise is the opposite of anticipation

9. Similarity

The degree of similarity determines which emotions are more related, and which ones are the complete opposite.

10. Intensity

This degree of change in intensity, from very strong to not so much, produces the diverse amount of emotions we can feel. Such as:

– trust goes from acceptance to admiration

– fear goes from timidity to terror

– surprise goes from uncertainty to amazement

– sadness goes from gloominess to grief

– disgust goes from dislike to loathing

– anger goes from annoyance to fury

– anticipation goes from interest to vigilance

– joy goes from serenity to ecstasy

Elements of the Wheel

Looking at the wheel we can notice three main characteristics:

Colors – The eight emotions are arranged by colors, and establish a set of similar emotions. The primary emotions are located in the second circle. The emotions that have no colors are a mix of the two primary emotions.

Layers – Moving to the center of the circle intensifies the emotion, so the colors intensify as well. For instance, at the center of the wheel, the primary emotions change from: anger to rage; anticipation to vigilance; joy to ecstasy; trust to admiration; fear to terror; surprise to amazement; sadness to grief; disgust to loathing. Moving to the outer layers, the colors become less saturated, and the intensity of the emotions lowers.

Relations – The polar opposite emotions can be found across from each other. The spaces in between the emotions demonstrate the combinations we get when the primary emotions are mixed. So we see the emergence of emotions like: love, submission, optimism, aggressiveness, contempt, remorse, disapproval, awe, and submission.

How to Use Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions: x Tips

x Emotion Wheel Worksheets

The beauty of this tool is in its ability to simplify very complex concepts.

Understanding is usually the first step to solving a dilemma. But, when the

question concern our emotions, a process that occurs on the subconscious level, identifying and verbalizing things is much harder.

This is why the tool is so useful. It enables the user to visualize their emotions,

and thus understand which combinations of emotions created this outcome.

Once we objectify and understand the emotions, we can get a grip on them, and channel our focus in the direction of emotions we actually want to feel.

There are two ways to use the wheel, either as a two-dimensional circle or a three- dimensional ellipse. Utilizing it as a two-dimensional circle enables the individual to really dive into the emotion wheel and discover what primary emotions they are feeling, and how they combine to create secondary emotions (awe, remorse, aggression, optimism, etc.).

When utilizing it as a three-dimensional form, the individual is able to view the emotional intensity of the primary and secondary emotions. (Roeckelein, 2006)

According to Plutchik’s Sequential Model, emotions are activated due to specific stimuli, which set off certain behavioral patterns. (Drews, 2007)

He identified the following survival behaviors that drive our actions:

Protection: Withdrawal, retreat

(activated by: fear, terror)

Destruction: Elimination of barrier to the satisfaction of needs

(activated by: anger, rage)

Incorporation: Ingesting nourishment

(activated by: acceptance)

Rejection: Riddance response to harmful material

(activated by: disgust)

Reproduction: Approach, contract, genetic exchanges

(activated by: joy, pleasure)

Reintegration: Reaction to loss of nutrient product

(activated by: sadness, grief)

Exploration: Investigating an environment

(activated by: curiosity, play)

Orientation: Reaction to contact with unfamiliar object

(activated by: surprise)

This means that when our emotions are activated, they are done so to elicit one of the survival behaviors. Of course, all of this happens on a subconscious level.

What is the Difference Between Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions and the Geneva Emotion Wheel?

Plutchik’s wheel is not the only tool available for understanding and interacting with out emotions. There are other emotion wheels that one can utilize to better understand and detect these emotions, such as the Geneva Emotion Wheel (GEW). (The Geneva Emotion Wheel, 2017)

While both wheels focus on emotions and their intensities, the GEW takes on a varied approach. To start with, there are no primary emotions, rather a set of 20 emotions that are evaluated by two sets of polar parameters (version 2.0 has 20 emotions, while the first model listed 16). The two parameters are: valence (describing a situation as unpleasant or enjoyable), and control/power (looking at whether or not the individual has high or low control over the situation, and it’s outcomes).

Another big difference between the two is the intensity of the emotions. The GEW has reversed its intensity, with the strongest emotions being represented by larger circles on the outer layers, which decrease in size as they approach the center.

One of the biggest differences between these tools is that the Geneva Emotion Wheel also gives individuals an ability to select options for ‘no emotions’ or ‘other emotions’.

That’s because it “gives respondents much freedom to express themselves. [It’s important to] note that a pure free response format can be disadvantageous because there may be huge variation in how and how well respondents express themselves in their own words (e.g., Gohm & Clore, 2000), and the resulting variability in measurements across individuals and situations may reduce measurement reliability.” (Sacharin, Schlegel, & Scherer, 2012)

Another big difference is that, Plutchik’s wheel does not express emotions such as pride and shame, which the GEW does. Aside from that, both tools provide a great starting point for detecting one’s emotions.

How to Use an Emotion Wheel in Counseling: x Tips

Human development involves going through phases of self-awareness. Here is a great video that explains in detail why understanding what we feel is so important.

As Dr. Watkins explained, most individuals stay stuck in the consciousness state of a nine year old, due to the set of rules that the educational system, the society and the corporate world impose.

So it’s not until a crisis enters our lives, or another intense event, that we start

asking more questions about the role we play in the world, and start paying

attention to the emotions, and the messages they send to self and others.

When people are ready to face their emotions (whether negative or positive), the uncertainty and inability to verbalize them can make the developmental process more difficult. Therefore, when in distress or facing uncertainty, utilizing these emotional tools can be extremely helpful.

This happens when individuals start to closely examine their emotions, understand what events and stimuli activate these emotions, and the outcomes they lead to. And since emotions predict health, performance, well-being, motivation, sense of fulfillment, and determine our ability to make effective decisions, it’s invaluable to be able to understand and control them.

Without the ability to understand and control emotions, individuals create very shaky and unstable ground on which to operate. This pulls them away from their internal locus of control, and leaves them in disillusionment. An individual with an internal locus of control holds “the belief that events in one’s life, whether good or bad, are caused by controllable factors such as one’s attitude, preparation, and effort”. (Grinnell, 2016)

Wheels in Counseling

These tools are immensely valuable for individuals in a counseling sessions where there is a need or desire to pinpoint to the exact emotion (from a list of many), and understand how the emotion was created. Such answers can provide much needed clarity to help focus on the solutions, rather than the problems that are causing the dilemma and the intense feelings.

Below is the chart of the primary emotions, their varying intensities, and the

different combinations that they produce (the 48 emotions identified by Plutchik). (Contrasting and categorization of emotions, 2017)

Once the individuals have pinpointed to what they’re feeling, and why they’re

feeling it, it is time to dive deeper into the subconscious and make sense of what isn’t working.

That’s where the tool comes in. It helps to:

1. Simplify Emotions

Walking around with a mind full of confusion and uncertainty will weigh anyone down. This is especially true of clients and individuals who are seeking a new understanding, but are unsure of where to start. With a wheel of emotion, the client is able to accurately browse the various emotions, and pinpoint to the ones they’re experiencing.

2. Outline the Personal Sequential Model

By examining the primary emotions, one can start to identify what sparks the

stimuli, how the emotion is expressed (it’s physical and mental aspects), as well as the actions it propels one to take. By drafting one’s own chart of: stimuli events, cognitive appraisal, subjective reaction, behavioral reaction, and function, an individual can dive deeper, becoming more aware of their habits and behaviors. This can also be accomplished by maintaining a journal of emotions, where one writes about what they felt throughout the day and what caused it.

3. Provide an opportunity for Sharing

When someone shares their emotions, and deep internal feelings with another, it automatically creates an environment of trust and openness. Through this kind of sharing, the client is able to open up and start doing the deep work necessary for change, and self-improvement. The professional providing the help is in turn able to support the client with their needs, as well as establish positive rapport.

4. Empower Individuals

Being aligned with what one is feeling and doing is empowering. Instead of trying to suppress, reject, or ignore the emotions, by learning how to express and share them in a constructive way, as well as analyze the role they play in one’s life, is extremely liberating. Gaining a control in this area will give clients an ability to align themselves to the things they want, the outcomes that interest them, and the emotional states that will help them achieve their goals. (Minter, 2014)

A Fun Test Using Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions: Who Are You Really

According to the Emotion Wheel?

Those who are curious to see what their emotions reveals about them, and how it influences their personality can take this quick and easy test.

The knowledge one walks away with, about the self, gives clarity and

understanding, which is essential for development and growth. It expands one’s cognition, which is crucial in our judgement, problem solving, higher-level thinking, planning, imagination, perception, and more.

In fact, “the main way in which cognitions and emotions are linked is through

appraisals. When anything happens, we evaluate what it means for us, its

significance to us – this is an emotional appraisal, or an appraisal that leads to an emotional reaction. These appraisals are believed to help us in making fine distinctions about our emotional experiences or in determining the extent or the intensity of the emotion.” (Emotion, 2017)

The next time one is experiencing certain emotions (which is an energy in motion), the individual has the ability to utilize all their gathered information, and self- knowledge, to find the path towards the outcomes they desire.

Those wishing to expand their knowledge of emotions, can take a look at these further resources, including an app, worksheets (specifically for children), and a video explaining why suppressing emotions is a bad idea.

1. Universe of Emotions App

This application allows users to browse a universe of 2,000 different emotions. In the process they can familiarize themselves with other similar emotional states, and even share their journey with friends. You can examine this universe of emotions, and see what planet you’re currently on. (Universe of Emotions, 2017)

In addition, it allows individuals to track their emotional process and start taking steps towards improving it. This increases the person’s emotional intelligence, and allows them to better understand oneself and others.

2. Worksheets for Children

There are several tools that can be utilized to help children understand their

emotions. With the release of Pixar’s animated movie, Inside Out, which focuses on the emotions we feel within us, there are many materials available to start such conversations with younger kids.

These tools include worksheets such as: board games, a memory journal, as well as ideas by which kids can better draw and share their feelings with others, including parents, teachers, and other caregivers.
(Mehlomakulu, 2015)

3. An animated Video about Emotions

This video explains why trying to suppress or ignore emotions can lead to many more problems than solutions. While it’s true that there are more negative emotions (shame, fear, sadness, anger, disgust) than positive ones (happiness, surprise/interest), both are vital for our survival.

That’s because our real emotions help us get what we really want. And by listening to the emotions we’ve been carrying around, but have been ignoring, we can release the stagnant ones and make room for new ones.

The main takeaways from this video can really help summarize the usefulness of the Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotion, and other similar tools.

These golden rules are:

– Learn to attend to your emotions

– Become curious and patients with your emotions

– Talk about them and show your real emotions to others

– Learn to accept having different emotions

– Change your emotions with other emotions

With the wheel of emotion and the golden rules in hand, life will become more manageable.


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