The Emotion Wheel [Images + How to Use It]

In this article, you'll learn a new way in which you can identify your emotions. It’s called the Emotion Wheel. This uses different dimensions to describe emotions that we feel at any given time. The Emotion Wheel, like other diagrams related to emotions, is not perfect. But it’s a great reference point as we explore and understand what we are feeling. 

How are you feeling today? 

Sometimes, you might find that this simple question has a simple answer. You are happy. Content. Sad. Excited. Other times, this simple question doesn’t have a simple answer. You are nervous, but you can’t tell if it’s a “good nervous” or a “bad nervous.” You are happy, but that happiness is mixed in with a twinge of guilt that prevents you from truly feeling happy. 

Identifying emotions is not an easy process, but it is crucial to understanding the way that people think and behave. In other videos, I have described the various cognitive theories about how emotion plays into our cognitive process and the decisions that we make. So it makes sense that psychologists want to get a good grip of how we identify emotions and how they play into our behaviors and attitudes.

What Is the Emotion Wheel? 

The Emotion Wheel was created by Robert Plutchik to help patients identify and describe the 8 core emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, Anticipation, Surprise, Disgust, and Trust. It was part of his overarching Psychoevolutionary Theory of Emotion. 

The Emotion Wheel

Robert Plutchik, an American psychologist, created the Emotion Wheel in 1980. His theory of emotion expanded on previous theories, some of which had labeled six primary emotions that all human beings feel. Plutchik believed that humans experience eight primary emotions, and each of these emotions has a polar opposite that is also included on the wheel:

  • Joy, and its opposing emotion, sadness.
  • Fear, and its opposing emotion, anger. 
  • Anticipation, and its opposing emotion, surprise. 
  • Disgust, and its opposing emotion, trust.

Already, this wheel begins to resemble a color wheel. But there is more to the Emotion Wheel than just eight primary emotions. 

Combinations

You have probably found yourself in between two emotions. You feel joy, but you also feel anticipation. Maybe you’re waiting for a check in the mail or are particularly excited about the year to come. Plutchik covered these emotions, too. In between each emotion is an emotion that combines two adjoining emotions:

  • Anticipation and joy: optimism 
  • Anger and anticipation: aggressiveness
  • Joy and trust: love
  • Trust and fear: submission
  • Fear and surprise: awe
  • Surprise and sadness: disapproval
  • Sadness and disgust: remorse
  • Disgust and anger: contempt

But we’re not done quite yet.

Degrees 

Saying that you feel “joy” doesn’t always feel like enough to cover the full spectrum of that one emotion. Some days, you’re jumping out of your set with joy! Other days, you are simply feeling calm and happy. On either side of the primary emotions, Plutchik listed “degrees” in which these emotions can be felt. 

These spectrums look like this:

  • Anger: annoyance to rage
  • Anticipation: interest to vigilance
  • Disgust: boredom to loathing
  • Fear: apprehension to terror
  • Joy: serenity to ecstasy
  • Sadness: pensiveness to grief
  • Surprise: distraction to amazement
  • Trust: acceptance to admiration

Plutchik has used both two-dimensional and three-dimensional models to show the relationship between primary emotions, the spectrum in which they sit, and the combination of emotions that we may experience at once. 

Emotions and Survival 

Plutchik did not just create the Emotion Wheel so we could explore and identify our emotions. He was interested in the ways that emotions allow us to engage and learn basic survival mechanisms. His Psychoevolutionary Theory of Emotions included The Sequential Model of Emotions and the Place of Cognitions, which showed how this process took place. Each survival mechanism, from fight or flight to mapping out new territory, is linked to one of the eight primary emotions. 

When we encounter a threat, for example, we need to do something in order to escape that threat and survive. Plutchik called the encounter of a threat a “stimulus event.” The inferred cognition that occurs in response to this stimulus is “danger.” The emotion that we feel is fear, ranging from apprehension to terror. Fear engages our “fight or flight mode,” and we end up fighting off the threat or fleeing the situation. That is our behavior, in response to our emotion. The desired effect of our behavior is some form of survival. In this case, it’s protection from the threat. This sequence of events helps to explain the purpose and use of “fight or flight,” one of our most well-known defense mechanisms. 

Evolution and Emotions 

The Emotion Wheel, and other insights from Plutchik, remind us that we experience emotions for a reason. We may feel silly after having an emotional response to our ice cream falling on the ground or getting ghosted by a potential mate. But these emotions are traced back to basic survival mechanisms that kept us alive when things weren’t so convenient. 

Back in more primitive times, we needed fight or flight to help us address threats, like wild animals or an enemy tribe. Threats nowadays, like a D on a test or not getting a promotion, are not exactly as serious. Yet, our mind may still register them as threats, and the sequence engages our fight or flight response. 

As we learn to identify our emotions, we can control them and prevent the use of inappropriate defense or survival mechanisms. Not all threats require us to fight or flight. By understanding where our emotional responses are coming from, we can better assess our behaviors and when it’s time to truly take action.

How to reference this article:

Theodore. (2020, September). The Emotion Wheel [Images + How to Use It]. Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/the-emotion-wheel/.

About the author 

Theodore

Theodore created PracticalPsychology while in college and has transformed the educational online space of psychology. His goal is to help people improve their lives by understanding how their brains work. 1,700,000 Youtube subscribers and a growing team of psychologists, the dream continues strong!

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