The Emotion Wheel: Purpose, Definition, and Uses
By Helena Rose Karnilowicz, PhD Candidate
What are emotions and what is the emotion wheel? Learn how to identify and label your emotions using the Emotion Wheel.
*This page may include affiliate links; that means I earn from qualifying purchases of products.
What is the Emotion Wheel?
The Emotion Wheel was created by Robert Plutchik to help organize complex emotions and so that people could more easily gain clarity, identify, and label their emotions. We'll dive into the specific emotions in the emotion wheel, and how to use it, but first let's talk a bit about what an emotion is.
What is an Emotion?
Emotions prepare us to respond to a perceived or real environmental stimulus (e.g., being chased by a mountain lion or thinking that a friend is angry can both produce fear, causing us to retreat). But what differentiates an emotion from a mood, a physical state, or a thought? Emotions differ from moods in that they typically last minutes to seconds, whereas moods can last hours to days. Emotions also produce a set of coordinated responses (more on this below).
Theories Behind the Emotion Wheel
Emotions have been of interest to philosophers and scientists for centuries. Currently, there are two primary theories about emotion.
The evolutionary theory of emotion states that emotions evolved to enhance survival by prompting appropriate reactions to the environment (e.g., like being chased by a bear). While humans generally do not have the same threats to their survival as our primal ancestors, emotions still serve important social functions by communicating intentions and future actions. According to this view, emotions are thought to have clear neural bases in the brain and are universal across cultures and species. As such, emotions are thought to be innate. Plutchik's emotion wheel uses an evolutionary perspective on emotion.
The social constructivist theory of emotion (Barrett, 2009) posits that emotions are not innate, and instead are socially and culturally constructed. In other words, past experience, informed by upbringing and culture, colors our interpretation of visceral experiences and labels them as emotions. For example, not all cultures have the same words for different emotions (the German word ‘schadenfreude’ means taking pleasure in someone else’s pain and there is no equivalent word in the English language). This view of emotions suggests that multiple brain networks work in tandem during emotional responses (rather than there being specific neural bases for individual, discrete emotions).
While there are many differences between these theories, both theories agree that emotions are incredibly powerful and being able to talk about emotions and label them is a meaningful pursuit.
The Emotion Wheel
Given the complexity of emotions, Robert Plutchik created the Emotion Wheel to visualize the complexity of emotions and help people identify and label their emotions. The Emotion Wheel uses color to depict discrete emotions and blends of emotion, uses their gradients to express intensity, and uses the geometric shape to reflect polarity (or similarity) of emotions.
Plutchik believed that there are 8 primary emotions, represented by primary colors, that vary in intensity. The middle of the emotion wheel reflects the maximal levels of arousal of each emotion:
The emotions further away from the center of the emotion wheel represent milder arousal levels of the primary emotions. Emotions placed closer to each other in the emotion wheel are deemed more similar than those farther apart. The words outside of the ‘slices’ in the emotion wheel are common blends of emotion (e.g., ‘surprise’ and ‘sadness’ combine to produce ‘disapproval’).
3 Components of Emotion in the Emotion Wheel
Emotions are complex (all the more reason we need an emotion wheel to organize them!) Here are the components of emotion:
The Functions of Emotions in the Emotion Wheel
Plutchik argued that each emotion serves an evolutionary function. He identified the following survival behaviors as triggered by each emotion:
For example, the feelings of fear/terror result in withdrawing behaviors that are meant to protect oneself. In our ancestors, fear or terror may have been caused by seeing a wild animal and running away in order to preserve their life. In current times, fear or terror can result from psychological threats of rejection, which can lead some people to run away in order to keep themselves from getting hurt.
How to Use the Emotion Wheel
The Emotion Wheel can be a useful tool in individual therapy, group settings, or on your own to identify, generate, and explore the complexity of emotions. For example, in therapy, the Emotion Wheel can be a visual cue to discuss and label one’s emotions or try to generate an emotion that has been suppressed.
The Emotion Wheel can also be used to reflect on some of the bridges people experience between their emotions (e.g., anger and sadness may frequently co-occur). To help people regulate their emotions, the Emotion Wheel can be a visual aid for converting emotions from negative to positive (like going from sadness to serenity). Understanding the underlying functions of each emotion can also help people discuss the root causes of their feelings.
Why Does the Emotion Wheel Work?
People at times struggle with communicating how they feel. People often say they “feel bad” and sometimes cannot be more specific. Using clear emotion labels to express oneself helps people to have more awareness of their emotions and communicate with others about their needs. People who use more granular language to describe their emotions tend to be more psychologically healthy and resilient (Tugade, Fredrickson & Barrett, 2004). The Emotion Wheel allows people to do this more easily by using colors, shapes, and symbols. Just like doing art can be a way to express one’s emotions, the Emotion Wheel can help people dig deeper into their emotions, their complexity, and their meaning.
Using the Emotion Wheel to Boost Well-Being
Now that you have the emotion wheel to better identify and label your emotions, here are some exercises that can help you put this tool to use to grow your well-being.
“All perception is colored by emotion.”
“Human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge.”
The emotion wheel is a useful tool for identifying, labeling and understanding emotions, and it can be used to promote you well-being.
About Dr. Tchiki Davis
Dr. Davis is founder of The Berkeley Well-Being Institute. After getting her PhD in psychology at Berkeley, she started creating online content & programs to boost well-being—some of these have reached more than a million people. As author of Outsmart Your Smartphone, and contributor to Psychology Today, The Greater Good Science Center, and Shine Text, Dr. Davis aims to share her insights on happiness & health with people all across the world. Learn more about Dr. Davis.