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Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions: What is it and How to Use it in Counseling?

Tags: emotion

Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions: What is it and How to Use it in Counseling?

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)

This article contains:

  • What is Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions? (PDF)
  • How to Use Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions
  • 3 Emotion Wheel Worksheets
  • What is the Difference Between Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions and the Geneva Emotion Wheel?
  • How to Use an Emotion Wheel in Counseling
  • A Fun Test Using Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions: Who Are You Really According to the Emotion Wheel?
  • A Take Home Message
  • References
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What is Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions? (PDF)

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 researchers of emotions view them as episodes brought on by a number of stimuli. More specifically:

“emotion is 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”. (Emotion Researcher, 2015)

International Handbook of Emotions in Education emotion components

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. (Pekrun & Linnenbrink-Garica, 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 your 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 differ 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 example 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.” (Pekrun & Linnenbrink-Garica 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:
(Changing Minds, 2016)

Dr. Robert Plutchik wheel of emotions

  • Animals and Humans
    The mid-brain, or the limbic system, of a human is quite similar to that of mammals. This means that animals and humans experience the same basic emotions.
  • Evolutionary History
    Emotions came into being as part of the evolutionary process, long before there were apes or humans.
  • Survival Issues
    The most influential role of emotions is to help us survive.
  • Prototype Patterns
    These are the common identifiable patterns and elements that make up each emotion.
  • Basic Emotions
    The most basic emotions are the primary ones: trust, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger, anticipation and joy.
  • Combinations
    The adding up of these various primary emotions will produce new ones.
    Such as: love = (joy+ trust); guilt = (joy + fear); delight = (joy + surprise)
  • Hypothetical Constructs
    Emotions are constructs, or ideas, that help describe a certain experience.
  • 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
  • Similarity
    The degree of similarity determines which emotions are more related, and which ones are the complete opposite.
  • 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

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 concerns 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. (Krohn, 2007)

He identified the following survival behaviors that drive our actions:

Protection: Withdrawal, retreat
(activated by fear and terror)

Destruction: Elimination of barrier to the satisfaction of needs
(activated by anger and rage)

Incorporation: Ingesting nourishment
(activated by acceptance)

Rejection: Riddance response to harmful material
(activated by disgust)

Reproduction: Approach, contract, genetic exchanges
(activated by joy and pleasure)

Reintegration: Reaction to loss of nutrient product
(activated by sadness and grief)

Exploration: Investigating an environment
(activated by curiosity and play)

Orientation: Reaction to contact with unfamiliar object
(activated by surprise)
(Screenr, 2017)

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.

How to Use Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions


3 Emotion Wheel Worksheets

To tap deeper into the mind and get to the root cause of these internal emotions, here are several worksheets to assist through the process:

  • Clear and brief: emotions
    Provides a snapshot view of emotions, and the way they are trigged in the mind. Outlines the developmental levels our emotions grow through. And what it means to be emotionally intelligent.
  • Wheel of Emotion
    Sometimes it helps to see a visual explanation of a word or concept. If you would benefit from common facial expressions associated with each emotion, then this worksheet is for you. Browse and identify feelings by matching their expressions.
  • Emotions in business
    Those who earn an income by being an entrepreneur, then this worksheet is worth looking through. It explains the experiences and emotions your clients want to feel, and the environments you can create to cultivate these.


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 without emotions. There are other emotion wheels that one can utilize to better understand and detect these emotions, such as the Geneva Emotion Wheel (GEW). (Affective Sciences, 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 a 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.

Geneva Emotion Wheel


How to Use an Emotion Wheel in Counseling

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 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 combinations one can have when mixing the primary emotions. (Anderson, 2017)

Wheels in Counseling
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:

  • 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 ones they’re experiencing.

  • 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.

  • 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 a positive rapport.

  • 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 with 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 reveal 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 judgment, 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.” (Ogelk, 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.

  • 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. (Complete Coherence, 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.

  • 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)

  • 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.


A Take Home Message

The main takeaways from the above 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.

About the Author

HokumaHokuma is an advocate for better living. She believes in a world where individuals can lead authentic, happy, and satisfied lives. To help create this world, she recently expanded her skill set by adding new titles to her name: Yoga Instructor and Life Coach.

With a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, and a Master’s degree in Sustainable Development and Corporate Social Responsibility, she hopes to combine her social and scientific knowledge to create a map to self-realization that anybody can follow. Want to know the secret to success? Contact her for more details. 

  • References

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    • Complete Coherence. (2017). Universe of Emotions. Retrieved from
    • Emotion Researcher. (2015, March). The Component Process Model of Emotion, and the Power of Coincidences | Emotion Researcher. Retrieved from
    • Grinnell, R. (2016, June 17). Internal Locus of Control. Retrieved from'
    • Krohn, M. (2007). Robert Plutchik's Psychoevolutionary Theory of Basic Emotions. Retrieved from
    • Mehlomakulu, C. (2015, July 18). Using "Inside Out" to Explore Emotions. Retrieved from
    • Minter, A. (2014, February 26). What Is The Feeling Wheel? Retrieved from
    • Ogelk. (2017). Emotion Cognition Motivation. Retrieved from
    • Pekrun, R., & Linnenbrink-Garcia, L. (2014). International Handbook of Emotions in Education, Chapter 2: Concepts and Structures of Emotions. Retrieved from
    • Pico, I. (2016, March 23). The Wheel of Emotions, by Robert Plutchik | PsicoPico. Retrieved from
    • Pollack, D. (2015, November 12). Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions Cheat Sheet. Retrieved from
    • Roeckelein, J. (2006). Elsevier's Dictionary of Psychological Theories. Retrieved from
    • Sacharin, V., Schlegel, K., & Scherer, K. (2012, August 13). Geneva Emotion Wheel Rating Study. Retrieved from
    • Screenr. (2017). Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions: How Does It Work, and How Can It Be Applied? - Book Chapter Overview. u3083644. Retrieved from
    • Watkins, A. (2014, October 29). How Controlling Your Emotional Responses Can Improve Your Performance at Work. Retrieved from

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