Afrikaans English

The emotion wheel - what is it and how is it used?

The article The Emotion Wheel: What is It and How to Use it? has been translated into Afrikaans and adapted by the Wieisek?team.

NOTE: All references appear as indicated in the original article. For a complete list of references, follow the link above and look under “References”.

Did you know that there are about 34000 human emotions? So it's no wonder that most people struggle to identify and work with emotions. That is exactly why the emotion wheel was developed to help with this.

A psychologist in the US, dr. Robert Plutchik, has done research in this field and argues that there are eight basic emotions that form the basis for all the other emotions: joy, sadness, acceptance, disgust, fear, anger, surprise and anticipation. (Pollack, 2016)

While it is impossible to fully understand all 34000 emotions, it empowers you when you can identify the basic / primary emotion and recognize how it occurs to you. It especially helps when one is experiencing intense emotions and feeling overwhelmed, which makes it difficult to view a situation objectively. These moments of intense emotion usually occur when one's consciousness / experience as a result of past experiences is non-objective and a fight-or-flight reaction is triggered. (Watkins, 2014)

What is meant by the word “emotion”? Researchers in this field believe that emotions are episodes caused by a number of stimuli (ie, a reaction to something). The stimuli can be internal (eg a thought) or external (an event). Each emotion consists of different components.

Examples of the emotion components

Subjective feeling Monitoring Sadness, happiness, gratitude, being angry, feeling good
Tendency to action Justification Urge to cry / weep, to jump up and down, to approach
Rating To give meaning I just lost something, I just received a gift, something good happened to me
Movement activity moves Communication Cry, smile, raise your chin, make yourself small, move your arms up and down quickly
Physiologically Support Changes in pulse (stroke), blood flow, brain activity

The above is adapted from: The International Handbook of Emotions in Education (Pekrun & Linnenbrink-Garica, 2014).


  1. Emotion component
    One experiences the emotion. It is necessary to monitor one's internal environment and to recognize / acknowledge what is being experienced at that particular moment.
  2. Tendency to action component
    Once the emotion is identified, the body responds. Certain emotions lead to certain actions. This means that, although some actions are out of our control (e.g., pulling your hand away from a hot stove), there are others that can control us (e.g., deciding to complete the speech or presentation, despite of fear).
  3. Assessment component
    The idea is that one can analyze the emotion and then become aware of the situation, action, environment or individual that causes / triggers the emotion. It helps to keep up with the way the stimuli affect the person's well-being. It also helps us a lot to communicate our internal reality with other people.
  4. Movement component
    This is the communication function of how we express what we experience (facial expressions, hand gestures, physical movements, etc.). Therefore, it is very important at an individual as well as relationship level.
  5. Physiology component
    This component supports all the other components and is the chemical reaction experienced by the body. This includes e.g. the increased blood flow to the hands when someone gets angry in. Although the various components of the emotion wheel may be present in all, the intensity and expression of it vary from person to person. The following phrases are all part of the different components of an emotion: "I'm scared"; “I feel shaky”; “I don't want to be here”; or "I just don't have enough time to prepare for the final paper."

"I'm scared," - describes the subjective experience of fear.

"I feel shaky," - refers to the physiological component of the emotion.

"I don't want to be here," - indicates a tendency to avoid the action, which can be done or not performed.

"I just don't have enough time to prepare for the final paper," - describes a few assessments of the situation, including goal frustration (I'm not prepared) and lack of power (I don't have enough time) ).

There is also observable movement activity involved in the emotions, e.g. facial expressions such as smiles or frowns; posture, such as opening the arms; to lift the fists; as well as a change in tone of voice, e.g. an elevated pitch.

(Pekrun & Linnenbrink-Garica 2, 2014)

The emotion wheel

Ten interesting views on this theory: (Changing Minds, 2016)

  1. Humans and animals experience the same basic emotions.
  2. The statement is made that emotions have evolved as part of the evolutionary process.
  3. The most important function of emotions is to help us survive.
  4. Each emotion is composed of commonly identifiable patterns and elements.
  5. The most basic emotions are the primary emotions: confidence, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger, anticipation and joy.
  6. When the primary emotions are combined, new emotions arise e.g. love = joy + trust; guilt = joy + fear; pleasure = joy + surprise.
  7. Emotions are constructs, or ideas, that help describe a specific experience.
  8. Each emotion forms the opposite or opposite of another, e.g., joy and sadness; confidence and disgust; fear and anger; surprise and anticipation.
  9. The degree of similarity between emotions determines which emotions are related to each other and which are the opposite.
  10. The difference in intensity of the emotion contributes to the fact that so many different emotions can be experienced, e.g. the difference in the intensity of trust ranges from acceptance to admiration; being angry varies in intensity from irritation to anger, etc.

Elements of the wheel

The wheel has three main features:

  1. Color
    The eight emotions are arranged by color to indicate a set of similar emotions. The primary emotions are shown in the second circle. The emotions that are not in color are a mixture of the two primary emotions.
  2. Layer on layer
    The intensity of the colors increases as it moves closer to the center of the circle, and the intensity of the emotion increases to the same degree. As one moves away from the center of the circle, the intensity of the color decreases as well as that of the emotion.
  3. Opposites
    Opposite emotions are found opposite each other on the wheel. The spaces between the emotions demonstrate the combinations of emotions you get when the primary emotions are mixed with each other.

The eight primary emotions are grouped into opposite pairs:

  1. joy and sadness
  2. acceptance and disgust
  3. fear and anger
  4. surprise and anticipation

How to use Plutchik's emotion wheel:

One must first be able to understand an emotional problem before it can be dealt with, but because there are so many unconscious processes associated with emotions, it can feel overwhelming to identify and talk about an emotion. The purpose of the wheel is to simplify this process.

The wheel helps the user to visualize his / her emotions and understand which emotions are involved. Once there is clarity about what we are experiencing, we can deal with it and try to move in the direction of the emotion (s) we want to experience.

There are two ways to use the wheel:

  1. As a two-dimensional circle - this method allows one to discover what primary emotion (s) he / she feels and how they mix / combine to form secondary emotions (such as aggression, optimism, etc.).
  2. As a three-dimensional ellipse - this method allows one to identify the emotional intensity of the primary and secondary emotions (Roeckelein, 2006).

According to Plutchik's model, emotions are triggered by specific stimuli and lead to particular patterns of behavior (Krohn, 2007). Plutchik identifies the following survival behavior as a driver for our actions:

  1. protection (triggered by fear and terror) - withdraw or fall back / retreat;
  2. destruction (triggered by anger and anger) - remove obstacles to meet needs;
  3. incorporation (enabled by acceptance) - ingestion of nutrition;
  4. rejection (triggered by disgust) - getting rid of harmful material;
  5. reproduction (activated by joy and pleasure) - to approach, make contact, genetic exchange;
  6. reintegration (triggered by grief and grief) - response to loss of nutrient element (s);
  7. exploration / exploration (triggered by curiosity and play) - explore an environment; and
  8. orientation (activated by surprise) - response to contact with an unknown object.
    (Screen, 2017)

The above means that our emotions are activated to evoke one of the above survival urges. This, of course, happens on a subconscious level.

Practical application

For practical exercises, please see the worksheets at the following links:

There are, however, different forms of the emotion wheel, such as. the Geneva emotion wheel, each with its own specifications and explanations.

The use of the emotion wheel in counseling or therapy

Someone usually starts therapy when they experience a crisis. A crisis usually leads to various questions about our role in the world, as well as the emotions we experience and what it communicates to us and others. It is precisely when we try to focus on our emotions that the emotion wheel is useful for clearing uncertainty.

The wheel then helps someone to examine his / her emotions, understand what triggered them and what caused them. Emotions affect our health, performance, well-being, motivation, sense of fulfillment and inability to make effective decisions. That is why it is important to understand and manage our emotions.

When someone is unable to master the process of emotional regulation (understanding and managing emotions), he / she struggles to function effectively and maintain a sense of internal control. We are talking about an internal locus of control. People with an internal locus of control believe that events (good or bad) in their lives are caused by controllable factors, such as their attitude, preparation and effort (Grinell, 2016).

Tools like the emotion wheel help identify the exact emotion and understand how the emotion originated. Below are the combinations of primary emotions (Anderson, 2017):

Love = joy + confidence Repentance = sorrow + disgust
Guilt = joy + fear Jealousy = sadness + anger
Pleasure = joy + surprise Pessimism = sadness + anticipation
Submission = trust + fear Contempt = disgust + be angry
Curiosity = confidence + surprise Cynicism = disgust + anticipation
Sentimentality = confidence + sadness Morbidity = disgust + joy
Awe = fear + surprise Aggression = Angry + anticipation
Despair = fear + sadness Pride = Evil + Joy
Shame = fear + disgust Dominance = Evil + Confidence
Disappointment = surprise + sadness Optimism = anticipation + joy
Disbelief = surprise + disgust Hope = anticipation + confidence
Outrage = surprise + be angry Anxiety = anticipation + fear

Once the person can identify the emotion - and where it comes from - further attention can be paid to the subconscious processes and why there are certain problems.

The wheel:

  1. simplify emotions;
  2. help the person to understand where the emotion comes from and what the emotion gives rise to;
  3. help a person verbalize / express their experience;
  4. empowers one to understand and recognize what one is feeling and to create a sense of control in the knowledge that the emotion (s) can be handled in a healthy way (Minter, 2014).

Final thoughts

The emotion wheel and other similar tools are valuable because they help you achieve meaningful mental health goals, such as:

  1. Learn to pay attention to your emotions.
  2. Get curious, but also be patient with your emotions.
  3. Talk about your emotions and show your true emotions to others.
  4. Learn to accept that one has different emotions.
  5. Replace your emotions with other emotions (where necessary, possible and appropriate).

The value of the emotion wheel is that it helps us to better understand our emotions and thereby make life more manageable.