A Wheel of Emotions


Wheel of emotions

There are many models for capturing the range of human emotion, but one that caught my eye was this highly original classification captured in the wheel of emotions. This image is the work of Robert Plutchik, a psychologist who saw emotions, as Darwin did in his groundbreaking The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, as playing a role in the evolution of animal life. He posited that all animals, including humans, share the “primary” emotions.

I’m not a fan of evolutionary psychology as it has been applied recently to depression itself, but Plutchik presents the complexity of emotions in an interesting and helpful way.

The primary emotions are the eight shown in the middle of the three circles of this figure, and he groups them as four pairs of opposites: fear vs. anger, surprise vs. anticipation, joy vs. sadness and trust vs. disgust. These are the emotional states shared by many animals in different degrees. Plutchik captured the increasing complexity of emotions by comparing them to a color wheel. Just as colors have different levels of intensity, so do emotions. In this diagram, he shows the less intense in the outer circle and the most intense in the center.

For example, the progression of intensity leads from serenity to joy to ecstasy, from annoyance to anger to rage, from acceptance to trust to admiration, etc. (I can’t see, though, how boredom is the less intense form of loathing – but there’s lots to quibble about here.)

The emotions in the outermost white band are more complex human states of feeling, such as love or remorse, that grow out of the primary states. So love is linked to joy and trust, contempt to anger and disgust, awe to fear and surprise, and so on.


Plutchik Dyads of Emotions

Plutchik also organized emotions as pairs or dyads in the second diagram. The dyad arrangement shows links among primary emotions in a more flexible manner than the wheel. These links reveal additional emotions, like shame, dominance, curiosity and despair. An interesting feature of this diagram is the multiple levels of links. The primary emotions can merge in several directions among the subsidiary feelings. Hence, anticipation and sadness yield pessimism, surprise and anger yield outrage, fear and disgust produce shame, and so on.

There’s a lot I don’t agree with in this classification. Partly, that may result from some of the name choices he makes, such as submission. That seems more appropriate word for the action that follows an emotion rather than the emotion itself. Some of the associations are questionable, but it’s interesting to think about this classification and how emotions are linked and blended.


Plutchik also related the primary emotions to a sequence of adaptive or defensive behaviors in the following table (from Theories of Emotion by Robert Plutchik and Henry Kellerman. New York: Academic Press. 1980.)


Stimulus event Inferred cognition Feeling Behavior Effect
Threat “Danger” Fear, terror Running, or flying away Protection
Obstacle “Enemy” Anger, rage Biting, hitting Destruction
Potential mate “Possess” Joy, ecstasy Courting, mating Reproduction
Loss of valued person “Isolation” Sadness, grief Crying for help Reintegration
Group member “Friend” Acceptance, trust Grooming, sharing Affiliation
Gruesome object “Poison” Disgust, Loathing Vomiting, pushing away Rejection
New territory “What’s out there?” Anticipation Examining, mapping Exploration
Sudden novel object “What is it?” Surprise Stopping, alerting Orientation


This table is especially interesting to me because it moves all the way from the stimulus through feeling to behavior and finally the emotional and psychological effect of the overall experience. So reintegration is the effect of the experience of grieving for the loss of a valued person.

This sort of sequence also offers a way of linking perception, the immediate thought responding to that perception, feeling, behavior and a kind of resolution of the experience. It’s much more sophisticated and helpful than the simplistic idea that thought gives rise to feeling which gives rise to behavior – a formulation commonly found in discussions of cognitive therapy.

What do you think of this?

Image credits: Wheel of Emotions by Machine Elf 1735 / Public domain

Plutchik’s Dyads by ChaoticBrain / CC BY-SA