Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Plutchik's wheel of emotions

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Plutchik's wheel of emotions:
What is Plutchik's wheel of emotions, how does it work, and how can it be applied?


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The study of emotions is one of the most confused topics in psychology today (Plutchik, 2001a). The reason behind this is that the language of emotions is so broad, with hundreds of different words to describe various emotional states. Complicating the topic of emotion further is the plethora of theories of emotion whose authors interpret the role of emotion in life very differently (Plutchik, 2001a). Plutchik’s wheel of emotions takes into account the numerous definitions of emotion and related theories, and proposes an all-encompassing theory of emotion to help better explain the complex topic of emotion[factual?].

Robert Plutchik created the 2D and conical 3D Wheel of Emotions in 1980 to help understand his Psychoevolutionary Theory of Emotion. Plutchik identified eight primary emotions which he coordinated in pairs of opposites:

  • joy versus sadness
  • trust versus disgust
  • fear versus anger
  • anticipation versus surprise

Plutchik's Psychoevolutionary Theory of Emotion is based on ten postulates and consists of three components, the structural model, the sequential model, and the derivatives model. (Plutchik, 1980, 2001)

Robert Plutchik

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Robert Plutchik (21 October 1927 – 29 April 2006) was professor emeritus at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and adjunct professor at the University of South Florida. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia University. His research interests include the study of emotions, the study of suicide and violence and the study of the psychotherapy process. (American Scientist, 2014)

Plutchik's wheel of emotions

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Integrated into Plutchik's Psychoevolutionary Theory of Emotion is Plutchik’s wheel of emotions. Plutchik’s proposed the wheel of emotions in 1980 to illustrate the various relationships among emotions. Plutchik’s wheel of emotions incorporates all of the elements of his Psychoevolutionary Theory of Emotion. See image (right) for Plutchik’s wheel of emotions. Note that the two-dimensional ‘flower’ can fold into a three-dimensional, spinning top shape.

Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions is analogous to a colour wheel. Like colours, primary emotions can be expressed at different intensities and can mix with one another to form different emotions (combination emotions). The intensity of the emotion increases as you move towards the wheel’s centre and decreases as you move outward; the darker the shade, the more intense the emotion (Plutchik, 2001a). As described in Plutchik's Psychoevolutionary Theory of Emotion, Plutchik believed that there are eight primary emotions. These eight primary emotions occupy the centre of wheel (note the bolder colours) and the ‘milder’ emotions form the extremities (note the paler colours). For example, rage is the stronger form of anger while annoyance is the weaker (Plutchik, 2001a).

Plutchik’s eight primary emotions are Joy, Trust, Fear, Surprise, Sadness, Anticipation, Anger, and Disgust. Each primary emotion has a polar opposite, so that: (Williams, 2013)

  • Joy is the opposite of Sadness
  • Fear is the opposite of Anger
  • Anticipation is the opposite of Surprise
  • Disgust is the opposite of Trust

Plutchik's wheel also contains combination emotions, which are combinations of primary emotions that lie next to each other on the Wheel of Emotions (Williams, 2013). These combination emotions can be primary dyads (often felt), secondary dyads (sometimes felt) and tertiary dyads (seldom felt). Table 1 provides the dyads produced by combining two primary emotions:

The dyads produced from each emotion. Note that some may be different than the ones listed on the table.

Table 1:

Primary Emotions Combined Emotion Produced from Primary Emotion Combination
1 Anger + Anticipation Aggressiveness
2 Anticipation + Joy Optimism
3 Joy + Trust Love
4 Trust + Fear Submission
5 Fear + Surprise Alarm
6 Surprise + Sadness Disappointment
7 Sadness + Disgust Remorse
8 Disgust + Anger Contempt
9 Anger + Joy Pride
10 Anticipation + Trust Fatalism
11 Joy + Fear Guilt
12 Trust + Surprise Curiosity
13 Fear + Sadness Despair
14 Surprise + Disgust Unbelief
15 Sadness + Anger Envy
16 Disgust + Anticipation Cynicism
17 Anger + Trust Dominance
18 Anticipation + Fear Anxiety
19 Joy + Surprise Delight
20 Trust + Sadness Sentimentality
21 Fear + Disgust Shame
22 Surprise + Anger Outrage
23 Sadness + Anticipation Pessimism
24 Disgust + Joy Morbidness

Plutchik’s Psychoevolutionary Theory of Emotion

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Robert Plutchik’s Psychoevolutionary Theory of Emotion suggests that emotion is not simply a feeling state but a complex chain of events beginning with a stimulus that evokes feelings, psychological changes, impulses leading to actions, and goal-orientated behaviour (Plutchik, 2001b). Plutchik describes emotions as “basic adaptations needed by all organisms in the struggle for individual survival" (Plutchik, 1980). According to Plutchik, emotions are similar to DNA or organs – traits that are so important that they are a survival and evolutionary necessity (Plutchik, 2001b).

As shown in Table 2, Plutchik theorized that emotions serve at least eight distinct functions (adaptive behaviours): protection, destruction, reproduction, reunion, affiliation, rejection, exploration, and orientation (Plutchik, 1980; Reeve, 2009). Plutchik proposed that these eight ‘basic’ functions are biologically primitive and have evolved to enhance the survival and reproductive fitness of humans and animals (Plutchik, 2001a). For example, for the purpose of protection, fear energizes and inspires the fight-or-flight response (Reeve, 2009). To explore a new environment, anticipation sparks interest and prepares the body for investigation (Reeve, 2009). For every major life event or task, humans have evolved a necessary, adaptive emotion reaction (Reeve, 2009). The function of emotions is therefore to prepare us for life’s tasks, with an automatic and historically successful response (Plutchik, 1980; Reeve, 2009). From this point of view, all emotions are beneficial because they prioritize behaviours in ways that optimize adjustment to the demands of life (Plutchik, 1980; Reeve, 2009).

Table 2:

Adaptive Behaviour Emotion
Protection: Withdrawal, retreat Fear, Terror
Destruction: Elimination of barriers to the satisfaction of needs Anger. Rage
Incorporation: Ingesting nourishment Acceptance
Rejection: Riddance response to harmful material Disgust
Reproduction: Approach, contact, genetic exchanges Joy, Pleasure
Reintegration: Reaction to loss of a nutrient product Sadness, grief
Exploration: Investigating an environment Curiosity, Play
Orientation: Reaction to contact with unfamiliar object Surprise

The 10 postulates

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Plutchik (1980) developed ten postulates on which his Psychoevolutionary Theory of Emotions is based:

  1. Animals and Humans: The concept of emotion is applicable to all evolutionary levels and applies to all animals and humans.
  2. Evolutionary History: Emotions have an evolutionary history and have evolved various forms of expression in different species.
  3. Survival issues: Emotions serve an adaptive role in helping organisms deal with key survival issues posed by the environment.
  4. Prototype Patterns: Despite different forms expression of emotions in different species, there are certain common elements, or prototypes that can be identified.
  5. Basic Emotions: There is a small number of basic, primary, or prototype emotions.
  6. Combinations: All other emotions are mixed or derivative states; that is, they occur as combination, mixtures, or compounds of the primary emotions.
  7. Hypothetical constructs: Primary emotions are hypothetical constructs of idealized states whose properties and characteristics can only be inferred from various kinds of evidence.
  8. Opposites: Primary emotions can be conceptualized in terms of polar opposites.
  9. Similarity: All emotions vary in their degree of similarity to one another.
  10. Intensity: Each emotion can exist in varying degrees of intensity or levels of arousal.

The structural model

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This aspect of Plutchik’s Psychoevolutionary Theory of Emotion assumes that emotions can be conceptualized in a fashion analogous to colours and that the relations among emotions can be represented by a three-dimensional model shaped like a cone. The vertical dimensions in the 3D Wheel of emotions represent the intensity of emotions, the circle represents degree of similarity of emotions, and polarity is represented by the opposite emotion on the circle. A key aspect of the structural model is the idea that there are eight primary emotions and that all others are derived from their combinations.

The sequential model

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This aspect of Plutchik’s psychoevolutionary theory of emotion suggests that emotion is the result of a sequence of events (Plutchik, 2001a). As shown in Table 3, the sequential model proposes that stimulus events, either external or internal, act as the primary triggers that start the emotional process (Plutchik, 2001a). How an individual interprets a stimulus event determines their proceeding emotion, the interpretation or cognition (unconscious or conscious) then leads to a feeling state (Plutchik, 2001a). The feeling state then often triggers an impulse to action (overt behaviour), which results in an effect/solution (Plutchik, 2001b). See Table 3 for an example of key elements in an emotional sequence.

Table 3:

Stimulus Event Cognition/Interpretation Feeling State Overt Behavior Effect
Threat 'Danger' Fear Escape Safety
Obstacle 'Enemy' Anger Attack Destroy Obstacle
Gain of Valued Object 'Possess' Joy Retain or Repeat Gain Resources or New Genes
Loss of Valued Object 'Abandonment' Sadness Cry Reattach with Lost Object
Member of One's Group 'Friend' Acceptance Groom Mutual Support
Unwanted object 'Poison' Disgust Vomit Eject Poison
New Territory 'Examine' Expectation Map Knowledge of Territory
Unexpected Event 'What is it?' Surprise Stop Gain Time to Orient

The derivatives model

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This aspect of Plutchik’s Psychoevolutionary Theory of Emotion explains how the numerous descriptors/language of emotions can be accounted for. Plutchik’s Psychoevolutionary Theory assumes that there are eight basic emotion dimensions whereas various other studies suggest that there are a few hundred words describing emotions (which tend to fall into groups based on similarity) (Plutchik, 2001a). By combining different combinations of Plutchik’s eight basic emotions, any emotion can be found. For example, mixing joy and acceptance produces the mixed emotion of love, or, disgust plus anger produces hostility or contempt (Plutchik, 2001a). Plutchik (2001a) suggests that any emotion not described in the eight basic emotion dimensions, is a derivative of these eight.

How can Plutchik's wheel of emotions be applied?

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Plutchik’s wheel of emotions provides an explanation as to why we behave as we do. It proposes that our emotions are not merely feeling states, but the result of a complex sequence of events. Plutchik’s wheel of emotions illustrates the various relationships among our different emotions and, with Plutchik’s Psychoevolutionary Theory of Emotions, it explains how and why we experience the emotions that we do. A greater understanding of emotion and behavior is provided by Plutchik's wheel of emotions. This knowledge can help an individual to understand their emotions and behaviors and can, therefore, be used as a tool to improve their life.


1 Plutchik created the wheel of emotions to help explain his Psychoevolutionary Theory of Emotion?


2 Plutchik's Psychoevolutionary Theory of Emotions is based upon five postulates?


3 How many basic/primary emotions does Plutchik propose there are?


4 Robert Plutchik proposed the wheel of emotions in the year 1980



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American Scientist (2014), Robert Plutchik: A biography, Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society, Retrieved from on the 10/10/14

Plutchik, R. (1980), EMOTION: A Psychoevolutionary Synthesis, Harper & Row

Plutchik, R. (2001), Integration, Differentiation, and Derivatives of Emotion, Evolution and Cognition, Vol. 7, No. 2

Plutchik, R. (2001), That Nature of Emotions: Human emotions have deep evolutionary roots, a fact that may explain their complexity and provide tools for clinical practice. Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society, vol. 89, No. 4, pp.344-350. Retrieved from on the 15/10.14

Reeve, J. (2009). Understanding motivation and emotion (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ

Williams, Y. (2013), Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions, Education Portal, Retrieved from on the 22/10/14