Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions: What It Is and Why It Matters

plutchik's wheel of emotions

Plutchik’s wheel of emotions was invented in the 1980s by a psychologist and professor of medicine named, surprisingly, Robert Plutchik. His wheel turned into a popular way to understand emotions and, most importantly, see how different emotions are connected.

The wheel starts with 8 basic emotions:

Understanding Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions

Plutchik’s wheel of emotions works similar to a color wheel. The emotions closest to each other are the most similar, while the emotions farthest from each other are the most dissimilar. 

For example, anticipation and joy are emotions that have a lot in common. On the other hand, joy and sadness are polar opposites. 

As we learned from the fabulous Pixar movie, Inside Out, you need all of your emotions, even if you would prefer to have more joy than sadness in your day-to-day life. 

Plutchik’s wheel doesn’t rank any of the emotions as better than the others. Think about a wheel spinning. At any given point, any part of the wheel can be on top or bottom, meaning that all parts of the wheel are equal.

You’ll also notice that each spoke of Plutchik’s wheel lists multiple emotions. These are all variations of the 8 basic emotions, ranging in intensity. As you get closer to the center of each spoke, the more intense its color gets, which represents higher intensity emotion. As you get farther away from the center, the less intense the color gets, which represents less intensity emotion.

The emotions listed in between each spoke are what you get if you combine the emotions of the two spokes it sits between. For example, a combination of joy and anticipation creates optimism, while a combination of surprise and fear create awe.

These emotion combinations are a really important component to Plutchik’s wheel, as they explain how emotions are related and work together to create our daily experiences. No emotion exists in a vacuum and it’s rare that we ever feel just one emotion without hints of another. While Plutchik only lists 1 emotion combination per section, in reality, the combinations are limitless. Any emotion you feel has sprinkles of other emotions in it, which is why emotions can be so fun…or stressful. However you view your emotions, good, bad, or otherwise, the complexity of them is what makes life so colorful. Literally, in the case of Plutchik’s wheel.

How to Use Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions with Kids

Emotional recognition is an important step towards emotional regulation, which is a key skill for kids to learn. Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions is a helpful tool for understanding what emotions are and how they relate to each other.

Older kids may be able to understand Plutchik’s wheel as it is. Emotions like disgust, vigilance, and apprehension may be emotions they are familiar with and comfortable talking about.

Younger kids may need more help navigating the wheel and understanding what some of the emotions feel like. Start with the 8 basic emotions and gage your child’s understanding of them. From there, explore the other emotions on the spokes and start to talk about how they’re related.


Diana is a registered occupational therapist who specializes in sensory processing disorders and autism.

Recent Posts