Robert Plutchik’s Wheel Of Emotions: What Is It And What Does It Show?

A map of emotions that allows you to see the different combinations of these.

Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions

Emotions are one of the phenomena that has experienced the most ups and downs throughout the history of Psychology. Thus, they have lived moments in which they were a matter of capital importance, and others in which they were hardly considered.

At present, emotional life is an object of interest for most professionals who are dedicated to the study of the mind and behavior, having been categorized in very different ways.

In this article we will review one of the most brilliant theoretical proposals, Robert Plutchik’s wheel of emotions, which is not limited to its conceptualization, but also to the approach to its potential interactions.

A deep understanding of this issue can contribute to understanding a part of ourselves that influences almost all aspects of life (decisions, relationships, etc.).

Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions

Plutchik’s wheel of emotions is composed of eight basic emotions, which represent relatively common experiences in the experiential heritage, more specifically: joy, confidence, fear, surprise, sadness, aversion, anger and anticipation . The author recognized them as dimensions that rarely occurred alone, and that could be expressed in different degrees of intensity.

This last nuance is what makes this theoretical proposal rich. Plutchik indicated that the emotional states described harbored a certain similarity between them, which made them susceptible to being combined in different ways, culminating in the formation of a more complex feeling. He referred to these overlaps as dyads; and he differentiated them as primary, secondary or tertiary (less and less frequent and embroidered by affections with a lesser degree of kinship).

We then proceed to approach each of the basic emotions, pointing out their different degrees of intensity and the particular way in which they can intertwine with each other to acquire new and almost infinite nuances.

1. Joy

Joy is a “positive” emotion, which is expressed as a state of well-being and satisfaction with oneself and / or the general conditions of life. Its subtlest degree is manifested as serenity (a regular state of calm, stillness and balance), while the highest takes the form of ecstasy (one of the most exalted human experiences of the state of mind and that has even been adopted by texts mystics of different creeds). Its opposite is sadness.

Joy can be combined in many different ways with other basic emotions. Your primary dyads have subtle ties to the emotions you have the greatest affinity for: trust and anticipation. In the first case, it gives rise to love, a feeling of acceptance on which significant bonds between human beings are built; while in the second it engenders optimism, a positive outlook on what time will bring.

His secondary dyads would be the result of the combination with emotions with which he harbors a greater distance: fear and anger. By merging with fear, it would give rise to guilt, through which a secret sense of worthlessness would be expressed that would overshadow a benefit that has been the object; and with the second it would result in pride, through which an empty exacerbation of one’s position on any matter would be evidenced, in the context of a confrontation with others.

2. Trust

Confidence is an essential emotion for Plutchik, which implies the firm belief that one can act without danger of harm or damage. When it is attenuated it takes the form of acceptance, a sincere integration of the events lived in the narrative of the experience itself. When inflamed, it becomes admiration, with which a total exaltation of the appreciation that is projected on a person or thing is expressed. Its extreme is aversion.

In addition to love, trust tends to combine with fear, being another of its primary dyads. When this happens, it can transform into a state of submission, in which the will of the other is accepted despite sacrificing aspects of one’s own freedom. This affect can be the result of ties in which either party takes deliberate actions to cause an imbalance, which promotes vulnerability or emotional dependence.

The secondary dyads of trust, which arise from its combination with affects of a greater similarity, concur with surprise and anticipation. In the first case, curiosity takes place, a sort of “rapture” of the attention focus to increase knowledge about something that is perceived as important; and in the second, conviction emerges, from which the principles that govern thought and behavior are embraced, as well as the values ​​and objectives set for life.

3. Fear

Fear is a basic, universal and instinctive reaction; considered as such in practically all the typologies on emotion that have flourished throughout history. In its subtlest degree it is expressed as apprehension (an uncertainty pregnant with pessimistic expectation) and at the highest level it becomes an authentic terror or dread (a state that usually displays fight or flight behaviors). Fear, an adaptive reaction to threats in the environment, has anger as its opposite.

The most elemental primary dyad of fear occurs together with surprise, arising at that moment what we know as fright or startle. This reaction constitutes an ominous nuance for an initially neutral affective state (surprise), which is usually suggestive of underlying negative psychic states (such as depression or anxiety), or the presence of stable personality traits that imply susceptibility to distress ( such as high neuroticism).

As for its secondary dyads, the one that occurs as a result of its coexistence with sadness stands out: despair. This state is one of the most critical for any human being, since it implies a subjective feeling of loss of control and helplessness, the maintenance of which is an important risk factor for major depression. There is multiple evidence on this in the field of clinical and research.

Finally, fear can intermingle with emotions other than those indicated, particularly with aversion and anticipation. As a result, there would be shame (perception of fear of rejection because we are considered inadequate) and anxiety (concern about a threat that is located at an undefined and ambiguous point in the future), respectively. Both are common, and the potential cause of deep suffering.

4. Surprise

Surprise is an emotion whose nature tends to be considered neutral, and which is a reaction to changing and unpredictable circumstances that are located in the immediate environment. According to its degree, the mildest would be distraction, a state of slight attentional retention; and the most intense would be astonishment, which implies an absolute projection of consciousness in the face of a subjectively overwhelming event (for better or for worse). The opposite of surprise would be anticipation.

Regarding the primary dyads, those that occur more frequently when joining other emotions, the one that occurs with sadness stands out. This affective overlap translates into disappointment, which arises upon becoming aware of a negative and unforeseen outcome that contrasts with the initially favorable expectations, on which hope had been placed.

Surprise can also coexist with joy (shaping delight) and anger (shaping indignation), resulting in diametrically opposite products. Delight is the result of receiving positive news about which there was no knowledge whatsoever, which promotes existential rejoicing, while indignation implies a state of offense in the face of adverse circumstances that have abruptly erupted. The latter case is common in interpersonal relationships, and a common reason for confrontation.

5. Sadness

Sadness is an emotional response that depends on loss, which is expressed as anxiety and allows us to obtain social support from the activation of the mirror neurons of those who observe it. The mildest degree is isolation, a tendency to withdraw from shared activities; and the most serious is depression, the result of small cumulative losses that exacerbate original grief. The emotion that acts as its reverse is joy.

As for its frequent combinations, or primary dyads, the one that occurs with aversion stands out. The confluence of the two implies remorse, a state of intimate discomfort that arises from behaviors that we consider inappropriate due to the impact they could have on others. When allying with surprise, disapproval emerges, which suggests a disagreement with respect to other people’s ideas or acts, which are opposed to the fundamental principles or values ​​that govern our lives.

In this deep emotional canvas, sadness can also coexist with anger. In this case, the resulting product is envy, from which we project our deficiencies in a hurtful way on another person, in which we perceive what we think we suffer from. In some cases, it can promote actions aimed at damaging their status or impairing their worth.

6. Aversion

Aversion is a suggestive emotion of rejection, and of a crude and deliberate will to avoid. In its tenuous limits it expresses itself as boredom (or evident absence of interest), while in the more intense it becomes disgust or abhorrence. The latter translates into a stubbornness to maintain physical or psychological distance from an element that is judged as undesirable. Its opposite pole is trust, which encourages rapprochement.

The most common mixture of aversion, or primary dyad, is with anger. Under this premise, rejection is accompanied by an evident hostile attitude, which is called contempt. It is an emotional state responsible for some of the main problems that our society faces, which hide in its depths a certain tinge of fear. Some examples would be xenophobia and other forms of hatred.

As for the secondary dyads, which occur much less frequently, the combinations of aversion with surprise and anticipation are noteworthy. In the first case, there results an experience of disgust (reaction of extreme disgust as a result of the irruption of an event that would be avoided under normal conditions) and in the second, cynicism (through which they unfold in the scenario of social interactions a succession of acts on which there is a broad consensus of rejection, but from lies and premeditated hypocrisy).

7. Anger

Anger is a state that arises as a direct response to an affront, especially when it is attributed to the clear will of a third party, this being a perceptual element of great relevance for its appearance. In its mildest form it takes the form of simple anger (disagreement with another person in their words or manner) and in the most extreme it becomes rage (under which impulsive acts are usually carried out). Specular affect, in this case, is fear.

The most common dyad of anger concurs by meddling with anticipation, producing treachery. This involves acts of violence on which careful planning is built, which implies a thoughtful process of preparation and a high degree of sophistication. In many countries, blood crimes that take place under the umbrella of treachery tend to be considered extremely cruel, and the harshest penalties are reserved for them.

Regarding the tertiary dyads of anger, the one that arises from the intersection with trust is the most important. In this case, a state of domination takes place, the opposite of submission at all, and which serves as a vehicle to bend the will of another person, taking refuge in the bond established with them (hierarchy). Domination often resorts to authoritarian leadership styles that constrain individuality.

8. Anticipation

Anticipation is the reverse of surprise, that is, the articulation of clear expectations about the future. The lowest profile of this emotion is interest, which implies a moderate degree of attraction towards a particular object or stimulus, and the highest is vigilance (a superlative level of attention focus, which also lasts for long periods of time and consumes many cognitive resources).

The most common dyad of anticipation occurs when it interacts simultaneously with sadness, leading to pessimism. In this case, the expectation is burnished with a negative nuance, darkening the path on which life will travel. It is a frequent emotional state in major depression, and also in other psychological disorders.

The complexity of the inner life

As can be seen, the inner life is deep and very diverse. Human beings can experience several things at the same time and, in fact, that is our natural state. Knowing the possible combinations of primary emotions and their translation in subjective terms is essential to learn to identify, discriminate and manage what happens within us. That is, to have adequate emotional intelligence.

Bibliographic references:

  • Manshad, M. and Petrovich, A. (2019). Summarizing Emotions from Text Using Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions. Advances in Intelligent System Research, 166, pp. 291-294.
  • Plutchik, R. (2001). The Nature of Emotions. American Scientist, 89 (4), pp. 344-350.

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