Understanding Robert Plutchik’s Theory of Emotion: A Comprehensive Guide

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June 6, 2019
Collage Artwork used as featured image for Robert Plutchik's Theroy of Emotions
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In this article you will read about:

Robert Plutchik 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 and he was also a psychologist. He authored or coauthored more than 260 articles, 45 chapters and eight books and edited seven books. His research interests included the study of emotions, the study of suicide and violence, and the study of the process of psychotherapy.


Robert Plutchik proposed a psychoevolutionary classification approach for general emotional responses. He considered there to be eight primary emotions—anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, and joy. Plutchik argues for the primacy of these emotions by showing each to be the trigger of behaviour with high survival value, such as the way fear inspires the fight-or-flight response.

The Theory's Postulates

Plutchik’s psychoevolutionary theory of basic emotions has ten postulates.

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

The Wheel of Emotions

In 1980, Robert Plutchik constructed a diagram of emotions visualising eight basic emotions: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger and anticipation. 

Robert Plutchik - Emotion Dyads

Plutchik also theorized twenty-four “Primary”, “Secondary”, and “Tertiary” dyads (feelings composed of two emotions). The wheel emotions can be paired in four groups:

  1. Primary dyad = one petal apart = Love = Joy + Trust
  2. Secondary dyad = two petals apart = Envy = Sadness + Anger
  3. Tertiary dyad = three petals apart = Shame = Fear + Disgust
  4. Opposite emotions = four petals apart = Anticipation ≠ Surprise

Emotions can be mild or intense; for example, distraction is a mild form of surprise, and rage is an intense form of anger. 

Visually, the kinds of relation between each pair of emotions are:

Robert Plutchik - Wheel of Emotions

Additionally, his circumplex model makes connections between the idea of an emotion circle and a color wheel. Like colors, primary emotions can be expressed at different intensities and can mix with one another to form different emotions.

The theory was extended to provide the basis for an explanation for psychological defence mechanisms; Plutchik proposed that eight defense mechanisms were manifestations of the eight core emotions.

For introductory information on the subject of emotion, please read Theories of Emotion in Psychology: Quick Guide.

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