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Emotion Behavior Wheel: Linking Feelings, Behaviors, & Empathy

image of top half of emotion behavior wheel resource.

Emotions prompt behavior.

In this new emotion wheel, I’ve created a visual representation of how emotions and behaviors are linked. Understanding these connections, and how ourselves and the people we care about each have sightly unique connections, can be a key to growth.

Keep reading to learn more or jump to the download to get a PDF copy of this resource designed to help build self-awareness, social skills, and empathy via the link below.

What you’ll find in this article:

A person filling out an emotion behavior wheel worksheet on a tablet.
An example of how the interactive worksheet can be used as a print or digital worksheet.

Developing the Emotion Behavior Wheel

Just before everything shut down in 2020, I spent an afternoon in a cafe with my best friend taking turns acting out emotions and describing what they physically felt like. The result of that playful research was the Emotion Sensation Wheel– my #1 ranked download for both 2020 and 2021.

In the 2 years since the sensation wheel was released, I’ve become increasingly aware of a shortcoming of all the emotion wheels (including my own) currently published: they’re exclusively centered on self-experience. These feeling wheels focus on internal experience without inviting us to consider how emotions play a significant role in how we treat others and move in the world.

I wondered: could an emotion wheel be developed that addressed how our emotions, via behaviors, impact others? The Emotion Behavior Wheel is my response to that prompt.

Feeling wheels are useful tools for growing our awareness of our internal world. This new Emotion Behavior Wheel connects feelings and behaviors in a way that can grow insight into how emotions shape the behavior of ourselves and others.

With skilled use, the Emotion Behavior Wheel can be a tool to foster social-emotional learning in children, build empathy in people of all ages, and help neurodiverse individuals decode how humans communicate emotion through behavior.

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Mockup of Emotion Behavior Wheel PDF Download and worksheets
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Research Supporting the Emotion Behavior Wheel

As this idea was developing in my mind and my sketchbook, I discovered the results of a study published in 2021 by researchers at North Carolina State University. Their findings strongly suggest that helping kids practice naming emotions a person might be feeling (based on external cues like behavior) can help them develop empathy and the capacity to apologise genuinely when appropriate.1

In fact, there is a wealth of research2 on this experience of viewing, naming, and understanding emotions and behaviors to develop empathy, or even simply to create “socially appropriate” responses. The process requires the use of our prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for higher executive functions, like attention and controlled responses). A brain’s prefrontal cortex develops throughout our lives, becoming mature in our early 20’s. According to researchers3. This area of the brain helps generate feelings and thoughts in response to the emotions and behaviors of others: we observe and subconsciously enact a mental representation of that person’s feelings state, which then creates in ourselves a matching feeling state. 

Our ability to notice and match the emotions of another person is a process helped by something called mirror neurons. Mirror neurons allow us to mentally, emotionally, and behaviorally match what we see. We even have processes that enact somatosensory responses: we feel touch when we see someone being touched, even if we aren’t actually experiencing the touch ourselves! Mirror neurons also help  explain viewers’ emotional reactions when observing emotions and behaviors on film and TV4

With opportunities to practice throughout our lifetime, our brains become increasingly adapt at noticing and matching emotion and predicting the thoughts and feelings of others. In fact, researcher believe that over time, navigating the emotional cues of others, our own patterns of emotional and behavioral responses to the world around us shift5.

(In reality, of course, changing our behavior and feeling patterns isn’t quite as easy as practicing, especially for neurodivergent brains, but repetition of experience seems to have a powerful effect.)

Emotions & Behaviors are Linked 

The fact is, we do have a pretty good understanding (both intuitively and through academic research) of the ways in which specific feelings prompt specific behaviors. While everyone is a little bit different in how their brains and bodies translate feeling to action, there are many predictable correlations (and, where an individual responds with “that’s not true for me!” the wheel has worked to prompt awareness and conversation).

The Emotion Behavior Wheel is not meant to be prescriptive, claiming “people who act this way always feel this.” Instead, it’s a jumping-off point for conversations. Disagreements and corrections often build awareness.

People Aren’t Predictable

You may notice a lot of “or’s” in the behaviors listed- yelling or storming out when angry, giving up or acting out when we feel powerless. Sometimes individual reactions to the same emotions include seemingly opposite behaviors.

This can be explained by individuals’ predispositions to choose fight or flight, protest or despair (responses that are often correlated to attachment styles). For example, someone with an avoidant attachment style with a predisposition to flee from conflict might storm off when they feel mad, while someone with preoccupied attachment and a drive to fight when faced with conflict might scream and yell. Because of this, “or’s” were added in key sections to include opposing behaviors.

Translating Inner Experience Outward

The Emotion Behavior Wheel is my attempt to create a social-emotional learning (SEL) resource that helps to grow our awareness about how inner experience and outer action are linked, in order to provide a resource for helping counselors, teachers, social workers, and others to help students and clients understand for themselves and others that people often act certain ways not because they want to act that way but because they’re overwhelmed by particular emotions.

Using the Emotion Behavior Wheel

The Emotion Behavior Wheel can be used from the inside out or the outside in. Working outside in, users can start by locating a certain behavior – like loud words or feeling fidgety – and moving inward to get an indication of what emotion might be prompting that behavior.

Working from the inside out, on the other hand, users might identify a feeling first and then connect it to the outer expression and how that emotion impacts other people’s behavior.

Emotions in Relationship, Community, and Culture

The Emotion Behavior Wheel helps bring insight into how emotions don’t exist in a vacuum. Emotions – especially the way emotions prompt behavior – are communal and relational, not just isolated to self-experience. Through conversations around how certain emotions prompt behaviors, individuals can develop a greater awareness of how emotions affect behavior and develop a higher level of empathy for people behaving badly.

Who is the Emotion Behavior Wheel for? 

The Emotion Behavior Wheel was designed with many types of people in mind, including:

  • Anyone who is developing an awareness of how behaviors are often prompted by underlying emotion.
  • Children, older kids, teens, and others developing Social-Emotional Learning.
  • Neurodivergent individuals of all ages who want to develop a better understanding of how people communicate emotions through behavior.

Artists Need your Help 

This resource is copyrighted. Please honor my labor and help me continue to create by not posting premium assets to social media (shares of my social media posts are welcome), placing my art on public servers, or publishing without a license. Post-licensing fees may be assessed for unauthorized use. Explanations of license types, as well as information on publishing, can be found through this link: Licenses I Offer.

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Instructions: Behavior Wheel Worksheets

Research at the intersection of neuroscience and education6 tells us that humans learn best when we engage interactively and creatively with information- that’s why Patreon & Professional Licenses of this art include 2 printable worksheets:

  • Blank Outer Ring Emotion Behavior Worksheet: A worksheet where participants can write in the ways they behave when they are feeling a certain emotion.
  • Blank Inner Rings Emotion Behavior Worksheet: A worksheet where participants can write in the emotions they feel when they behave a certain way.

Both worksheets can be completed for self OR a child, partner, or even a TV character as an awareness-building exercise that can build empathy through imagination.

Read to download?

Image Description for Screen Readers

The Emotion Behavior Wheel consists of four layers of rings and six sections of colors: pink, purple, blue, green, yellow, and orange. 

The inner circle is solid white with a grey title that reads “Emotion Behavior Wheel.” The second circle – moving outward – is where major emotion categories are written. Moving clockwise from the top right, the categories read: anger (pink), disgust (purple), sad (blue), happy (green), surprise (yellow), and fear (orange). 

The third circle is where the corresponding feelings to those emotion categories are written. In the red section of anger are the feelings: offended, insecure, hateful, mad, aggressive, irritated, distant, and critical. In the purple section of disgust are the feelings: disapproval, disappointed, awful, and aversion. In the blue section of sad are the feelings: shame, apathetic, despair, depressed, lonely, and guilt. In the green section of happy are the feelings: optimistic, intimate, peaceful, courageous, satisfied, proud, curious, and joy. In the yellow section of surprise are the feelings: excitement, awe, confusion, and shock. In the orange section of fear are the feelings: scared, anxious, powerless, inferior, unwanted, and embarrassed.

The fourth – and outermost – circle is where corresponding behaviors to the feelings and emotion categories are written. In the red section of anger are the behaviors: getting defensive (offended), showing off (insecure), saying mean things (hateful), yelling or storming off (mad), picking a fight (aggressive), not listening (irritated), ignoring (distant), giving feedback unkindly (critical). In the purple section of disgust are the behaviors: telling them they’re wrong (disapproval), withdrawing trust (disappointed), expressing disgust (awful), and avoiding or leaving (aversion). In the blue section of sad are the feelings: hiding or blaming (shame), giving up or not caring (apathetic), shutting down (despair), low energy (depressed), clingy or dismissive (lonely), and covering up or telling truth (guilt). In the green section of happy are the behaviors: solution-seeking (optimistic), sharing touch (intimate), being still (peaceful), sticking up for self or other (courageous), admiring (satisfied), boasting and bragging (proud), questions and listening (curious), and being cheerful (joy). In the yellow section of surprise are the behaviors: talking fast and smiling (excitement), being mindful and reverent (awe), head tilting and questions (confusion), and silence, then reaction (shock). In the orange section of fear are the behaviors: getting away (scared), fidgeting and discomfort (anxious), giving up or acting out (powerless), trying to fit in (inferior), isolating (unwanted), and covering up the source (embarrassed).

  1. Mulvey, K. L., Gönültaş, S., Herry, E., & Strelan, P. (2021). The role of theory of mind, group membership, and apology in intergroup forgiveness among children and adolescents. Journal of experimental psychology. General, 10.1037/xge0001094. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0001094 []
  2. Rameson, L.T. & Lieberman, M.D. (2009). Empathy: A  social cognitive neuroscience approach. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 3(1), 94-100. https://www.scn.ucla.edu/pdf/Rameson(2009).pdf []
  3. Gallese, V., & Goldman, A. (1998). Mirror neurons and the simulation theory of mind-reading. Trends in cognitive sciences, 2(12), 493–501. https://doi.org/10.1016/s1364-6613(98)01262-5 []
  4. Shaw, D. (2016). Mirror neurons and simulation theory: A neurophysiological foundation for cinematic empathy. In Current controversies in philosophy of film (pp. 287-304). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315764887 []
  5. Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. (2008). The evolutionary psychology of the emotions and their relationship to internal regulatory variables. In M. Lewis, J.M. Haviland-Jones, & L.F. Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (3rd edition) (pp. 114-137). Guilford. https://www.cep.ucsb.edu/papers/emotionIRVLewisCh8.pdf []
  6. https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn []

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