Arrow Functions and this

3 minute read

TIL how to leverage ES6 arrow functions to avoid losing “this” when writing functions inside of functions.

Arrow functions are more than just a syntactically shorter way of defining a function in javascript.

What’s the Difference?

Arrow functions do not bind a new this context like functions defined with the function keyword do.

When defining functions using the function keyword, the binding of a new this can lead to the loss of the intended this when using callbacks or inner functions. For example:

const myObj = {
  name: 'Brian',
  salutation: 'Dr.',
  greet: function () {
    //the following logs "Brian", since `this` still refers to the current object
    console.log('outside of constructGreet: ' + this.name)
    function constructGreeting () {
      // a new `this` is bound here, overwriting the parent object `this`
      //the following logs "hello undefined undefined"
      console.log(`hello ${this.salutation} ${this.name}`)
    }
    constructGreeting()
  }
}

myObj.greet()

In the constructGreeting method above, the function keyword binds a new this context accessible in its function body that overwrites the enclosing object’s context. This overwrite causes the enclosing object’s scope to be lost inside of the constructGreeting function body. In fact, the this bound by the inner function will actually be the global object!

A Workaround to Losing this

Before arrow functions, a common workaround for this problem was to assign the outer function’s this to a variable (often called that or self). The variable that is available for access in the inner function, and allows the inner function to access properties of the outer scope.

const myObj = {
  name: 'Brian',
  salutation: 'Dr.',
  greet: function () {
    const that = this // assigning the outer 'this' to 'that'
    function constructGreet () {
      // logs "hello Dr. Brian"
      console.log(`hello ${that.salutation} ${that.name}`)
    }
    constructGreet()
  }
}

myObj.greet()

The inner function references outer scope properties from the closed over that variable.

A Cleaner Solution with Arrow Functions

While the above workaround gets the job done, there is a cleaner solution if we use arrow functions. Since arrow functions do not bind a new this context, arrow functions can still access any parent object contexts by referencing the this keyword in their body.

const myObj = {
  name: 'Brian',
  salutation: 'Dr.',
  greet: function () {
    const constructGreet = () => {
      console.log(`hello ${this.salutation} ${this.name}`)
    }
    constructGreet()
  }
}
myObj.greet()

The above code behaves exactly as you would expect: this inside of the constructGreet method refers to the containing object instead of a newly bound this context. Not only is the above code more consisce, but it is more readable and predictable.

Nuances of Arrow Function’s Handling of this

The fact that arrow functions do not bind their own this context has several important implications:

1) Arrow functions cannot be used as object constructors - Since arrow functions do not bind a this context, they cannot be invoked with the new keyword to return a new object context. In fact, trying to invoke an arrow function with the new keyword will throw a runtime error: Function is not a constructor.

2) Arrow functions cannot be used as object methods if those methods need to reference the containing object context this. For this reason, it is best practice to still declare object methods using the function keyword. To see an example of this issue in action, try changing the greet method in my examples above to be an arrow function instead of a using the function keyword… the object properties this.name and this.salutation are lost!

3) Arrow functions cannot be passed new contexts using call or apply, and cannot be bound to new contexts using bind. If an arrow function is invoked with call or apply, it will ignore any new this context passed to it, but it will still honor the function parameters passed. See the following example:

// this is either 'window' in the browser
// or the node module context on the server
this.name = 'Brian'
this.salutation = 'Dr.'

const greet = () => {
  console.log(`hello ${this.salutation} ${this.name}`)
}

const newContext = {
  name: 'Lauren',
  salutation: 'Ms.'
}

// calling the method in 4 different ways
// They all log 'hello Dr. Brian'
greet()
greet.bind(newContext)()
greet.call(newContext)
greet.apply(newContext)

If greet were defined using the function keyword, the bind, call and apply calls above would have all bound the newContext as its new calling context, and would have logged ‘hello Ms. Lauren’.

However, since greet was defined with an arrow function and arrow functions do not bind their own this, all 4 calls above log ‘hello Dr. Brian’.

Click here for the MDN documentation for Arrow Functions. It was helpful in cementing my understanding.

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