Caffeinated Simpleton

An Introduction to JavaScript's "this"

JavaScript is an amazing little language, but it’s got some quirks that turn a lot of people off. One of those quirks is this, and how it’s not necessarily what you expect it to be. this isn’t that complicated, but there are very few explanations of how it works on the internet. I find myself constantly re-explaining the concept to those who are new to JavaScript development. This article is an attempt to explain how this works and how to use it properly.

What is this?!

this is the current object. People that are used to object oriented languages use objects constantly, and this is how you access your object in JavaScript. This differs from Java and C++. This is best demonstrated by example, so let’s take a look.

class HotDog { public: string getCondiments(); private: string condiments; } string HotDog::getCondiments() { return condiments; // The compiler knows to find "condiments" in the current HotDog instance }

Ruby and Python don’t work this way. Instead, you must say “look for this variable in the current instance”

class HotDog: condiments def getCondiments(self): return self.condiments # "self" is a reference to the current instance of HotDog.

class HotDog @condiments def getCondiments return @condiments # @condiments is an instance variable of an instance of HotDog end end JavaScript has more in common with Ruby and Python than with Java and C++. The same thing in JavaScript is:

function HotDog() { this.condiments = "mustard, ketchup"; this.getCondiments = function() { return this.condiments; //this is expected to be a reference to the current instance } }

That’s what this is expected to be, anyway. It’s expected to be a reference to the current instance of whatever object it’s defined within.

this Gets Tricky

However, let’s say we wanted to find out what condiments were on our hotdog in 30 seconds. Assuming the HotDog class from above, that code might look like this:

var myHotDog = new HotDog(); // Call the getCondiments function in 3 seconds setTimeout(myHotDog.getCondiments, 3000);

Many JavaScript beginners are surprised to learn that this code won’t work. It’ll give an error saying that this doesn’t have a member called condiments, even though it clearly does. What happened?!

As it turns out, this in the getCondiments function is set to the global object, window. This is because there is no binding of functions to instances in JavaScript. Whenever the instance isn’t explicitly stated, then this becomes window (at least in the browser). Writing this as myHotDog.getCondiments() indicates that you want this to be myHotDog, so it works correctly. The setTimeout function, however, just has a reference to that function. When it calls it, it’s not aware of myHotDog, so JavaScript sets this to window

“Fixing” this

There are several ways of forcing this to be what you want, and many of them touch on some of the more interesting features available in JavaScript. The first is apply. apply is a member of every function. It says “call this function with this object as this and these arguments. An example might help.

// These two are equivalent myHotDog.getCondiments(); myHotDog.getCondiments.apply(myHotDog); // You could also do this var yourHotDog = new HotDog(); myHotDog.getCondiments.apply(yourHotDog); // The above line does the same thing as: yourHotDog.getCondiments(); // The above two calls will return the condiments off of your hot dog, not mine.

That doesn’t solve our setTimeout problem, however. apply actually calls the function, and we just want a reference to the function that uses the correct this. Luckily this is easily done, but let’s talk about some background first.

Lexical Scoping

In many languages (all the good ones, if you ask me), lexical scoping is supported. Lexical scoping basically allows you to access local variables in a parent function. If a function is defined within another function, it can access its own local variables as well as those of the function it was defined within. Time for another example. function drinkBeer() { var beer = "Big Daddy IPA"; function pour() { var glass = "Pint Glass"; return "Poured " + beer + " into a " + glass; } function drink() { beer = null; return "Beer is all gone"; } pour(); drink(); } drinkBeer(); This works just fine. drinkBeer cannot access glass, but pour and drink can access beer.

Lexical scoping is extremely powerful. If this small example doesn’t explain it, I encourage you to look around other examples on the internet until it’s more clear. While writing JavaScript, look out for ways this can make your life easier. Once you’re looking, they’re all over the place.

Solving our setTimeout Problem

With lexical scoping, we can easily solve our setTimeout problem. var myHotDog = new HotDog(); setTimeout(function() { myHotDog.getCondiments(); }, 3000); See what we did there? We created a new function that we passed to setTimeout. Our new function can access myHotDog, so it just applies it to the getCondiments function. Pretty slick.

Defending against this abuse

As somebody writing the HotDog class, it might be upsetting to you that people constantly need to keep this in mind when accessing your class. It would be nicer if there was a way to make your class work all the time. Fortunately, there is! function HotDog() { var self = this; // self references the current this, which is correct. self.condiments = "mustard, ketchup"; self.getCondiments = function() { return self.condiments; // self is guaranteed to be a reference to the original "this" } } HotDog is a constructor. You instantiate a new instance of HotDog by writing “new HotDog()”. In constructors, this is always your instance. So we created a new variable, my, that references the HotDog instance. This allows you to always refer to the HotDog instance, no matter how the getCondiments function is called.


Another method of “fixing” this is adding a bind attribute to every function. This allows you to pass in an object that will be your this. Many JavaScript libraries, such as Prototype, do this. var boundFunction = myHotDog.getCondiments.bind(myHotDog); Now boundFunction will always call getCondiments with this set to myHotDog. If you’ve been paying attention, it should be fairly obvious how bind is written. function bind(thisObject) { var self = this; // this is the function here return function() { self.apply(thisObject, arguments); // (arguments is a keyword that refers to the passed in arguments) } }


My own class library, cobra, solves the this problem in a different way. It passes a reference to the original this to every function, which allows you to use some fancy features like prototypal inheritance while still not worrying about binding and the like. If you’re interested, you can find the code on github..


That’s pretty much all you need to know about this. I hope that’s clear, comment if it’s not!

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