Demystifying How ‘this’ Works in JavaScript

It’s something used in JavaScript, but it is often a mystery. In JavaScript, this Works quite differently from other programming languages ​​- and it works differently depending on if you are using strict mode or not.

If you find it hard, you aren’t alone. Let’s look at exactly how this works and remove any confusion about its meaning in various contexts.

What Is this in JavaScript?

this is a keyword in JavaScript which refers to a property or set of properties within a certain context. The context we use this in alters its properties. In the global context, this refers to the global object – which in the browser is a window but is globalThis is in Node.JS and other implementations of JavaScript.

console.log(this); // The same as console.log(window);

Outside of any functions or code, this is always the case. However, in different places, this means different things.

This in Functions in JavaScript

In a function, this still refers to the global object. If we reference this in a function, it will, by default, reference the window or globalThis object:

console.log(this); // The same as console.log(window);

function myFunction() {
    console.log(this); // The same as console.log(window);
}

myFunction();

In strict mode, however, this inside a function is undefined.

"use strict"
console.log(this); // The same as console.log(window);

function myFunction() {
    console.log(this); // This is undefined!
}

myFunction();

Solving With call()

this is a little confusing at first, but the reason for this is that we need to add this object onto myFunction – JavaScript in strict mode won’t default it to the global object. To do that, we have to use call(). In the example below, I’ve turned myObject into this variable:

"use strict"
console.log(this); // The same as console.log(window);

let myObject = {
    firstName: "John",
    lastName: "Doe",
    age: 76
}
function myFunction() {
    console.log(this.firstName);
}

myFunction.call(myObject); // this.firstName is defined as "John", so it will console log John
myFunction(); // this.firstName will be undefined, and this will throw an error.

call() runs myFunction and attaches myObject to this keyword. If we don’t use call and run myFunction(), the function will return an error, as this.firstName will be undefined. You can also call a function with an empty this, which you can then append data to inside your function.

this gives us a new space to define variables on our this object, rather than being polluted with data from the global this object:

"use strict"
console.log(this); // The same as console.log(window);

function myFunction() {
    this.firstName="John";
    console.log(this.firstName); // This will be "John"
}

myFunction.call({});

Different Behavior in Strict Mode

As you can see, the behavior is quite different depending on if we’re using strict mode or not – so it’s essential you do some tests before changing your code between the two modes.

Call and Apply

You may sometimes see call() being used interchangeably with a function called apply(). Both of these functions are very similar in that they both invoke a function with a specified context. The only difference is apply() takes an array if a function has arguments, while call() takes each argument one by one.

For example:

"use strict"
let otherNumbers = {
    a: 10,
    b: 4
}
function multiplyNumbers(x, y, z) {
    return this.a * this.b * x * y * z
}

// Both will return the same result, the only difference
// being that apply() uses an array for arguments.
multiplyNumbers.call(otherNumbers, 1, 2, 3);
multiplyNumbers.apply(otherNumbers, [ 1, 2, 3 ]);

Simplifying this Process Using bind()

Another way to achieve similar behavior to call() is to use bind(). Similar to call(), bind() changes this value for a function; only it does so permanently. That means you don’t have to constantly use bind() – you only use it once.

Here is an example: we permanently bind our object to our function, thus updating it – we have to define it as a new function. In the below example, we define a new function called boundFunction, which is our myFunction with myObject bound to it permanently.

When we call the console log, it will show “John.” this is different than call, which needs to be used each time we use a function.

"use strict"
console.log(this); // The same as console.log(window);

let myObject = {
    firstName: "John",
    lastName: "Doe",
    age: 76
}
function myFunction() {
    console.log(this.firstName);
}

let boundFunction = myFunction.bind(myObject); // this will bind this to myObject permanently.
boundFunction(); // since we used bind, this will now be set to myObject, every time we call boundFunction() - so it will return John.

Arrow Notation Functions and this

One of the critical features of the arrow notation functions in JavaScript is they do not hold this context. That means that they inherit this from their parent. For example, let’s say we are in strict mode and define both an arrow function and a “normal” style function. For the arrow function, this will be inherited, but for the other function, this will remain undefined!

"use strict"
console.log(this); // The same as console.log(window);

function myFunction() {
    console.log(this.name); // This will be "John"
    let myArrowFunction = () => {
        console.log(this.name); // This will be "John"
    }

    let myNormalFunction = function() {
        console.log(this.name); // This will throw an error, since this is undefined!
    }

    myArrowFunction();
    myNormalFunction();
}

myFunction.call({
    name: "John"
});

Constructor Functions and this

Another exciting thing about this is that when used in a constructor function (that being a function using the new keyword), the return of the constructor function essentially overwrites this. So, for example, if we run the following, although we set this.name to John, the value returned for the name is Jack:

let functionA = function() {
    this.name = "John";
}

let functionB = function() {
    this.name = "John";
    return {
        name: "Jack"
    }
}

let runFunctionA = new functionA();
console.log(runFunctionA.name); // Returns "John";
let runFunctionB = new functionB();
console.log(runFunctionB.name); // Returns "Jack";

this in an Object Context

In an object context, using this refers to the object. For example, suppose we run a function within an object called obj, which refers to this.aProperty – this, in this case, refers to obj:

let obj = {
    aProperty: 15,
    runFunction: function() {
        console.log(this.aProperty); // Refers to 15
    }
}

obj.runFunction(); // Will console log 15, since this refers to obj

This is also true if you use the get()/set() note:

"use strict"
let obj = {
    aProperty: 15,
    runFunction: function() {
        console.log(this.aProperty); // Refers to 15
    },
    set updateProp(division) {
        this.aProperty = this.aProperty / division; // this.aProperty refers to 15
        console.log(this.aProperty); 
    }
}

obj.updateProp = 15; // Will divide aProperty by 15, and console log the result, i.e. 1

Using this With Event Listeners

Another quirk of JavaScript’s this is that when using an event listener, this refers to the HTML element the event was added to. In the below example, we add a click event to an HTML tag with the ID “hello-world”:

document.getElementById('hello-world').addEventListener('click', function(e) {
    console.log(this);
});

If we then click on our #hello-world HTML element, we will see this in our console log:

<div id="hello-world"></div>

Using this With Classes

It’s worth noting in this section that classes in JavaScript are simply functions under the hood. That means many of the functionality we’ve seen with functions stands true for classes.

By default, a class will have this set to the class instance itself. In the below example, we can see this in action – both runClass.name and runClass.whatsMyName return John.

class myClass { 
    whatsMyName() {
        return this.name;
    }
    get name() {
        return "John";
    }
}

const runClass = new myClass();
console.log(runClass.name);        // Returns "John"
console.log(runClass.whatsMyName); // Returns "John"

The only exception is that static items are not added to this. So, if we define a function with the keyword static in front of it, it will not be on this:

class myClass { 
    getMyAge() {
        return this.whatsMyAge();
    }
    static whatsMyAge() {
        return this.age; 
    }
    get name() {
        return "John";
    }
    get age() {
        return 143
    }
}

const runClass = new myClass();
console.log(runClass.whatsMyAge()); // Throws an error, since runClass.whatsMyAge() is undefined
console.log(runClass.getMyAge()); // Throws an error, since this.whatsMyAge() is undefined

It’s worth noting that classes, by default, are always in strict mode – so this will behave in the same way it does for strict functions by default in classes.

Conclusion

In JavaScript, this can mean various things. This article covered what it means in different contexts – functions, classes, and objects. We have covered how to use bind(), call(), and apply() to add a different context to your functions.

We’ve also covered how to use this in strict mode versus non-strict mode. After this, I hope this is slightly demystified.

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