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Effective Java Tuesday! Obey the `equals` contract

kylec32 profile image Kyle Carter Updated on ・7 min read

Effective Java Review (37 Part Series)

1) Effective Java Tuesday! Let's Consider Static Factory Methods 2) Effective Java Tuesday! The Builder Pattern! 3 ... 35 3) Effective Java Tuesday! Singletons! 4) Effective Java Tuesday! Utility Classes! 5) Effective Java Tuesday! Prefer Dependency Injection! 6) Effective Java Tuesday! Avoid Creating Unnecessary Objects! 7) Effective Java Tuesday! Don't Leak Object References! 8) Effective Java Tuesday! Avoid Finalizers and Cleaners! 9) Effective Java Tuesday! Prefer try-with-resources 10) Effective Java Tuesday! Obey the `equals` contract 11) Effective Java Tuesday! Obey the `hashCode` contract 12) Effective Java Tuesday! Override `toString` 13) Effective Java Tuesday! Override `clone` judiciously 14) Effective Java Tuesday! Consider Implementing `Comparable` 15) Effective Java Tuesday! Minimize the Accessibility of Classes and Member 16) Effective Java Tuesday! In Public Classes, Use Accessors, Not Public Fields 17) Effective Java Tuesday! Minimize Mutability 18) Effective Java Tuesday! Favor Composition Over Inheritance 19) Effective Java Tuesday! Design and Document Classes for Inheritance or Else Prohibit It. 20) Effective Java Tuesday! Prefer Interfaces to Abstract Classes 21) Effective Java! Design Interfaces for Posterity 22) Effective Java! Use Interfaces Only to Define Types 23) Effective Java! Prefer Class Hierarchies to Tagged Classes 24) Effective Java! Favor Static Members Classes over Non-Static 25) Effective Java! Limit Source Files to a Single Top-Level Class 26) Effective Java! Don't Use Raw Types 27) Effective Java! Elminate Unchecked Warnings 28) Effective Java! Prefer Lists to Array 29) Effective Java! Favor Generic Types 30) Effective Java! Favor Generic Methods 31) Effective Java! Use Bounded Wildcards to Increase API Flexibility 32) Effective Java! Combine Generics and Varargs Judiciously 33) Effective Java! Consider Typesafe Hetergenous Containers 34) Effective Java! Use Enums Instead of int Constants 35) Effective Java! Use Instance Fields Instead of Ordinals 36) Effective Java! Use EnumSet Instead of Bit Fields 37) Effective Java! Use EnumMap instead of Ordinal Indexing

Today we are starting a new chapter. This new chapter covers methods common to all objects. And what are methods that are common to all objects? Well since every object eventually inherits from Object it would be methods on that object. The method we have a pleasure to talk about today is the equals method.

The equals method seems simple to override but it is actually easy to get ourselves into trouble with it as Effective Java details. So why must we override the equals method? Well actually we don't have to. If your class fulfills any of the following requirement there is no need to override the equals method:

  • Each instance of a class is inherently unique. Thread for example doesn't make sense to have two instances be equals.
  • If there is no desire for two objects of the type to be compared. This does seem risky in that if others are consuming your class you can't know for sure if they will ever want to compare two instances of the class.
  • The superclass implements an equals method that is appropriate for the class. Examples of this are the implementation of equals in AbstractList thus none needed in ArrayList.
  • If the class is private or package-private and you can be sure that equals will never be called on the class.
  • If the class uses instance control. This is something like the singleton model we talked about in a previous item or enums where there is only a single instance. In these cases logical equality is the same as instance equality.

So we have gone over times that we can avoid overriding the equals function. But what must we do if we do need to overwrite this function. Well we must meet the contract of the function. To meet this function's contract we must meet the four properties for non-null objects:

  • Reflexive: An object should be equal to itself (x.equals(x) = true)

  • Symmetric: If x.equals(y) = true, then y.equals(x) must equal true as well. (And if the former returns false, the latter should as well)

  • Transitive: As an extension of the symmetric property. If x.equals(y) = true and y.equals(z) = true then x.equals(z) must equal true.

  • Consistent: Multiple invocations of x.equals(y) should consistently return the same result. Thus there shouldn't be any side effects of the execution.

  • The final item, less so a property, is that for any non null x. x.equals(null) should equal false.

The above properties can appear pretty daunting and very mathematical when you first read them and they should be taken seriously. That being said it is fairly straightforward once you learn about them.

Reflexive - This first property is quite straightforward. Objects should be equal to themselves. This is usually quite easy to accomplish especially given not overriding the equals function we do get this property for free.

Symmetry - The next property is more meaty. This one says that if x says it is equals to y, y should also say it's equal to x. Let's look at an example of class that does not meet this property.

public final class CaseInsensitiveString {
  private final String value;

  public CaseInsensitiveString(String value) {
    this.value = Objects.requireNonNull(value);
  }

  @Override
  public boolean equals(Object o) {
    if (o instanceof CaseInsensitiveString) {
      return value.equalsIgnoreCase((CaseInsensitiveString)o);
    } else if (o instanceof String) {
      // This breaks symmetry.
      return value.equalsIgnoreCase(o);
    }
    return false;
  }
}

In the above class we see that if a String is passed into the CaseInsentiveString object in order to check equality we check against a case-less string. However if a string was compared with a case-less string it would take into account the case of the string. Thus since caseInsensitiveString.equals(string) is not necessarily equals to string.equals(caseInsensitiveString). So how would we fix the above implementation? By simplifying it:

@Override
public boolean equals(Object o) {
  return o instanceof CaseInsensitiveString &&
    ((CaseInsensitiveString)o).value.equalsIgnoreCase(o);
}

Transitive This is where things get really fun. The transitive property says that if a.equals(b) and b.equals(c) then it should mean that a.equals(c). So let's see at an example of how this property can be broken. Consider the following class:

public class Animal {
  private final int numberOfLegs;

  public Animal(int numberOfLegs) {
    this.numberOfLegs = numberOfLegs;
  }

  @Override
  public boolean equals(Object o) {
    if (!(o instanceof Animal)) {
      return false;
    }

    return ((Animal)o).numberOfLegs == numberOfLegs;
  }
}

So as you can see we have a very simple (and super contrived) example class to hold animals where apparently the way we determine if two animals are the same are if they have the same number of legs. Now let's extend this class:

public class Dog extends Animal {
  private final String breed;

  public Dog(String breed, int numberOfLegs) {
    super(numberOfLegs);
    this.breed = breed;
  }
}

Okay, so we added one value to this class on top of what Animal already had. How should we write the equals function? Let's look at one attempt:

@Override
public boolean equals(Object o) {
  if(!(o instanceof Dog)) {
    return false;
  }

  Dog dog = (Dog) o;

  return super.equals(dog) && breed.equals(dog.breed);
}

So unsurprisingly we are asserting that one dog is equal to another if it has the same amount of legs and is the same breed. Seems simple enough, but do you see what property we may have broken? We actually broke symmetry. Let's see how. Consider the following two object.

Animal animal = new Animal(4);
Dog pitbull = new Dog("Pitbull", 4);

So if we have had animal.equals(pitbull) it would return true however if we flipped it and executed pitbull.equals(animal) it would return false. Whoops. Maybe if we made the equals function a little smarter we can fix this.

@Override
public boolean equals(Object o) {
  if(!(o instanceof Animal)) {
    return false;
  }

  if(!(o instanceof Dog)) {
    return o.equals(this)
  }

  Dog dog = (Dog) o;

  return super.equals(dog) && breed.equals(dog.breed);
}

Great! We fixed our symmetry problem but how did we do with our transitive property?

Dog pitbull = new Dog("Pitbull", 4);
Animal animal = new Animal(4);
Dog basset = new Dog("Basset", 4);

In this case pitbull.equals(animal) would equal true and animal.equals(basset) equals true but pitbull.equals(basset) does not equal true. Uh oh. So what to do? How do we fix this? Well it turns out this problem is not really fixable. That's right. What we have just witnessed here is a fundamental problem with these equivalence relationships in object-oriented languages. One suggested way to fix this issue that is sometimes suggested is to simply use getClass() instead of the instanceof checks. This has the effect of only allowing equivalence if the implementing classes are of the same type. This however does violate the Liskov Substitution Principle and breaks some concepts of object-oriented design. The Liskov Substitution Principle simply states that an object of a subtype type should be able to replace any existence of one of it's parent's types. The method that Effective Java pitches is to favor composition over inheritance which is a tip later in the book. The high level synopsis of this technique is, instead of inheriting the type, you simple hold an instance of that type allowing better control of how the different pieces of data can be used and then we don't get into trouble with the Liskov substitution principle.

Consistency: This bring us to consistency. This one basically comes down to not relying on unreliable resources. So don't use random number generators as part of your equality check.

Non-nullality: This last one is pretty easy. If someone passes in null to an equals function, just return false and don't throw a NullPointerException.

Finally let's go over some steps for a high quality equals implementation according to Effective Java.

  • Use the == operator to check if the objects are the same reference. This is a nice performance optimization.
  • Use the instanceof operator to make sure you were given an object of the correct type and also to handle the Non-nullality requirement.
  • Cast your object to the correct type.
  • For each "significant" field of the class check the equality. For primitive outside of float and Double (which you should use Float.compare and Double.compare() respectively) check equality with ==. For reference types use recursive equals() calls. To avoid NullPointerExceptions consider using Objects.equals to make these comparisons. Other things to think about are if you can compare cheaper fields before the more expensive fields.
  • Always override hashCode if you override equals.
  • Don't try to be too clever
  • Make sure you are meeting the override correctly. It's public boolean equals(Object o) not public boolean equals(MyType o). This is one of the reason using the @Override annotation is useful.

Wow that was a lot more work than you may have initially considered, it definitely was for me. So is it worth it? Well once you violate the equals contract there is no knowing how other objects will act when dealing with objects of your class. This is especially visible when using your class within collections.

So is there an easy button? There kind of is. As has been talked about before, Lombok is a great tool for Java development and getting rid of boilerplate. Lombok has a great annotation @EqualsAndHashCode. I would highly suggest using it rather than writing it yourself. IDEs also often have tools built in that help generate these methods. All this auto-generation is great but I do still think it's important to know what makes a good equals function, plus it helps you become a better developer and understand more fully how the magic gets made.

So what are your experiences with the equals method? Any horror stories? Any weird bugs? Let us know in the comments.

Effective Java Review (37 Part Series)

1) Effective Java Tuesday! Let's Consider Static Factory Methods 2) Effective Java Tuesday! The Builder Pattern! 3 ... 35 3) Effective Java Tuesday! Singletons! 4) Effective Java Tuesday! Utility Classes! 5) Effective Java Tuesday! Prefer Dependency Injection! 6) Effective Java Tuesday! Avoid Creating Unnecessary Objects! 7) Effective Java Tuesday! Don't Leak Object References! 8) Effective Java Tuesday! Avoid Finalizers and Cleaners! 9) Effective Java Tuesday! Prefer try-with-resources 10) Effective Java Tuesday! Obey the `equals` contract 11) Effective Java Tuesday! Obey the `hashCode` contract 12) Effective Java Tuesday! Override `toString` 13) Effective Java Tuesday! Override `clone` judiciously 14) Effective Java Tuesday! Consider Implementing `Comparable` 15) Effective Java Tuesday! Minimize the Accessibility of Classes and Member 16) Effective Java Tuesday! In Public Classes, Use Accessors, Not Public Fields 17) Effective Java Tuesday! Minimize Mutability 18) Effective Java Tuesday! Favor Composition Over Inheritance 19) Effective Java Tuesday! Design and Document Classes for Inheritance or Else Prohibit It. 20) Effective Java Tuesday! Prefer Interfaces to Abstract Classes 21) Effective Java! Design Interfaces for Posterity 22) Effective Java! Use Interfaces Only to Define Types 23) Effective Java! Prefer Class Hierarchies to Tagged Classes 24) Effective Java! Favor Static Members Classes over Non-Static 25) Effective Java! Limit Source Files to a Single Top-Level Class 26) Effective Java! Don't Use Raw Types 27) Effective Java! Elminate Unchecked Warnings 28) Effective Java! Prefer Lists to Array 29) Effective Java! Favor Generic Types 30) Effective Java! Favor Generic Methods 31) Effective Java! Use Bounded Wildcards to Increase API Flexibility 32) Effective Java! Combine Generics and Varargs Judiciously 33) Effective Java! Consider Typesafe Hetergenous Containers 34) Effective Java! Use Enums Instead of int Constants 35) Effective Java! Use Instance Fields Instead of Ordinals 36) Effective Java! Use EnumSet Instead of Bit Fields 37) Effective Java! Use EnumMap instead of Ordinal Indexing

Posted on by:

kylec32 profile

Kyle Carter

@kylec32

Backend Architect at MasterControl

Discussion

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First of all thanks for the article it was really good and well-done.

Sad thing it's a really forgotten workaround( at least in the DC's and dev teams i've been with) seen more in theory and papers than on practice. I've been on this 'industrial' developing getup for a while and only did it and saw it on reasearchs, personnal projects and POCs.

From my time dealing with these situations in most of the cases we simply don't do it, mostly because of my superiors who doesn't approve 'equals' neither 'toString', and our ways to deal with it are getting the precise data or info to be compared like students by their id and employers by their registers.

 

always interesting to read about this. Always be a bit magic and Lombok is great to use with the annotations on required fields only.
Thanks Kyle

 

Impressive! Am new to java but i can make some sense out of it.