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Understanding "this" in JavaScript

yaphi1 profile image Yaphi Berhanu Originally published at simplestepscode.com ・4 min read

This article originally appeared on Simple Steps Code which tries its best to help people learn JavaScript and actually remember it.

In JavaScript, the this keyword answers the following question:
Which object does our function belong to when it's called?

If that makes no sense, that's okay! It will make more sense after some quick background info and examples.

First, what is an object?

An object is a set of data stored in name-value pairs (also called key-value pairs).

For example:

var car = {
    color: 'purple',
    topSpeed: 9001,
    model: 'magic school bus',
    driver: 'Waluigi'
};

An object can store many things including strings, numbers, arrays, functions, or even other objects.

Next, what is a method?

A method is a function that belongs to an object.

For example:

var car = {
    color: 'purple',

    makeNoise: function(){
        console.log('vroom');
    }
}

In that example, makeNoise is a method of our car object, and we can call it like so:

car.makeNoise();

So where does this come in?

In JavaScript, this just means the object our function belongs to.

In the following example, this will be our car object.

var car = {
    currentSpeed: 0,

    goFaster: function(){
        this.currentSpeed += 10;
    }
}

console.log('speed before: ' + car.currentSpeed);

car.goFaster();

console.log('speed after: ' + car.currentSpeed);

If you try the example, you'll see that the goFaster function increases currentSpeed by 10.

What's a useful example of the this keyword?

Let's say we want to have some elements turn red and have a red border when clicked on.

The following code is too repetitive:

<div id="first">first text</div>
<div id="second">second text</div>

<script>
var firstDiv = document.getElementById('first');
var secondDiv = document.getElementById('second');

firstDiv.onclick = function(){
    firstDiv.style.color = 'red';
    firstDiv.style.border = '1px solid red';
};

secondDiv.onclick = function(){
    secondDiv.style.color = 'red';
    secondDiv.style.border = '1px solid red';
};
</script>

What a pain!

What if we just want one function that could say, "Hey. See this div? Change this div."

That would be much better than rewriting the function for each div.

Our this keyword can help us:

<div id="first">first text</div>
<div id="second">second text</div>

<script>
var firstDiv = document.getElementById('first');
var secondDiv = document.getElementById('second');

function turnRed(){
    this.style.color = 'red';
    this.style.border = '1px solid red';
}

firstDiv.onclick = turnRed;
secondDiv.onclick = turnRed;
</script>

See how much neater that is?

But wait... I thought this was supposed to refer to the object our function belongs to. Our turnRed function doesn't seem to belong to any objects, right?

Here's the key point:
The this keyword is only set each time you run the function, not when you first declare the function.

So in the above example, our onclick methods are set to turnRed. The onclick methods belong to their corresponding divs, so in each case, this means "this div".

What happens if you call turnRed() by itself?

If a function doesn't belong to another object when it's called, then it belongs to the window object by default.

That means this will refer to the window, and an error will happen because you can't put CSS styles directly on the window.

Quick recap so far

  • In JavaScript this is which object our function belongs to when it gets called.

  • The this keyword is set when you run a function, not when you first declare it.

  • Unless otherwise specified, this gets set to "window" by default.

How can I see what this is?

If you ever get stuck, you can always check what this is by logging it to the console.

Conveniently, console.log() doesn't interfere with the value of this so you won't have to worry that console.log(this); would say "console".

When in doubt, log it out.

Can this change?

Yeah!

Sometimes, this is inconvenient. Maybe you want it to refer to one thing, but it refers to something else.

Bind, call, apply, and ES6 arrow functions let you decide what you want this to be.

For now, you have enough to remember, but I've linked to those concepts in case you want to know more.

Key takeaways

  • this is whatever object your function belongs to when you run it.

  • Don't overthink it.

  • If you ever get stuck, just console.log(this); and you'll see what this is.

I hope this was helpful, and feel free to check out Simple Steps Code for more JavaScript tips.

If you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments, and I'll do my best to answer.

Posted on by:

yaphi1 profile

Yaphi Berhanu

@yaphi1

I like to make JavaScript simple when I can. I hope it's helpful!

Discussion

markdown guide
 

I recently started learning JavaScript and coming from another language found 'this' rather confusing.

Your article helped clarify some things I had missed, thank you!

 

I'm glad to hear it was helpful!