Why can't I directly modify a component's state, really?

I understand that React tutorials and documentation warn in no uncertain terms that state should not be directly mutated and that everything should go through setState.

I would like to understand why, exactly, I can't just directly change state and then (in the same function) call this.setState({}) just to trigger the render.

E.g.: The below code seems to work just fine:

const React = require('react');

const App = React.createClass({
    getInitialState: function() {
        return {
            some: {
                rather: {
                    deeply: {
                        embedded: {
                            stuff: 1
                        }}}}};
    },
    updateCounter: function () {
        this.state.some.rather.deeply.embedded.stuff++;
        this.setState({}); // just to trigger the render ...
    },
    render: function() {
        return (
                <div>
                Counter value: {this.state.some.rather.deeply.embedded.stuff}
                <br></br>
                <button onClick={this.updateCounter}>inc</button>
                </div>
        );
    }
});

export default App;

I am all for following conventions but I would like to enhance my further understanding of how ReactJS actually works and what can go wrong or is it sub-optimal with the above code.

The notes under the this.setState documentation basically identify two gotchas:

  1. That if you mutate state directly and then subsequently call this.setState this may replace (overwrite?) the mutation you made. I don't see how this can happen in the above code.
  2. That setState may mutate this.state effectively in an asynchronous / deferred way and so when accessing this.state right after calling this.setState you are not guaranteed to access the final mutated state. I get that, by this is not an issue if this.setState is the last call of the update function.

Answers:

Answer

The React docs for setState have this to say:

NEVER mutate this.state directly, as calling setState() afterwards may replace the mutation you made. Treat this.state as if it were immutable.

setState() does not immediately mutate this.state but creates a pending state transition. Accessing this.state after calling this method can potentially return the existing value.

There is no guarantee of synchronous operation of calls to setState and calls may be batched for performance gains.

setState() will always trigger a re-render unless conditional rendering logic is implemented in shouldComponentUpdate(). If mutable objects are being used and the logic cannot be implemented in shouldComponentUpdate(), calling setState() only when the new state differs from the previous state will avoid unnecessary re-renders.

Basically, if you modify this.state directly, you create a situation where those modifications might get overwritten.

Related to your extended questions 1) and 2), setState() is not immediate. It queues a state transition based on what it thinks is going on which may not include the direct changes to this.state. Since it's queued rather than applied immediately, it's entirely possible that something is modified in between such that your direct changes get overwritten.

If nothing else, you might be better off just considering that not directly modifying this.state can be seen as good practice. You may know personally that your code interacts with React in such a way that these over-writes or other issues can't happen but you're creating a situation where other developers or future updates can suddenly find themselves with weird or subtle issues.

Answer

This answer is to provide enough information to not change/mutate the state directly in React.

React follows Unidirectional Data Flow. Meaning, the data flow inside react should and will be expected to be in a circular path.

React's Data flow without flux

enter image description here

To make React work like this, developers made the React similar to functional programming. The thumb rule of functional programming is immutability. Let me explain it loud and clear.

How does the unidirectional flow works?

  • states are a data store which contains the data of a component.
  • The view of a component renders based on the state.
  • When the view needs to change something on the screen, that value should be supplied from the store.
  • To make this happen, React provides setState() function which takes in an object of new states and does an compare and merge(similar to object.assign()) over the previous state and adds the new state to the state data store.
  • Whenever the data in the state store changes, react will trigger an re-render with the new state which the view consumes and show it on the scree.

This cycle will continue throughout the component's lifetime.

If you see the above steps, it clearly shows a lot of things are happening behind when you change the state. So, when you mutate the state directly and call setState() with an empty object. The previous state will be polluted with your mutation. Due to which, the shallow compare and merge of two states will be disturbed or won't happen, because you'll have only one state now. This will disrupt all the React's Lifecycle Methods.

As a result, your app will behave abnormal or even crash. Most of the times, it won't affect your app because all the apps which we use for testing this are pretty small.

And another downside of mutation of Objects and Arrays in JavaScript is, when you assign an object or an array, you're just making a reference of that object or that array. When you mutate them, all the reference to that object or that array will be affected. React handles this in a intelligent way in the background and simply give us an API to make it work.

Most common errors done when handling states in react

//original state
this.state = {
   a: [1,2,3,4,5]
}

//changing the state in react
//need to add '6' in the array

//bad approach
const b = this.state.a.push(6)
this.setState({
  a: b
}) 

In the above example, this.state.a.push(6) will mutate the state directly. Assigning it to another variable and calling setState is same as what's shown below. As we mutated the state anyway, there's no point assigning it to another variable and calling setState with that variable.

 //same as 
 this.state.a.push(6)
 this.setState({})

Most of the people does this. This is so wrong. This breaks the beauty of React and it'll make you a bad programmer.

So, What's the best way to handle states in react? Let me explain.

When you need to change 'something' in the existing state, first get a copy of that 'something' from the current state.

//original state
    this.state = {
       a: [1,2,3,4,5]
    }

 //changing the state in react
 //need to add '6' in the array

 //create a copy of this.state.a
 //you can use ES6's destructuring or loadash's _.clone()
 const currentStateCopy = [...this.state.a]

Now, mutating currentStateCopy won't mutate the original state. Do operations over currentStateCopy and set it as the new state using setState()

currentStateCopy.push(6)
this.state({
 a: currentStateCopy
})

This is beautify right?

By doing this, all the references of this.state.a won't get affected until we use setState. This gives you control over your code and this'll help you write elegant test and make you confident about the performance of the code in production.

To answer your question,

Why can't I directly modify a component's state?


Yes, you can. But, you need to face the following consequences.

  1. When you scale, your'll be writting unmanageable code.
  2. You'll lose control of state across components.
  3. Instead of using React, you'll be writing custom codes over React.

Immutability is not necessary thing because Javascript is single threaded. But, It's a good to follow practice which will help you in the long run.

PS. I've written about 10000 lines of mutable React js code. If it breaks now, I don't know where to look into because all the values are mutated somewhere. When I realized this, I started writting immutable code. Trust me! That's the best thing you can do it to a product or an app.

Hope this helps!

Answer

the simplest answer to "

Why can't I directly modify a component's state:

is all about Updating phase.

when we update the state of a component all it's children are going to be rendered as well. or our entire component tree rendered.

but when i say our entire component tree is rendered that doesn’t mean that the entire DOM is updated. when a component is rendered we basically get a react element, so that is updating our virtual dom.

React will then look at the virtual DOM, it also has a copy of the old virtual DOM, that is why we shouldn’t update the state directly, so we can have two different object references in memory, we have the old virtual DOM as well as the new virtual DOM.

then react will figure out what is changed and based on that it will update the real DOM accordingly .

hope it helps.

Answer

My current understanding is based on this and this answer:

IF you don't use shouldComponentUpdate or any other lifecycle methods (like componentWillReceiveProps, componentWillUpdate, and componentDidUpdate) where you compare the old and new props/state

THEN

its fine to mutate state and then call setState(), otherwise it is not fine.

Answer

To avoid every time to create a copy of this.state.element you can use update with $set or $push or many others from immutability-helper

e.g.:

import update from 'immutability-helper';

const newData = update(myData, {
  x: {y: {z: {$set: 7}}},
  a: {b: {$push: [9]}}
});
Answer

setState trigger re rendering of the components.when we want to update state again and again we must need to setState otherwise it doesn't work correctly.

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