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You Don't Know JS: this & Object Prototypes

Chapter 2: this All Makes Sense Now!

In Chapter 1, we discarded various misconceptions about this and learned instead that this is a binding made for each function invocation, based entirely on its call-site (how the function is called).

Call-site

To understand this binding, we have to understand the call-site: the location in code where a function is called (not where it's declared). We must inspect the call-site to answer the question: what's this this a reference to?

Finding the call-site is generally: "go locate where a function is called from", but it's not always that easy, as certain coding patterns can obscure the true call-site.

What's important is to think about the call-stack (the stack of functions that have been called to get us to the current moment in execution). The call-site we care about is in the invocation before the currently executing function.

Let's demonstrate call-stack and call-site:

function baz() {
    // call-stack is: `baz`
    // so, our call-site is in the global scope

    console.log( "baz" );
    bar(); // <-- call-site for `bar`
}

function bar() {
    // call-stack is: `baz` -> `bar`
    // so, our call-site is in `baz`

    console.log( "bar" );
    foo(); // <-- call-site for `foo`
}

function foo() {
    // call-stack is: `baz` -> `bar` -> `foo`
    // so, our call-site is in `bar`

    console.log( "foo" );
}

baz(); // <-- call-site for `baz`

Take care when analyzing code to find the actual call-site (from the call-stack), because it's the only thing that matters for this binding.

Note: You can visualize a call-stack in your mind by looking at the chain of function calls in order, as we did with the comments in the above snippet. But this is painstaking and error-prone. Another way of seeing the call-stack is using a debugger tool in your browser. Most modern desktop browsers have built-in developer tools, which includes a JS debugger. In the above snippet, you could have set a breakpoint in the tools for the first line of the foo() function, or simply inserted the debugger; statement on that first line. When you run the page, the debugger will pause at this location, and will show you a list of the functions that have been called to get to that line, which will be your call stack. So, if you're trying to diagnose this binding, use the developer tools to get the call-stack, then find the second item from the top, and that will show you the real call-site.

Nothing But Rules

We turn our attention now to how the call-site determines where this will point during the execution of a function.

You must inspect the call-site and determine which of 4 rules applies. We will first explain each of these 4 rules independently, and then we will illustrate their order of precedence, if multiple rules could apply to the call-site.

Default Binding

The first rule we will examine comes from the most common case of function calls: standalone function invocation. Think of this this rule as the default catch-all rule when none of the other rules apply.

Consider this code:

function foo() {
    console.log( this.a );
}

var a = 2;

foo(); // 2

The first thing to note, if you were not already aware, is that variables declared in the global scope, as var a = 2 is, are synonymous with global-object properties of the same name. They're not copies of each other, they are each other. Think of it as two sides of the same coin.

Secondly, we see that when foo() is called, this.a resolves to our global variable a. Why? Because in this case, the default binding for this applies to the function call, and so points this at the global object.

How do we know that the default binding rule applies here? We examine the call-site to see how foo() is called. In our snippet, foo() is called with a plain, un-decorated function reference. None of the other rules we will demonstrate will apply here, so the default binding applies instead.

If strict mode is in effect, the global object is not eligible for the default binding, so the this is instead set to undefined.

function foo() {
    "use strict";

    console.log( this.a );
}

var a = 2;

foo(); // TypeError: `this` is `undefined`

A subtle but important detail is: even though the overall this binding rules are entirely based on the call-site, the global object is only eligible for the default binding if the contents of foo() are not running in strict mode; the strict mode state of the call-site of foo() is irrelevant.

function foo() {
    console.log( this.a );
}

var a = 2;

(function(){
    "use strict";

    foo(); // 2
})();

Note: Intentionally mixing strict mode and non-strict mode together in your own code is generally frowned upon. Your entire program should probably either be Strict or non-Strict. However, sometimes you include a third-party library that has different Strict'ness than your own code, so care must be taken over these subtle compatibility details.

Implicit Binding

Another rule to consider is: does the call-site have a context object, also referred to as an owning or containing object, though these alternate terms could be slightly misleading.

Consider:

function foo() {
    console.log( this.a );
}

var obj = {
    a: 2,
    foo: foo
};

obj.foo(); // 2

Firstly, notice the manner in which foo() is declared and then later added as a reference property onto obj. Regardless of whether foo() is initially declared on obj, or is added as a reference later (as this snippet shows), in neither case is the function really "owned" or "contained" by the obj object.

However, the call-site uses the obj context to reference the function, so you could say that the obj object "owns" or "contains" the function reference at the time the function is called.

Whatever you choose to call this pattern, at the point that foo() is called, it's preceded by an object reference to obj. When there is a context object for a function reference, the implicit binding rule says that it's that object which should be used for the function call's this binding.

Because obj is the this for the foo() call, this.a is synonymous with obj.a.

Only the top/last level of an object property reference chain matters to the call-site. For instance:

function foo() {
    console.log( this.a );
}

var obj2 = {
    a: 42,
    foo: foo
};

var obj1 = {
    a: 2,
    obj2: obj2
};

obj1.obj2.foo(); // 42

Implicitly Lost

One of the most common frustrations that this binding creates is when an implicitly bound function loses that binding, which usually means it falls back to the default binding, of either the global object or undefined, depending on strict mode.

Consider:

function foo() {
    console.log( this.a );
}

var obj = {
    a: 2,
    foo: foo
};

var bar = obj.foo; // function reference/alias!

var a = "oops, global"; // `a` also property on global object

bar(); // "oops, global"

Even though bar appears to be a reference to obj.foo, in fact, it's really just another reference to foo itself. Moreover, the call-site is what matters, and the call-site is bar(), which is a plain, un-decorated call and thus the default binding applies.

The more subtle, more common, and more unexpected way this occurs is when we consider passing a callback function:

function foo() {
    console.log( this.a );
}

function doFoo(fn) {
    // `fn` is just another reference to `foo`

    fn(); // <-- call-site!
}

var obj = {
    a: 2,
    foo: foo
};

var a = "oops, global"; // `a` also property on global object

doFoo( obj.foo ); // "oops, global"

Parameter passing is just an implicit assignment, and since we're passing a function, it's an implicit reference assignment, so the end result is the same as the previous snippet.

What if the function you're passing your callback to is not your own, but built-in to the language? No difference, same outcome.

function foo() {
    console.log( this.a );
}

var obj = {
    a: 2,
    foo: foo
};

var a = "oops, global"; // `a` also property on global object

setTimeout( obj.foo, 100 ); // "oops, global"

Think about this crude theoretical pseudo-implementation of setTimeout() provided as a built-in from the JavaScript environment:

function setTimeout(fn,delay) {
    // wait (somehow) for `delay` milliseconds
    fn(); // <-- call-site!
}

It's quite common that our function callbacks lose their this binding, as we've just seen. But another way that this can surprise us is when the function we've passed our callback to intentionally changes the this for the call. Event handlers in popular JavaScript libraries are quite fond of forcing your callback to have a this which points to, for instance, the DOM element that triggered the event. While that may sometimes be useful, other times it can be downright infuriating. Unfortunately, these tools rarely let you choose.

Either way the this is changed unexpectedly, you are not really in control of how your callback function reference will be executed, so you have no way (yet) of controlling the call-site to give your intended binding. We'll see shortly a way of "fixing" that problem by fixing the this.

Explicit Binding

With implicit binding as we just saw, we had to mutate the object in question to include a reference on itself to the function, and use this property function reference to indirectly (implicitly) bind this to the object.

But, what if you want to force a function call to use a particular object for the this binding, without putting a property function reference on the object?

"All" functions in the language have some utilities available to them (via their [[Prototype]] -- more on that later) which can be useful for this task. Specifically, functions have call(..) and apply(..) methods. Technically, JavaScript host environments sometimes provide functions which are special enough (a kind way of putting it!) that they do not have such functionality. But those are few. The vast majority of functions provided, and certainly all functions you will create, do have access to call(..) and apply(..).

How do these utilities work? They both take, as their first parameter, an object to use for the this, and then invoke the function with that this specified. Since you are directly stating what you want the this to be, we call it explicit binding.

Consider:

function foo() {
    console.log( this.a );
}

var obj = {
    a: 2
};

foo.call( obj ); // 2

Invoking foo with explicit binding by foo.call(..) allows us to force its this to be obj.

If you pass a simple primitive value (of type string, boolean, or number) as the this binding, the primitive value is wrapped in its object-form (new String(..), new Boolean(..), or new Number(..), respectively). This is often referred to as "boxing".

Note: With respect to this binding, call(..) and apply(..) are identical. They do behave differently with their additional parameters, but that's not something we care about presently.

Unfortunately, explicit binding alone still doesn't offer any solution to the issue mentioned previously, of a function "losing" its intended this binding, or just having it paved over by a framework, etc.

Hard Binding

But a variation pattern around explicit binding actually does the trick. Consider:

function foo() {
    console.log( this.a );
}

var obj = {
    a: 2
};

var bar = function() {
    foo.call( obj );
};

bar(); // 2
setTimeout( bar, 100 ); // 2

// `bar` hard binds `foo`'s `this` to `obj`
// so that it cannot be overriden
bar.call( window ); // 2

Let's examine how this variation works. We create a function bar() which, internally, manually calls foo.call(obj), thereby forcibly invoking foo with obj binding for this. No matter how you later invoke the function bar, it will always manually invoke foo with obj. This binding is both explicit and strong, so we call it hard binding.

The most typical way to wrap a function with a hard binding creates a pass-thru of any arguments passed and any return value received:

function foo(something) {
    console.log( this.a, something );
    return this.a + something;
}

var obj = {
    a: 2
};

var bar = function() {
    return foo.apply( obj, arguments );
};

var b = bar( 3 ); // 2 3
console.log( b ); // 5

Another way to express this pattern is to create a re-usable helper:

function foo(something) {
    console.log( this.a, something );
    return this.a + something;
}

// simple `bind` helper
function bind(fn, obj) {
    return function() {
        return fn.apply( obj, arguments );
    };
}

var obj = {
    a: 2
};

var bar = bind( foo, obj );

var b = bar( 3 ); // 2 3
console.log( b ); // 5

Since hard binding is such a common pattern, it's provided with a built-in utility as of ES5: Function.prototype.bind, and it's used like this:

function foo(something) {
    console.log( this.a, something );
    return this.a + something;
}

var obj = {
    a: 2
};

var bar = foo.bind( obj );

var b = bar( 3 ); // 2 3
console.log( b ); // 5

bind(..) returns a new function that is hard-coded to call the original function with the this context set as you specified.

Note: As of ES6, the hard-bound function produced by bind(..) has a .name property that derives from the original target function. For example: bar = foo.bind(..) should have a bar.name value of "bound foo", which is the function call name that should show up in a stack trace.

API Call "Contexts"

Many libraries' functions, and indeed many new built-in functions in the JavaScript language and host environment, provide an optional parameter, usually called "context", which is designed as a work-around for you not having to use bind(..) to ensure your callback function uses a particular this.

For instance:

function foo(el) {
    console.log( el, this.id );
}

var obj = {
    id: "awesome"
};

// use `obj` as `this` for `foo(..)` calls
[1, 2, 3].forEach( foo, obj ); // 1 awesome  2 awesome  3 awesome

Internally, these various functions almost certainly use explicit binding via call(..) or apply(..), saving you the trouble.

new Binding

The fourth and final rule for this binding requires us to re-think a very common misconception about functions and objects in JavaScript.

In traditional class-oriented languages, "constructors" are special methods attached to classes, that when the class is instantiated with a new operator, the constructor of that class is called. This usually looks something like:

something = new MyClass(..);

JavaScript has a new operator, and the code pattern to use it looks basically identical to what we see in those class-oriented languages; most developers assume that JavaScript's mechanism is doing something similar. However, there really is no connection to class-oriented functionality implied by new usage in JS.

First, let's re-define what a "constructor" in JavaScript is. In JS, constructors are just functions that happen to be called with the new operator in front of them. They are not attached to classes, nor are they instantiating a class. They are not even special types of functions. They're just regular functions that are, in essence, hijacked by the use of new in their invocation.

For example, the Number(..) function acting as a constructor, quoting from the ES5.1 spec:

15.7.2 The Number Constructor

When Number is called as part of a new expression it is a constructor: it initialises the newly created object.

So, pretty much any ol' function, including the built-in object functions like Number(..) (see Chapter 3) can be called with new in front of it, and that makes that function call a constructor call. This is an important but subtle distinction: there's really no such thing as "constructor functions", but rather construction calls of functions.

When a function is invoked with new in front of it, otherwise known as a constructor call, the following things are done automatically:

  1. a brand new object is created (aka, constructed) out of thin air
  2. the newly constructed object is [[Prototype]]-linked
  3. the newly constructed object is set as the this binding for that function call
  4. unless the function returns its own alternate object, the new-invoked function call will automatically return the newly constructed object.

Steps 1, 3, and 4 apply to our current discussion. We'll skip over step 2 for now and come back to it in Chapter 5.

Consider this code:

function foo(a) {
    this.a = a;
}

var bar = new foo( 2 );
console.log( bar.a ); // 2

By calling foo(..) with new in front of it, we've constructed a new object and set that new object as the this for the call of foo(..). So new is the final way that a function call's this can be bound. We'll call this new binding.

Everything In Order

So, now we've uncovered the 4 rules for binding this in function calls. All you need to do is find the call-site and inspect it to see which rule applies. But, what if the call-site has multiple eligible rules? There must be an order of precedence to these rules, and so we will next demonstrate what order to apply the rules.

It should be clear that the default binding is the lowest priority rule of the 4. So we'll just set that one aside.

Which is more precedent, implicit binding or explicit binding? Let's test it:

function foo() {
    console.log( this.a );
}

var obj1 = {
    a: 2,
    foo: foo
};

var obj2 = {
    a: 3,
    foo: foo
};

obj1.foo(); // 2
obj2.foo(); // 3

obj1.foo.call( obj2 ); // 3
obj2.foo.call( obj1 ); // 2

So, explicit binding takes precedence over implicit binding, which means you should ask first if explicit binding applies before checking for implicit binding.

Now, we just need to figure out where new binding fits in the precedence.

function foo(something) {
    this.a = something;
}

var obj1 = {
    foo: foo
};

var obj2 = {};

obj1.foo( 2 );
console.log( obj1.a ); // 2

obj1.foo.call( obj2, 3 );
console.log( obj2.a ); // 3

var bar = new obj1.foo( 4 );
console.log( obj1.a ); // 2
console.log( bar.a ); // 4

OK, new binding is more precedent than implicit binding. But do you think new binding is more or less precedent than explicit binding?

Note: new and call/apply cannot be used together, so new foo.call(obj1) is not allowed, to test new binding directly against explicit binding. But we can still use a hard binding to test the precedence of the two rules.

Before we explore that in a code listing, think back to how hard binding physically works, which is that Function.prototype.bind(..) creates a new wrapper function that is hard-coded to ignore its own this binding (whatever it may be), and use a manual one we provide.

By that reasoning, it would seem obvious to assume that hard binding (which is a form of explicit binding) is more precedent than new binding, and thus cannot be overridden with new.

Let's check:

function foo(something) {
    this.a = something;
}

var obj1 = {};

var bar = foo.bind( obj1 );
bar( 2 );
console.log( obj1.a ); // 2

var baz = new bar( 3 );
console.log( obj1.a ); // 2
console.log( baz.a ); // 3

Whoa! bar is hard-bound against obj1, but new bar(3) did not change obj1.a to be 3 as we would have expected. Instead, the hard bound (to obj1) call to bar(..) is able to be overridden with new. Since new was applied, we got the newly created object back, which we named baz, and we see in fact that baz.a has the value 3.

This should be surprising if you go back to our "fake" bind helper:

function bind(fn, obj) {
    return function() {
        fn.apply( obj, arguments );
    };
}

If you reason about how the helper's code works, it does not have a way for a new operator call to override the hard-binding to obj as we just observed.

But the built-in Function.prototype.bind(..) as of ES5 is more sophisticated, quite a bit so in fact. Here is the (slightly reformatted) polyfill provided by the MDN page for bind(..):

if (!Function.prototype.bind) {
    Function.prototype.bind = function(oThis) {
        if (typeof this !== "function") {
            // closest thing possible to the ECMAScript 5
            // internal IsCallable function
            throw new TypeError( "Function.prototype.bind - what " +
                "is trying to be bound is not callable"
            );
        }

        var aArgs = Array.prototype.slice.call( arguments, 1 ),
            fToBind = this,
            fNOP = function(){},
            fBound = function(){
                return fToBind.apply(
                    (
                        this instanceof fNOP &&
                        oThis ? this : oThis
                    ),
                    aArgs.concat( Array.prototype.slice.call( arguments ) )
                );
            }
        ;

        fNOP.prototype = this.prototype;
        fBound.prototype = new fNOP();

        return fBound;
    };
}

Note: The bind(..) polyfill shown above differs from the built-in bind(..) in ES5 with respect to hard-bound functions that will be used with new (see below for why that's useful). Because the polyfill cannot create a function without a .prototype as the built-in utility does, there's some nuanced indirection to approximate the same behavior. Tread carefully if you plan to use new with a hard-bound function and you rely on this polyfill.

The part that's allowing new overriding is:

this instanceof fNOP &&
oThis ? this : oThis

// ... and:

fNOP.prototype = this.prototype;
fBound.prototype = new fNOP();

We won't actually dive into explaining how this trickery works (it's complicated and beyond our scope here), but essentially the utility determines whether or not the hard-bound function has been called with new (resulting in a newly constructed object being its this), and if so, it uses that newly created this rather than the previously specified hard binding for this.

Why is new being able to override hard binding useful?

The primary reason for this behavior is to create a function (that can be used with new for constructing objects) that essentially ignores the this hard binding but which presets some or all of the function's arguments. One of the capabilities of bind(..) is that any arguments passed after the first this binding argument are defaulted as standard arguments to the underlying function (technically called "partial application", which is a subset of "currying").

For example:

function foo(p1,p2) {
    this.val = p1 + p2;
}

// using `null` here because we don't care about
// the `this` hard-binding in this scenario, and
// it will be overridden by the `new` call anyway!
var bar = foo.bind( null, "p1" );

var baz = new bar( "p2" );

baz.val; // p1p2

Determining this

Now, we can summarize the rules for determining this from a function call's call-site, in their order of precedence. Ask these questions in this order, and stop when the first rule applies.

  1. Is the function called with new (new binding)? If so, this is the newly constructed object.

    var bar = new foo()

  2. Is the function called with call or apply (explicit binding), even hidden inside a bind hard binding? If so, this is the explicitly specified object.

    var bar = foo.call( obj2 )

  3. Is the function called with a context (implicit binding), otherwise known as an owning or containing object? If so, this is that context object.

    var bar = obj1.foo()

  4. Otherwise, default the this (default binding). If in strict mode, pick undefined, otherwise pick the global object.

    var bar = foo()

That's it. That's all it takes to understand the rules of this binding for normal function calls. Well... almost.

Binding Exceptions

As usual, there are some exceptions to the "rules".

The this-binding behavior can in some scenarios be surprising, where you intended a different binding but you end up with binding behavior from the default binding rule (see previous).

Ignored this

If you pass null or undefined as a this binding parameter to call, apply, or bind, those values are effectively ignored, and instead the default binding rule applies to the invocation.

function foo() {
    console.log( this.a );
}

var a = 2;

foo.call( null ); // 2

Why would you intentionally pass something like null for a this binding?

It's quite common to use apply(..) for spreading out arrays of values as parameters to a function call. Similarly, bind(..) can curry parameters (pre-set values), which can be very helpful.

function foo(a,b) {
    console.log( "a:" + a + ", b:" + b );
}

// spreading out array as parameters
foo.apply( null, [2, 3] ); // a:2, b:3

// currying with `bind(..)`
var bar = foo.bind( null, 2 );
bar( 3 ); // a:2, b:3

Both these utilities require a this binding for the first parameter. If the functions in question don't care about this, you need a placeholder value, and null might seem like a reasonable choice as shown in this snippet.

Note: We don't cover it in this book, but ES6 has the ... spread operator which will let you syntactically "spread out" an array as parameters without needing apply(..), such as foo(...[1,2]), which amounts to foo(1,2) -- syntactically avoiding a this binding if it's unnecessary. Unfortunately, there's no ES6 syntactic substitute for currying, so the this parameter of the bind(..) call still needs attention.

However, there's a slight hidden "danger" in always using null when you don't care about the this binding. If you ever use that against a function call (for instance, a third-party library function that you don't control), and that function does make a this reference, the default binding rule means it might inadvertently reference (or worse, mutate!) the global object (window in the browser).

Obviously, such a pitfall can lead to a variety of very difficult to diagnose/track-down bugs.

Safer this

Perhaps a somewhat "safer" practice is to pass a specifically set up object for this which is guaranteed not to be an object that can create problematic side effects in your program. Borrowing terminology from networking (and the military), we can create a "DMZ" (de-militarized zone) object -- nothing more special than a completely empty, non-delegated (see Chapters 5 and 6) object.

If we always pass a DMZ object for ignored this bindings we don't think we need to care about, we're sure any hidden/unexpected usage of this will be restricted to the empty object, which insulates our program's global object from side-effects.

Since this object is totally empty, I personally like to give it the variable name ø (the lowercase mathematical symbol for the empty set). On many keyboards (like US-layout on Mac), this symbol is easily typed with +o (option+o). Some systems also let you set up hotkeys for specific symbols. If you don't like the ø symbol, or your keyboard doesn't make that as easy to type, you can of course call it whatever you want.

Whatever you call it, the easiest way to set it up as totally empty is Object.create(null) (see Chapter 5). Object.create(null) is similar to { }, but without the delegation to Object.prototype, so it's "more empty" than just { }.

function foo(a,b) {
    console.log( "a:" + a + ", b:" + b );
}

// our DMZ empty object
var ø = Object.create( null );

// spreading out array as parameters
foo.apply( ø, [2, 3] ); // a:2, b:3

// currying with `bind(..)`
var bar = foo.bind( ø, 2 );
bar( 3 ); // a:2, b:3

Not only functionally "safer", there's a sort of stylistic benefit to ø, in that it semantically conveys "I want the this to be empty" a little more clearly than null might. But again, name your DMZ object whatever you prefer.

Indirection

Another thing to be aware of is you can (intentionally or not!) create "indirect references" to functions, and in those cases, when that function reference is invoked, the default binding rule also applies.

One of the most common ways that indirect references occur is from an assignment:

function foo() {
    console.log( this.a );
}

var a = 2;
var o = { a: 3, foo: foo };
var p = { a: 4 };

o.foo(); // 3
(p.foo = o.foo)(); // 2

The result value of the assignment expression p.foo = o.foo is a reference to just the underlying function object. As such, the effective call-site is just foo(), not p.foo() or o.foo() as you might expect. Per the rules above, the default binding rule applies.

Reminder: regardless of how you get to a function invocation using the default binding rule, the strict mode status of the contents of the invoked function making the this reference -- not the function call-site -- determines the default binding value: either the global object if in non-strict mode or undefined if in strict mode.

Softening Binding

We saw earlier that hard binding was one strategy for preventing a function call falling back to the default binding rule inadvertently, by forcing it to be bound to a specific this (unless you use new to override it!). The problem is, hard-binding greatly reduces the flexibility of a function, preventing manual this override with either the implicit binding or even subsequent explicit binding attempts.

It would be nice if there was a way to provide a different default for default binding (not global or undefined), while still leaving the function able to be manually this bound via implicit binding or explicit binding techniques.

We can construct a so-called soft binding utility which emulates our desired behavior.

if (!Function.prototype.softBind) {
    Function.prototype.softBind = function(obj) {
        var fn = this,
            curried = [].slice.call( arguments, 1 ),
            bound = function bound() {
                return fn.apply(
                    (!this ||
                        (typeof window !== "undefined" &&
                            this === window) ||
                        (typeof global !== "undefined" &&
                            this === global)
                    ) ? obj : this,
                    curried.concat.apply( curried, arguments )
                );
            };
        bound.prototype = Object.create( fn.prototype );
        return bound;
    };
}

The softBind(..) utility provided here works similarly to the built-in ES5 bind(..) utility, except with our soft binding behavior. It wraps the specified function in logic that checks the this at call-time and if it's global or undefined, uses a pre-specified alternate default (obj). Otherwise the this is left untouched. It also provides optional currying (see the bind(..) discussion earlier).

Let's demonstrate its usage:

function foo() {
   console.log("name: " + this.name);
}

var obj = { name: "obj" },
    obj2 = { name: "obj2" },
    obj3 = { name: "obj3" };

var fooOBJ = foo.softBind( obj );

fooOBJ(); // name: obj

obj2.foo = foo.softBind(obj);
obj2.foo(); // name: obj2   <---- look!!!

fooOBJ.call( obj3 ); // name: obj3   <---- look!

setTimeout( obj2.foo, 10 ); // name: obj   <---- falls back to soft-binding

The soft-bound version of the foo() function can be manually this-bound to obj2 or obj3 as shown, but it falls back to obj if the default binding would otherwise apply.

Lexical this

Normal functions abide by the 4 rules we just covered. But ES6 introduces a special kind of function that does not use these rules: arrow-function.

Arrow-functions are signified not by the function keyword, but by the => so called "fat arrow" operator. Instead of using the four standard this rules, arrow-functions adopt the this binding from the enclosing (function or global) scope.

Let's illustrate arrow-function lexical scope:

function foo() {
    // return an arrow function
    return (a) => {
        // `this` here is lexically adopted from `foo()`
        console.log( this.a );
    };
}

var obj1 = {
    a: 2
};

var obj2 = {
    a: 3
};

var bar = foo.call( obj1 );
bar.call( obj2 ); // 2, not 3!

The arrow-function created in foo() lexically captures whatever foo()s this is at its call-time. Since foo() was this-bound to obj1, bar (a reference to the returned arrow-function) will also be this-bound to obj1. The lexical binding of an arrow-function cannot be overridden (even with new!).

The most common use-case will likely be in the use of callbacks, such as event handlers or timers:

function foo() {
    setTimeout(() => {
        // `this` here is lexically adopted from `foo()`
        console.log( this.a );
    },100);
}

var obj = {
    a: 2
};

foo.call( obj ); // 2

While arrow-functions provide an alternative to using bind(..) on a function to ensure its this, which can seem attractive, it's important to note that they essentially are disabling the traditional this mechanism in favor of more widely-understood lexical scoping. Pre-ES6, we already have a fairly common pattern for doing so, which is basically almost indistinguishable from the spirit of ES6 arrow-functions:

function foo() {
    var self = this; // lexical capture of `this`
    setTimeout( function(){
        console.log( self.a );
    }, 100 );
}

var obj = {
    a: 2
};

foo.call( obj ); // 2

While self = this and arrow-functions both seem like good "solutions" to not wanting to use bind(..), they are essentially fleeing from this instead of understanding and embracing it.

If you find yourself writing this-style code, but most or all the time, you defeat the this mechanism with lexical self = this or arrow-function "tricks", perhaps you should either:

  1. Use only lexical scope and forget the false pretense of this-style code.

  2. Embrace this-style mechanisms completely, including using bind(..) where necessary, and try to avoid self = this and arrow-function "lexical this" tricks.

A program can effectively use both styles of code (lexical and this), but inside of the same function, and indeed for the same sorts of look-ups, mixing the two mechanisms is usually asking for harder-to-maintain code, and probably working too hard to be clever.

Review (TL;DR)

Determining the this binding for an executing function requires finding the direct call-site of that function. Once examined, four rules can be applied to the call-site, in this order of precedence:

  1. Called with new? Use the newly constructed object.

  2. Called with call or apply (or bind)? Use the specified object.

  3. Called with a context object owning the call? Use that context object.

  4. Default: undefined in strict mode, global object otherwise.

Be careful of accidental/unintentional invoking of the default binding rule. In cases where you want to "safely" ignore a this binding, a "DMZ" object like ø = Object.create(null) is a good placeholder value that protects the global object from unintended side-effects.

Instead of the four standard binding rules, ES6 arrow-functions use lexical scoping for this binding, which means they adopt the this binding (whatever it is) from its enclosing function call. They are essentially a syntactic replacement of self = this in pre-ES6 coding.