Java
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How to Implement Java’s equals Method Correctly

By Nicolai Parlog

At SitePoint we’re always looking to expand the range of topics we cover. Lately, we’ve set our sights on exploring the world of Java. If you’re a strong Java developer who wants to contribute to our coverage, get in touch with a few ideas for articles you’d like to write.

A fundamental aspect of any Java class is its definition of equality. It is determined by a class’s equals method and there are a couple of things to be considered for a correct implementation. Let’s check ’em out so we get it right!

Note that implementing equals always means that hashCode has to be implemented as well! We’ll cover that in a separate article so make sure to read it after this one.

Identity Versus Equality

Have a look at this piece of code:

String some = "some string";
String other = "other string";

We have two strings and they are obviously different.

What about these two?

String some = "some string";
String other = some;
boolean identical = some == other;

Here we have only one String instance and some and other both reference it. In Java we say some and other are identical and, accordingly, identical is true.

What about this one?

String some = "some string";
String other = "some string";
boolean identical = some == other;

Now, some and other point to different instances and are no longer identical, so identical is false. (We’ll ignore String interning in this article; if this bugs you, assume every string literal were wrapped in a new String(...).)

But they do have some relationship as they both “have the same value”. In Java terms, they are equal, which is checked with equals:

String some = "some string";
String other = "some string";
boolean equal = some.equals(other);

Here, equals is true.

A variable’s Identity (also called Reference Equality) is defined by the reference it holds. If two variables hold the same reference they are identical. This is checked with ==.

A variable’s Equality is defined by the value it references. If two variables reference the same value, they are equal. This is checked with equals.

But what does “the same value” mean? It is, in fact, the implementation of equals that determines “sameness”. The equals method is defined in Object and since all classes inherit from it, all have that method.

The implementation in Object checks identity (note that identical variables are equal as well), but many classes override it with something more suitable. For strings, for example, it compares the character sequence and for dates it makes sure that both point to the same day.

Many data structures, most notably Java’s own collection framework, use equals to check whether they contain an element.

For example:

List<String> list = Arrays.asList("a", "b", "c");
boolean contains = list.contains("b");

The variable contains is true because, while the instances of "b" are not identical, they are equal.

(This is also the point where hashCode comes into play.)

Thoughts on Equality

Any implementation of equals must adhere to a specific contract or the class’s equality is ill-defined and all kinds of unexpected things happen. We will look at the formal definition in a moment but let’s first discuss some properties of equality.

It might help to think about it as we encounter it in our daily lives. Let’s say we compare laptops and consider them equal if they have the same hardware specifications.

  1. One property is so trivial that it is hardly worth mentioning: Each thing is equal to itself. Duh.
  2. There is another, which is not much more inspiring: If one thing is equal to another, the other is also equal to the first. Clearly if my laptop is equal to yours, yours is equal to mine.
  3. This one is more interesting: If we have three things and the first and second are equal and the second and third are equal, then the first and third are also equal. Again, this is obvious in our laptop example.

That was an exercise in futility, right? Not so! We just worked through some basic algebraic properties of equivalence relations. No wait, don’t leave! That’s already all we need. Because any relation that has the three properties above can be called an equality.

Yes, any way we can make up that compares things and has the three properties above, could be how we determine whether those things are equal. Conversely, if we leave anything out, we no longer have a meaningful equality.

equality

The equals Contract

The equals contract is little more but a formalization of what we saw above.
To quote the source:

The equals method implements an equivalence relation on non-null object references:

  • It is reflexive: for any non-null reference value x, x.equals(x) should return true.
  • It is symmetric: for any non-null reference values x and y, x.equals(y) should return true if and only if y.equals(x) returns true.
  • It is transitive: for any non-null reference values x, y, and z, if x.equals(y) returns true and y.equals(z) returns true, then x.equals(z) should return true.
  • It is consistent: for any non-null reference values x and y, multiple invocations of x.equals(y) consistently return true or consistently return false, provided no information used in equals comparisons on the objects is modified.
  • For any non-null reference value x, x.equals(null) should return false.

By now, the first three should be very familiar. The other points are more of a technicality: Without consistency data structures behave erratically and being equal to null not only makes no sense but would complicate many implementations.

Implementing equals

For a class Person with string fields firstName and lastName, this would be a common variant to implement equals:

@Override
public boolean equals(Object o) {
    // self check
    if (this == o)
        return true;
    // null check
    if (o == null)
        return false;
    // type check and cast
    if (getClass() != o.getClass())
        return false;
    Person person = (Person) o;
    // field comparison
    return Objects.equals(firstName, person.firstName)
            && Objects.equals(lastName, person.lastName);
}

Let’s go through it one by one.

Signature

It is very important that equals takes an Object! Otherwise, unexpected behavior occurs.

For example, assume that we would implement equals(Person) like so:

public boolean equals(Person person) {
    return Objects.equals(firstName, person.firstName)
            && Objects.equals(lastName, person.lastName);
}

What happens in a simple example?

Person elliot = new Person("Elliot", "Alderson");
Person mrRobot = new Person("Elliot", "Alderson");
boolean equal = elliot.equals(mrRobot);

Then equal is true. What about now?

Person elliot = new Person("Elliot", "Alderson");
Object mrRobot = new Person("Elliot", "Alderson");
boolean equal = elliot.equals(mrRobot);

Now it’s false. Wat?! Maybe not quite what we expected.

The reason is that Java called Person.equals(Object) (as inherited from Object, which checks identity). Why?

Java’s strategy for choosing which overloaded method to call is not based on the parameter’s runtime type but on its declared type. (Which is a good thing because otherwise static code analysis, like call hierarchies, would not work.) So if mrRobot is declared as an Object, Java calls Person.equals(Object) instead of our Person.equals(Person).

Note that most code, for example all collections, handle our persons as objects and thus always call equals(Object). So we better make sure we provide an implementation with that signature! We can of course create a specialized equals implementation and call it from our more general one if we like that better.

Self Check

Equality is a fundamental property of any class and it might end up being called very often, for example in tight loops querying a collection. Thus, its performance matters! And the self check at the beginning of our implementation is just that: a performance optimization.

java
if (this == o)
return true;

It might look like it should implement reflexivity but the checks further down would be very strange if they would not also do that.

Null Check

No instance should be equal to null, so here we go making sure of that. At the same time, it guards the code from NullPointerExceptions.

if (o == null)
    return false;

It can actually be included in the following check, like so:

if (o == null || getClass() != o.getClass())
    return false;

Type Check and Cast

Next thing, we have to make sure that the instance we’re looking at is actually a person. This is another tricky detail.

if (getClass() != o.getClass())
    return false;
Person person = (Person) o;

Our implementation uses getClass, which returns the classes to which this and o belong. It requires them to be identical! This means that if we had a class Employee extends Person, then Person.equals(Employee) would never return true – not even if both had the same names.

This might be unexpected.

That an extending class with new fields does not compare well may be reasonable, but if that extension only adds behavior (maybe logging or other non-functional details), it should be able to equal instances of its supertype. This becomes especially relevant if a framework spins new subtypes at runtime (e.g. Hibernate or Spring), which could then never be equal to instances we created.

An alternative is the instanceof operator:

if (!(o instanceof Person))
    return false;

Instances of subtypes of Person pass that check. Hence they continue to the field comparison (see below) and may turn out to be equal. This solves the problems we mentioned above but opens a new can of worms.

Say Employee extends Person and adds an additional field. If it overrides the equals implementation it inherits from Person and includes the extra field, then person.equals(employee) can be true (because of instanceof) but employee.equals(person) can’t (because person misses that field). This clearly violates the symmetry requirement.

There seems to be a way out of this: Employee.equals could check whether it compares to an instance with that field and use it only then (this is occasionally called slice comparison).

But this doesn’t work either because it breaks transitivity:

Person foo = new Person("Mr", "Foo");
Employee fu = new Employee("Mr", "Foo", "Marketing");
Employee fuu = new Employee("Mr", "Foo", "Engineering");

Obviously all three instances share the same name, so foo.equals(fu) and foo.equals(fuu) are true. By transitivity fu.equals(fuu) should also be true but it isn’t if the third field, apparently the department, is included in the comparison.

There is really no way to make slice comparison work without violating reflexivity or, and this is trickier to analyze, transitivity. (If you think you found one, check again. Then let your coworkers check. If you are still sure, ping me. ;) )

So we end with two alternatives:

  • Use getClass and be aware that instances of the type and its subtypes can never equal.
  • Use instanceof but make equals final because there is no way to override it correctly.

Which one makes more sense really depends on the situation. Personally, I prefer instanceof because its problems (can not include new fields in inherited classes) occurs at declaration site not at use site.

Field Comparison

Wow, that was a lot of work! And all we did was solve some corner cases! So let’s finally get to the test’s core: comparing fields.

This is pretty simple, though. In the vast majority of cases, all there is to do is to pick the fields that should define a class’s equality and then compare them. Use == for primitives and equals for objects.

If any of the fields could be null, the extra checks considerably reduce the code’s readability:

return (firstName == person.firstName
        || firstName != null && firstName.equals(person.firstName))
    && (lastName == person.lastName
            || lastName != null && lastName.equals(person.lastName))

And this already uses the non-obvious fact that null == null is true.

It is much better to use Java’s utility method Objects.equals (or, if you’re not yet on Java 7, Guava’s Objects.equal):

return Objects.equals(firstName, person.firstName)
        && Objects.equals(lastName, person.lastName);

It does exactly the same checks but is much more readable.

Summary

We have discussed the difference between identity (must be the same reference; checked with ==) and equality (can be different references to “the same value”; checked with equals) and went on to take a close look at how to implement equals.

Let’s put those pieces back together:

  • Make sure to override equals(Object) so our method is always called.
  • Include a self and null check for an early return in simple edge cases.
  • Use getClass to allow subtypes their own implementation (but no comparison across subtypes) or use instanceof and make equals final (and subtypes can equal).
  • Compare the desired fields using Objects.equals.

Or let your IDE generate it all for you and edit where needed.

Final Words

We have seen how to properly implement equals (and will soon look at hashCode). But what if we are using classes that we have no control over? What if their implementations of these methods do not suit our needs or are plain wrong?

LibFX to the rescue! (Disclaimer: I’m the author.) The library contains transforming collections and one of their features is to allow the user to specify the equals and hashCode methods she needs.

  • Wolf_22

    Very informative! And it’s nice to see something different for a change. (Don’t get many Java pieces around these parts.) Keep up the great work.

  • Balavivek

    Great work, Really i learn a lot about how to use equals method properly, Thank you

  • Chee How

    Thanks for the article. It’s such a fundamental concept, especially with Maps, that I always ask this in interview questions when hiring. I’m always astonished by the number of people who don’t understand the concept and the need to implement both equals() and hashcode()

    Sometimes I wonder am I being too demanding in expecting candidates to understand this concept of equality in Java…

    • http://codefx.org/ Nicolai Parlog

      I do the same and with the same result. I seriously wonder how one can program in Java for more than a year and never brush up against this fundamental concept.

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