Objects: prototype chain

Learning Goals

By the end of this lesson, you will be able to:

  • Speak to and understand the difference between prototoype and [[prototype]]
  • Understand and explain how prototypal inheritance works via the prototype chain.

Vocab

prototype A special object which is assigned to functions that you make in JavaScript
[[prototype]] A hidden link on every object that links objects to one another, allowing objects to share behaviors

Prototype

Prototypes are the mechanism by which JavaScript objects inherit features from one another. Having access to this chain of inheritance (via prototype objects) is a powerful way to define a behavior in one place and then use it in many others.

But what is a prototype? In JavaScript, a prototype is a special object that is assigned to all functions, including but not limited to functions that are used to construct objects.

As you may recall, classes (like our Instructor class below) operate as constructor functions under the hood:

class Instructor {
  constructor(name, primaryLesson) {
    this.name = name;
    this.primaryLesson = primaryLesson;
  }

  teachLesson(duration) {
    if (duration > 3) {
      return `${this.name} can\'t teach a lesson that long!`;
    } else {
      return `Gunna teach you all real good about ${this.primaryLesson}`;
    }
  }
}

var instructor = new Instructor('Pam', 'OOP');

After declaring this class, type Instructor. into your console. You should see the browser attempting to autocomplete this with properties that are available on this function:

prototype in the console

By accessing the prototype of our Instructor class - we can see that it points to an object that has a property of constructor that points back to the class of Instructor.

Similarly, if you type ‘instructor’ into your console to check the new instance, you should be presented with properties that are found directly on that instance, as well as quite a bit of other information:

instance in the console

It is likely that you have seen this (somewhat overwhelming) list of properties while working with other types of data in your console - not just functions and objects.

On Your Own

In your console, declare an array literal name food in your console. This should be a list of the last three things that you ate. What happens when you type food.? What is the browser attempting to autocomplete? What familiar properties are showing up?

proto

You’ll notice that when we checked our array literal in the console, there was no property of prototype listed. This is because arrays are not functions, so the special object with the name/property of prototype is not automatically assigned. However… everything that we have checked in the console thus far has had the property __proto__.

__proto__, or “dunder-proto” (double-underscore proto), is a property that exposes the internal [[prototype]] property. This [[prototype]]property acts a as a reference that points to a function’s prototype object. It is this reference, or linking, between objects that makes up the prototype chain a. The prototype chain (and objects linking in such a way) is what allows us to define behavior in one place (or one prototype object) and share it between many objects.

dunder proto at work

Turn and Code

With a partner, save all the data types that you can think of to variables. Using the console, check the [[prototype]] link via the dunder-proto.

  • What similiarties do you notice across data types? What differences?

The Prototype Chain

It is this linking between objects that makes it so that objects are not limited to using the methods that are formally defined directly on that object - they can also ask objects further up the chain for help.

When the interpreter is attempting to access a property on an object, it will start by looking directly on that object. If that property is not found, the objects internal [[prototype]] property will point to the object to examine next. The interpreter will continue to travese the prototype chain to seek a resolution for the property… until the end of the prototype chain is reached (resulting in null).

The most common way to link two objects together (and extend the prototype chain that is built-in to the language) is to use the new keyword with the invocation of a function. When this occurs, the new object instance that is created will automatically set the instance’s [[prototype]] property to point to that function’s prototype.

*Note: There are a number of ways to extend the prototype chain. You can find discussions on other ways here*

Checks for Understanding

  • Describe the prototype chain. Why is the chain in place? Why would the interpreter traverse this chain?
  • What is the difference between prototype and [[prototype]]?

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