Spread Operator Does Not Deep Copy Properties

2 minute read

TIL that the spread operator does not perform a deep copy of object properties to the target object.

This led to a long debugging session that had me thinking I was crazy for a while!

The Spread Operator vs Object.assign()

The spread operator (written as ...) can be used to assign an object’s enumerable properties to a new object. It is often used to replace the use of Object.assign() since it is more succinct to write, and is suggested for use when writing Redux code by the Redux documentation. See the following example for a comparison of the spread operator and Object.assign() when creating a new object:

  const obj = {a: 1, b: 2};
  const obj2 = {c: 3};

  const assignedObject = Object.assign({}, obj, obj2);

  const spreadObj = {
  console.log(assignedObject) // this logs {a: 1, b: 2, c: 3}
  console.log(spreadObj) // this logs {a: 1, b: 2, c: 3}

  // both result in the same object

Spread, to me, is much more succinct, and since it is suggested for use by the Redux documentation, we use the spread operator on objects liberally throughout our project. I’ll also acknowledge that since it is still a Javascript stage-3 feature, that it is still somewhat risky to use.

My Problem

I was working with an object that contained properties with values that were themselves objects. Something like this: {a: {b: 1}}.

When I wanted to make a change to the state of this object, I used the spread operator to create what I considered a “new object” with the properties of my source. Then, I could change the state of a sub key of this copied object (i.e. I would change the value of property b above from 1 to 2.

Since I thought I was making an isolated “deep” copy of the original object, I thought these mutations would be isolated from the original… but they were not! An example for clarity:

const original = {a: {b: 1}};

const falseCopy = {...original};

falseCopy.a.b = 2;

console.log(falseCopy) // logs {a: {b: 2}}
console.log(original) // also logs {a: {b: 2}} WTF!

Under the hood, Babel is transpiling the ... to Object.assign (it contains a fallback if used in a browser where Object.assign() is not yet implemented). From the MDN documentation: The Object.assign() method is used to copy the values of all enumerable own properties from one or more source objects to a target object. It will return the target object.

In retrospect, I should have realized that a “copy” is nothing more than a shallow copy, and in the case of reference types (like objects) just a copy to the reference. This caused some weird bugs where I was anticipating changes made to the copy to be isolated, but I eventually tracked down the cause and learned something in the process.