Introduction

The Java super class java.lang.Object has two very important methods defined in it. They are - These methods prove very important when user classes are confronted with other Java classes, when objects of such classes are added to collections etc. These two methods have become part of Sun Certified Java Programmer 1.4 exam (SCJP 1.4) objectives. This article intends to provide the necessary information about these two methods that would help the SCJP 1.4 exam aspirants. Moreover, this article hopes to help you understand the mechanism and general contracts of these two methods; irrespective of whether you are interested in taking the SCJP 1.4 exam or not. This article should help you while implementing these two methods in your own classes.

public boolean equals(Object obj)

This method checks if some other object passed to it as an argument is equal to the object on which this method is invoked. The default implementation of this method in Object class simply checks if two object references x and y refer to the same object. i.e. It checks if x == y. This particular comparison is also known as "shallow comparison". However, the classes providing their own implementations of the equals method are supposed to perform a "deep comparison"; by actually comparing the relevant data members. Since Object class has no data members that define its state, it simply performs shallow comparison.

This is what the JDK 1.4 API documentation says about the equals method of Object class-

Indicates whether some other object is "equal to" this one. The equals method for class Object implements the most discriminating possible equivalence relation on objects; that is, for any reference values x and y, this method returns true if and only if x and y refer to the same object (x==y has the value true).

Note that it is generally necessary to override the hashCode method whenever this method is overridden, so as to maintain the general contract for the hashCode method, which states that equal objects must have equal hash codes.

The contract of the equals method precisely states what it requires. Once you understand it completely, implementation becomes relatively easy, moreover it would be correct. Let's understand what each of this really means.

  1. Reflexive - It simply means that the object must be equal to itself, which it would be at any given instance; unless you intentionally override the equals method to behave otherwise.
  2. Symmetric - It means that if object of one class is equal to another class object, the other class object must be equal to this class object. In other words, one object can not unilaterally decide whether it is equal to another object; two objects, and consequently the classes to which they belong, must bilaterally decide if they are equal or not. They BOTH must agree.
    Hence, it is improper and incorrect to have your own class with equals method that has comparison with an object of java.lang.String class, or with any other built-in Java class for that matter. It is very important to understand this requirement properly, because it is quite likely that a naive implementation of equals method may violate this requirement which would result in undesired consequences.
  3. Transitive - It means that if the first object is equal to the second object and the second object is equal to the third object; then the first object is equal to the third object. In other words, if two objects agree that they are equal, and follow the symmetry principle, one of them can not decide to have a similar contract with another object of different class. All three must agree and follow symmetry principle for various permutations of these three classes.
    Consider this example - A, B and C are three classes. A and B both implement the equals method in such a way that it provides comparison for objects of class A and class B. Now, if author of class B decides to modify its equals method such that it would also provide equality comparison with class C; he would be violating the transitivity principle. Because, no proper equals comparison mechanism would exist for class A and class C objects.
  4. Consistent - It means that if two objects are equal, they must remain equal as long as they are not modified. Likewise, if they are not equal, they must remain non-equal as long as they are not modified. The modification may take place in any one of them or in both of them.
  5. null comparison - It means that any instantiable class object is not equal to null, hence the equals method must return false if a null is passed to it as an argument. You have to ensure that your implementation of the equals method returns false if a null is passed to it as an argument.
  6. Equals & Hash Code relationship - The last note from the API documentation is very important, it states the relationship requirement between these two methods. It simply means that if two objects are equal, then they must have the same hash code, however the opposite is NOT true. This is discussed in details later in this article.
The details about these two methods are interrelated and how they should be overridden correctly is discussed later in this article.

public int hashCode()

This method returns the hash code value for the object on which this method is invoked. This method returns the hash code value as an integer and is supported for the benefit of hashing based collection classes such as Hashtable, HashMap, HashSet etc. This method must be overridden in every class that overrides the equals method.

This is what the JDK 1.4 API documentation says about the hashCode method of Object class-

Returns a hash code value for the object. This method is supported for the benefit of hashtables such as those provided by java.util.Hashtable.
As much as is reasonably practical, the hashCode method defined by class Object does return distinct integers for distinct objects. (This is typically implemented by converting the internal address of the object into an integer, but this implementation technique is not required by the JavaTM programming language.)

As compared to the general contract specified by the equals method, the contract specified by the hashCode method is relatively simple and easy to understand. It simply states two important requirements that must be met while implementing the hashCode method. The third point of the contract, in fact is the elaboration of the second point. Let's understand what this contract really means.
  1. Consistency during same execution - Firstly, it states that the hash code returned by the hashCode method must be consistently the same for multiple invocations during the same execution of the application as long as the object is not modified to affect the equals method.
  2. Hash Code & Equals relationship - The second requirement of the contract is the hashCode counterpart of the requirement specified by the equals method. It simply emphasizes the same relationship - equal objects must produce the same hash code. However, the third point elaborates that unequal objects need not produce distinct hash codes.
After reviewing the general contracts of these two methods, it is clear that the relationship between these two methods can be summed up in the following statement -

Equal objects must produce the same hash code as long as they are equal, however unequal objects need not produce distinct hash codes.

The rest of the requirements specified in the contracts of these two methods are specific to those methods and are not directly related to the relationship between these two methods. Those specific requirements are discussed earlier. This relationship also enforces that whenever you override the equals method, you must override the hashCode method as well. Failing to comply with this requirement usually results in undetermined, undesired behavior of the class when confronted with Java collection classes or any other Java classes.

Correct Implementation Example

The following code exemplifies how all the requirements of equals and hashCode methods should be fulfilled so that the class behaves correctly and consistently with other Java classes. This class implements the equals method in such a way that it only provides equality comparison for the objects of the same class, similar to built-in Java classes like String and other wrapper classes.

1.	public class Test
2.	{
3.		private int num;
4.		private String data;
5.
6.		public boolean equals(Object obj)
7.		{
8.			if(this == obj)
9.				return true;
10.			if((obj == null) || (obj.getClass() != this.getClass()))
11.				return false;
12.			// object must be Test at this point
13.			Test test = (Test)obj;
14.			return num == test.num &&
15.			(data == test.data || (data != null && data.equals(test.data)));
16.		}
17.
18.		public int hashCode()
19.		{
20.			int hash = 7;
21.			hash = 31 * hash + num;
22.			hash = 31 * hash + (null == data ? 0 : data.hashCode());
23.			return hash;
24.		}
25.
26.		// other methods
27.	}

Now, let's examine why this implementation is the correct implementation. The class Test has two member variables - num and data. These two variables define state of the object and they also participate in the equals comparison for the objects of this class. Hence, they should also be involved in calculating the hash codes of this class objects.

Consider the equals method first. We can see that at line 8, the passed object reference is compared with this object itself, this approach usually saves time if both the object references are referring to the same object on the heap and if the equals comparison is expensive. Next, the if condition at line 10 first checks if the argument is null, if not, then (due to the short-circuit nature of the OR || operator) it checks if the argument is of type Test by comparing the classes of the argument and this object. This is done by invoking the getClass() method on both the references. If either of these conditions fails, then false is returned. This is done by the following code -
if((obj == null) || (obj.getClass() != this.getClass())) return false; // prefer
This conditional check should be preferred instead of the conditional check given by -
if(!(obj instanceof Test)) return false; // avoid
This is because, the first condition (code in blue) ensures that it will return false if the argument is a subclass of the class Test. However, in case of the second condition (code in red) it fails. The instanceof operator condition fails to return false if the argument is a subclass of the class Test. Thus, it might violate the symmetry requirement of the contract. The instanceof check is correct only if the class is final, so that no subclass would exist. The first condition will work for both, final and non-final classes. Note that, both these conditions will return false if the argument is null. The instanceof operator returns false if the left hand side (LHS) operand is null, irrespective of the operand on the right hand side (RHS) as specified by JLS 15.20.2. However, the first condition should be preferred for better type checking.

This class implements the equals method in such a way that it provides equals comparison only for the objects of the same class. Note that, this is not mandatory. But, if a class decides to provide equals comparison for other class objects, then the other class (or classes) must also agree to provide the same for this class so as to fulfill the symmetry and reflexivity requirements of the contract. This particular equals method implementation does not violate both these requirements. The lines 14 and 15 actually perform the equality comparison for the data members, and return true if they are equal. Line 15 also ensures that invoking the equals method on String variable data will not result in a NullPointerException.
While implementing the equals method, primitives can be compared directly with an equality operator (==) after performing any necessary conversions (Such as float to Float.floatToIntBits or double to Double.doubleToLongBits). Whereas, object references can be compared by invoking their equals method recursively. You also need to ensure that invoking the equals method on these object references does not result in a NullPointerException.

Here are some useful guidelines for implementing the equals method correctly.
  1. Use the equality == operator to check if the argument is the reference to this object, if yes. return true. This saves time when actual comparison is costly.
  2. Use the following condition to check that the argument is not null and it is of the correct type, if not then return false.
    if((obj == null) || (obj.getClass() != this.getClass())) return false;
    Note that, correct type does not mean the same type or class as shown in the example above. It could be any class or interface that one or more classes agree to implement for providing the comparison.
  3. Cast the method argument to the correct type. Again, the correct type may not be the same class. Also, since this step is done after the above type-check condition, it will not result in a ClassCastException.
  4. Compare significant variables of both, the argument object and this object and check if they are equal. If *all* of them are equal then return true, otherwise return false. Again, as mentioned earlier, while comparing these class members/variables; primitive variables can be compared directly with an equality operator (==) after performing any necessary conversions (Such as float to Float.floatToIntBits or double to Double.doubleToLongBits). Whereas, object references can be compared by invoking their equals method recursively. You also need to ensure that invoking equals method on these object references does not result in a NullPointerException, as shown in the example above (Line 15).
    It is neither necessary, nor advisable to include those class members in this comparison which can be calculated from other variables, hence the word "significant variables". This certainly improves the performance of the equals method. Only you can decide which class members are significant and which are not.
  5. Do not change the type of the argument of the equals method. It takes a java.lang.Object as an argument, do not use your own class instead. If you do that, you will not be overriding the equals method, but you will be overloading it instead; which would cause problems. It is a very common mistake, and since it does not result in a compile time error, it becomes quite difficult to figure out why the code is not working properly.
  6. Review your equals method to verify that it fulfills all the requirements stated by the general contract of the equals method.
  7. Lastly, do not forget to override the hashCode method whenever you override the equals method, that's unpardonable. ;)
Now, let's examine the hashCode method of this example. At line 20, a non-zero constant value 7 (arbitrary) is assigned to an int variable hash. Since the class members/variables num and data do participate in the equals method comparison, they should also be involved in the calculation of the hash code. Though, this is not mandatory. You can use subset of the variables that participate in the equals method comparison to improve performance of the hashCode method. Performance of the hashCode method indeed is very important. But, you have to be very careful while selecting the subset. The subset should include those variables which are most likely to have the greatest diversity of the values. Sometimes, using all the variables that participate in the equals method comparison for calculating the hash code makes more sense.
This class uses both the variables for computing the hash code. Lines 21 and 22 calculate the hash code values based on these two variables. Line 22 also ensures that invoking hashCode method on the variable data does not result in a NullPointerException if data is null. This implementation ensures that the general contract of the hashCode method is not violated. This implementation will return consistent hash code values for different invocations and will also ensure that equal objects will have equal hash codes.
While implementing the hashCode method, primitives can be used directly in the calculation of the hash code value after performing any necessary conversions, such as float to Float.floatToIntBits or double to Double.doubleToLongBits. Since return type of the hashCode method is int, long values must to be converted to the integer values. As for hash codes of the object references, they should be calculated by invoking their hashCode method recursively. You also need to ensure that invoking the hashCode method on these object references does not result in a NullPointerException.

Writing a very good implementation of the hashCode method which calculates hash code values such that the distribution is uniform is not a trivial task and may require inputs from mathematicians and theoretical computer scientist. Nevertheless, it is possible to write a decent and correct implementation by following few simple rules.

Here are some useful guidelines for implementing the hashCode method correctly.
  1. Store an arbitrary non-zero constant integer value (say 7) in an int variable, called hash.
  2. Involve significant variables of your object in the calculation of the hash code, all the variables that are part of equals comparison should be considered for this. Compute an individual hash code int var_code for each variable var as follows -
    1. If the variable(var) is byte, char, short or int, then var_code = (int)var;
    2. If the variable(var) is long, then var_code = (int)(var ^ (var >>> 32));
    3. If the variable(var) is float, then var_code = Float.floatToIntBits(var);
    4. If the variable(var) is double, then -
      long bits = Double.doubleToLongBits(var);
      var_code = (int)(bits ^ (bits >>> 32));
    5. If the variable(var) is boolean, then var_code = var ? 1 : 0;
    6. If the variable(var) is an object reference, then check if it is null, if yes then var_code = 0; otherwise invoke the hashCode method recursively on this object reference to get the hash code. This can be simplified and given as -
      var_code = (null == var ? 0 : var.hashCode());
  3. Combine this individual variable hash code var_code in the original hash code hash as follows -
    hash = 31 * hash + var_code;
  4. Follow these steps for all the significant variables and in the end return the resulting integer hash.
  5. Lastly, review your hashCode method and check if it is returning equal hash codes for equal objects. Also, verify that the hash codes returned for the object are consistently the same for multiple invocations during the same execution.
The guidelines provided here for implementing equals and hashCode methods are merely useful as guidelines, these are not absolute laws or rules. Nevertheless, following them while implementing these two methods will certainly give you correct and consistent results.

Summary & Miscellaneous Tips

Review Questions

The review questions are available separately - here.

Resources

Here is a list of few more resources that might be useful if you are interested in knowing more about these two methods, their implementation and significance.
Thanks :)

This article has been reviewed and revised repeatedly so as to make it as correct as possible. Thanks a lot to Valentin Crettaz and friends at JavaRanch for suggesting many changes. Especially thanks to Valentin for pointing out the violation of the symmetry requirement by using the instanceof condition in the equals method. If you notice any ambiguity, error in the article and/or the mock test, please do let me know. Your feedback is very important in making this article and test more useful.

Author: Manish Hatwalne