Why I don't like useState

# Prologue

I’ve been using React hooks since their public release roughly 3 years ago, and I was incredibly excited for them. I still think hooks are great, but useState in particular is hard to use correctly.

I will cover the issues I see repeatedly, why they’re so confusing, and some possible remedies.

NOTE: This post assumes familiarity with React and React hooks.

# How state works

Consider this React component which increments a number on button click:

function App() {
const [num, setNum] = useState(0);
return (
<div>
<p>num = {String(num)}</p>
<button
type="button"
onClick={() => {
setNum(num + 1);
}}

>

Increment
</button>
</div>
);
}

It’s easy to forget that this App function is not called just once, but every time the component needs to re-render. Functions don’t store state between multiple calls, so React actually stores this state. React remembers this component “instance” and stores its state internally. Every time the component re-renders, React sends the correct state back when you call useState.

It’s a bit weird, and it only gets weirder as your app grows in complexity. Let’s add some async code:

function App() {
const [num, setNum] = useState(0);
return (
<div>
<p>num = {String(num)}</p>
<button
type="button"
onClick={() => {
//---------------------------------------------------------
setTimeout(() => {
console.log("async:", num);
});
setNum(num + 1);
console.log("immediate:", num);
//---------------------------------------------------------
}}

>

Increment
</button>
</div>
);
}

Both the “immediate” and the “async” value are always 1 behind the value displayed in the UI. This is the result of variable closure, an often surprising feature to developers.

num is a const variable, meaning it can never be reassigned. But the value gets “updated”! Every time App is called, React returns a new value from useState. The onClick handler was created by a previous call to App, so its closure is attached to an older num variable.

# A workaround with useRef

The problem is circumvented by using objects and mutation. useRef allows you to do this, but there are some caveats.

function useUpdate() {
const [, update] = useReducer((state) => !state, false);
return update;
}

function App() {
const numRef = useRef(0);
const update = useUpdate();
return (
<div>
<p>num = {String(numRef.current)}</p>
<button
type="button"
onClick={() => {
//---------------------------------------------------------
setTimeout(() => {
console.log("async:", numRef.current);
});
numRef.current++;
console.log("immediate:", numRef.current);
update();
//---------------------------------------------------------
}}

>

Increment
</button>
</div>
);
}

If you need the old value, you can store it in a variable.

const oldNum = numRef.current;
numRef.current++;
// Logs "1 --> 2"
console.log(oldNum, "-->", numRef.current);

Hooks like useEffect rely on object equality (===), so you might have issues with effects not running since new objects are not created.

# An alternative: useMagicState

Let’s imagine a new hook called useMagicState:

//---------------------------------------------------------
function App() {
const state = useMagicState({ num: 0 });

useEffect(() => {
function handler() {
console.log("page click:", state.num);
}
setTimeout(handler, 500);
}, [state.num]);

return (
<div>
<p>num = {String(state.num)}</p>
<button
type="button"
onClick={() => {
state.num++;
}}

>

Increment
</button>
</div>
);
}
//---------------------------------------------------------

function createProxy(object, update) {
return new Proxy(object, {
set(target, property, value, receiver) {
const oldValue = Reflect.get(target, property, receiver);
if (!Object.is(value, oldValue)) {
const ok = Reflect.set(target, property, value, receiver);
// Automatically re-render after updating object values
update();
return ok;
}
},
});
}

function useMagicState(state) {
// Fake state used to trigger renders
const [bit, update] = useReducer((state) => !state, false);

// Store a copy of the state in a ref
const stateRef = useRef({ ...state });

// Create new proxies to the stateRef's data on update
// so that memoized components still work correctly
const [proxy, setProxy] = useState(() =>
createProxy(stateRef.current, update)
);
useEffect(() => {
setProxy(createProxy(stateRef.current, update));
}, [bit]);

return proxy;
}

Using useMagicState you can treat the returned object like a regular object, except the assigning any of its properties will trigger a re-render. Because state proxies to a single object, state.property will always refer to the latest value of property. If you need to keep old values, use const oldState = { ...state } to make a shallow copy. Variable closure still happens, but the proxy always points to the latest values.

This API is called reactivity in Vue.js. It was inspired by hooks, and it may be time for React to take inspiration from Vue.

# Why does it work this way?

I would love to hear why the React core team created useState with this pitfall. Even if you understand variable closure, it’s frequently quite inconvenient to deal with in React.

I swear I’ve seen some discussion of this on Twitter, but my search for written answers has failed me.

My theory is that because React looks at object identity to determine when to re-render memoized components, and when to re-run hooks, a useRef-style solution isn’t good enough. Given that Proxy is required for other hooks to not misbehave, maybe they weren’t interested in requiring Proxy to use useState, since Proxy can’t be polyfilled for Internet Explorer. Perhaps they just thought this approach wasn’t worth the complication. Maybe they didn’t consider it? I don’t know.

# Conclusion

Many blog posts document the difficulty of working with closures in React hooks, but I haven’t seen any that mention how we can make new hooks to deal with the issue. Don’t forget that you can always make new hooks to help you solve problems.