The key thing to understand about hashCodes is that they need not be unique, just
as close to unique as practically possible.
HashCodes in a Nutshell
If you want to
file something away for later retrieval, it can be faster if you file it numerically
rather than by a long alphabetic key. A hashCode is a way of computing a small
(32-bit) digest numeric key from a long String or even an arbitrary clump of bytes.
The numeric key itself is meaningless and the hashCode functions for computing them
can look a bit insane. However, when you go to look for something, you can do the
same digest calculation on the long alphabetic key you are looking for, and no matter
how bizarre an algorithm you used, you will calculate the same hashCode, and will be
able to look up numerically with it. Of course there is always the possibility two
different Strings will have the same digest hashCode. However, even then, all is not
lost; it greatly narrows down the search, hence speeding it up. A Hashtable goes a step further, scrunching down the hashCode even
further to an even smaller number that it can use to directly index an array, usually
by dividing it by some (ideally prime) number and taking the remainder.
- Uniqueness: Some people try to use HashCodes as unique identifiers. You
can’t count on hashCodes to be unique. They way they are properly used, this
does not cause any serious problem.
- Denseness: Some people fret over trying to make hashCodes come out in some
narrow band of numbers. The way they are used, they are trimmed down to size by
taking the modulus relative to some prime or by discarding high order bits, so
there is no point.
- Negative hashcodes: You can safely treat hashcodes as unsigned or signed when
computing them. You don’t have to go to any special lengths to keep them
In JDK (Java Development Kit) 1.0+ and 1.1+ the hashCode function for
long Strings worked by sampling every nth character. This pretty well guaranteed you
would have many Strings hashing to the same value, thus slowing down Hashtable lookup. In Java version 1.2
the function has been improved to multiply the result so far by 31 then add the next
character in sequence. This is a little slower, but is much better at avoiding
The default hashCode() method uses the
32-bit internal JVM (Java Virtual Machine)
address of the Object as its hashCode. However, if the Object is moved
in memory during garbage collection, the hashCode stays constant. This default
hashCode is not very useful, since to look up an
Object in a HashMap, you need
the exact same key Object by which the key/value pair was
originally filed. Normally, when you go to look up, you don’t have the original
key Object itself, just some data for a key. So, unless
your key is a String, nearly always you will need to implement a hashCode and equals method on your key
class. Object.hashCode in a
The Gemini Twins: equals and hashCode
Equal hashCodes in general are not sufficient to ensure
Object equality. However, if the hashCodes are not equal,
you know the Objects can’t possibly be equal.
Consider how many 50-character Strings there are (65535^50) and how many possible
hashCodes there are (2^32). It should be obvious there are way more
Strings than hashCodes. So the same hashCode
has to be reused over and over for different Strings.
The default hashCode just uses the address of the
Object and the default equals
method just compares addresses. If you override one of these two methods, you must
override the other to match. The rules are:
- It is ok, unavoidable, but not desirable, if two Objects that do not compare equal have the same hashCode.
- Two Objects that compare equal must have the same
So if you had a Fruit Object
with a flavour and colour field,
and you decided that any two Objects with the same
flavour were for all intents and purposes equal, you would
define your equals and hashCode methods like this:
As a rule of thumb, any time you use an Object as a key
in a Map or Set (e.g.
HashSet, TreeMap etc.) you must
redefine both equals and hashCode in such a way both incorporate that same and all the fields
of the logical key. Fields in the key Object irrelevant to
lookup should not be included in either method.
Let us say you hand three ints in your Object. field1 had a range
0..99, field2 had a range
-10..+10 and field3 has a range
100..1000 you could pack them into a unique, dense hashCode
like this: The formula would be:
Calculating Aggregate hashCodes with XOR (exclusive OR)
The xor ^ operator
is useful in computing hashing functions. To create a hashCode based on two fields, compute the hashCodes of the two fields separately and xor them together with the
^ operator. To create an hash on all the elements of an
array you could xor all the values together. The result independent of the order. If
you want the order to matter, use some digest function. xor also has the odd properly that if you have a
pair of identical hashCodes xored together, it is as if they were not there. When you
are expecting duplicates, you might want to use some other combining technique.
XOR has the following nice
The nasty properties of XOR
- It does not depend on order of computation.
- It does not waste bits. If you change even one bit
in one of the components, the final value will change.
- It is quick, a single cycle on even the most primitive computer.
- It preserves uniform distribution. If the two pieces you combine are uniformly
distributed so will the combination be. In other words, it does not tend to
collapse the range of the digest into a narrower band.
Here is another approach that would work better if you had two Strings in your Object. It gives a
different hash code for your two Objects when:
- It treats identical pairs of components as if they were not there.
- It ignores order. A ^ B is the same a B
^ A. If order matters, you want some sort of
checksum/digest such as Adlerian. XOR
would not be suitable to compute the hashCode for a List which depends on the order of the elements as part of its
- If the values to be combined are only 8 bits wide,
there will be effectively only 8 bits in the xored
result. In contrast, multiplying by a prime and adding would scramble the entire
32 bits of the result, giving a much broader range of
possible values, hence greater chance that each hashcode will unique to a single
Object. In other words, it tends to expand the range of
the digest into the widest possible band (32 bits).
- XOR is fairly easily
degraded by patterns in the data. If you are not getting an even spread, it might
pay to go for a higher overhead scrambling mechanism such as Aldlerian, CRC or
even MD5 or SHA1.
- If you XOR a number of small quantities the result is still a
small quantity. It does not exploit the high order bits for additional variability
unless you do some sort of shifting.
o1.string1 = "apple";
o1.string2 = "orange";
o2.string1 = "orange";
o2.string2 = "apple";
It works like this to combine hash codes of the fields in your object:
Here is how to write a hashCode to combine fields:
Here is roughly how String.hashCode
Here is a fast hash algorithm you can apply to bytes, short, chars, ints, arrays
etc. I used an assembler version of
Here is a straight-forward xor hash of all the bytes. The disadvantage is the
result is only 8-bits.
Consider using an CRC-32 or an Adlerian digest for your hashCode when you can reduce the key part of your Object to a long string of bytes. This give a nice even spread over
the range of possible integers.
- Don’t sweat writing a perfect hashCode. Test
your code to see if look up is the bottleneck before fussing too much.
- It is easy to concoct a variety of hashCode methods and test them far more
quickly than you can mathematically analyse the tradeoffs.
- If you write a Collection that uses hashCode, stress test it with a HashCode method that always returns 0.
- If you have an expensive hashCode calculation,
consider caching the result.
- The important thing about a hashCode for
HashMap is that in produces lots of variability in the
low order bits. As a simple check, do a histogram of the frequency
of the low order byte. Ideally you should be getting all 256 possible values roughly equally. One simple way of adding
variability to your hashCode function is to xor
^ high order bits onto the lower order ones.
When Do You Need A Custom equals and hashCode?
The hashCode method only gets invoked when you use the Object as the key to a Hashtable. It is not
used when the Object is merely a Hashtable value. Most of the time your Hashtable keys are simple Strings, so you
rarely need to write custom equals and hashCode methods. When you use a HashSet
to help you check for duplicate Objects, then you likely
will need a custom equals and hashCode method. There your Objects act as
both key and value.
If you know the key values in advance, it is possible to construct a hashCode function that has no collisions.
The One Key Catch
You can define only one hashCode/equals method for your
HashSet Objects. That limits
you to one type of HashSet lookup for your Objects. There is no equivalent to Comparator for HashSets. You can look
up your Objects by only one key, though that key might
contain several fields. You can’t have several HashSets each accessing the same Objects by
different keys. You can of course have several HashSets
each accessing a different subset of the same group of Objects using the same key.
In contrast, with HashMap you have more freedom. Your
Objects don’t have to implement a useful
hashCode/equals, but any keys you use do. Since you can
define different hashCode/equals for different types of
key, you can have multiple HashMaps on the same group of
Objects looking up by different keys.
- Arrays are Objects and use the lame Object. hashCode. To get a proper
hashCode that is based on the values in the array, you
need Arrays. hashCode.
- The packing method of creating hashCodes will not work will with HashMap, because HashMap discards the
high order bits of the hashCode.
Oracle’s Javadoc on Object.hashCode()
Oracle’s Javadoc on Object.equals( Object )
Oracle’s Javadoc on Arrays.hashCode()
Oracle’s Javadoc on Arrays.deepHashCode()
Oracle’s Javadoc on System.identityHashCode