Demystifying React’s Reconciliation Algorithm: A Deep Dive

React is a widely used JavaScript library for building user interfaces, and one of its core features is the ability to efficiently update and render components when data changes. This is achieved through React's Reconciliation Algorithm. In this blog post, we will take a deep dive into the inner workings of this algorithm, demystify its concepts, and explore the principles behind its efficient diffing and updating process. We will also provide code examples and explanations to make it easy for beginners to understand and grasp the concepts presented.

Understanding the Problem

Before diving into the details of React's reconciliation algorithm, let's first understand the problem it aims to solve. When an application's state changes, React needs to update the user interface to reflect the new state. To do this, it compares the current component tree (virtual DOM) with the new one, calculates the difference (diff), and then makes the necessary updates to the actual DOM. This process is called reconciliation.

The naive approach to comparing trees would be to check every node and its children recursively. However, this would be slow and inefficient, especially for large applications. React's reconciliation algorithm optimizes this process by making certain assumptions and heuristics, allowing it to perform updates faster and more efficiently.

The Reconciliation Algorithm

The Diffing Algorithm

React's reconciliation algorithm is based on a diffing algorithm, which takes two trees (the current and new virtual DOM) and calculates the minimum set of changes required to transform the current tree into the new one. The key idea behind the algorithm is to perform the comparison in linear time, O(n), rather than a worst-case scenario of O(n^3).

The algorithm makes two assumptions to achieve this:

  1. Two elements of different types will produce different trees.
  2. The developer can hint at which child elements may be stable across different renders by assigning a unique key prop to each child.

By relying on these assumptions, React can quickly identify the differences between the two trees and make the necessary updates.

Elements of Different Types

When the algorithm encounters elements of different types, it assumes that the subtree rooted at that node has been changed completely. React then removes the old tree and builds a new one from scratch. This can be seen in the following example:

// Old tree <div> <Counter /> </div> // New tree <span> <Counter /> </span>

In this case, the parent node's type has changed from div to span. React will tear down the old tree rooted at the div node and create a new tree rooted at the span node.

Elements with Keys

To help the reconciliation algorithm identify which child elements have changed, React allows developers to assign a unique key prop to each child. This is particularly useful when dealing with dynamic lists. Let's consider the following example:

// Old tree <ul> <li key="2020">2020</li> <li key="2021">2021</li> <li key="2022">2022</li> </ul> // New tree <ul> <li key="2019">2019</li> <li key="2020">2020</li> <li key="2021">2021</li> <li key="2022">2022</li> </ul>

By assigning a unique key to each li element, React can quickly identify that the first element in the new tree is new and should be inserted, while the other elements are unchanged and can be reused.

How React Updates the DOM

After calculating the minimum set of changes required to update the current tree, React proceeds to apply these changes to the actualDOM. This is done in two main steps:

  1. Commit: React applies the calculated changes (insertions, deletions, and updates) to the actual DOM.
  2. Cleanup: Any side effects from the previous render, such as event listeners or subscriptions, are cleaned up.

React batches these changes and applies them in a single pass to minimize the time spent updating the DOM, resulting in better performance and a more responsive user interface.

Prioritizing Updates

React uses a concept called "Fibers" to represent components internally. Each Fiber has information about the component, its state, and its place in the component tree. When updates are scheduled, React builds a new version of the component tree using these Fibers, called the "work-in-progress" tree.

React prioritizes updates by assigning them a priority level. Some updates, such as those triggered by user interactions, are considered high priority, while others, like network requests, are considered lower priority. This prioritization helps React to decide which updates should be processed first, ensuring a smooth and responsive user experience.

Efficient Tree Traversal

During the reconciliation process, React traverses the work-in-progress tree and the current tree in parallel. It starts from the root and moves down the tree, comparing each pair of nodes.

When it encounters a pair of nodes with different types, it stops traversing the subtree and schedules a complete replacement. If the nodes have the same type, React continues to traverse the subtree, comparing their children and updating their properties as needed.

By traversing the trees in parallel and relying on the assumptions and heuristics mentioned earlier, React can quickly identify the necessary updates and apply them to the DOM efficiently.

Best Practices for Reconciliation

While React's reconciliation algorithm is designed to be efficient, there are some best practices developers can follow to ensure optimal performance:

  1. Assign unique keys to list items: As discussed earlier, assigning a unique key to each item in a dynamic list helps React to quickly identify which elements have changed. Always use stable and unique keys for list items.
  2. Avoid unnecessary renders: Sometimes, a component's state or props may change, but the rendered output remains the same. In such cases, you can use the React.memo higher-order component or the shouldComponentUpdate lifecycle method to prevent unnecessary re-renders.
  3. Minimize component complexity: Complex components with many children can slow down the reconciliation process. Break down complex components into smaller, more manageable pieces to help React perform updates more efficiently.


Q: What is the reconciliation algorithm in React?

A: The reconciliation algorithm is React's way of efficiently updating the DOM when the application's state changes. It compares the current component tree (virtual DOM) with the new one, calculates the differences (diff), and then makes the necessary updates to the actual DOM.

Q: How does React decide which updates to perform first?

A: React prioritizes updates based on their importance. High-priority updates, such as those triggered by user interactions, are processed before lower-priority updates like network requests. This helps ensure a smooth and responsive user experience.

Q: What is the role of keys in reconciliation?

A: Keys are used to uniquely identify child elements within a component. By assigning a unique key to each child, React can quickly identify which elements have changed, and which can be reused, making the reconciliation process more efficient.

Q: How can I optimize the reconciliation process in my React application?

A: Some best practices to optimize reconciliation include assigning unique keys to list items, avoiding unnecessary renders using React.memo or shouldComponentUpdate, and minimizing component complexity by breaking down complex components into smaller pieces.

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