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Modifiers for observable

Modifiers can be used decorator or in combination with extendObservable and observable.object to change the autoconversion rules for specific properties.

  • observable.deep: This is the default modifier, used by any observable. It converts any assigned, non-primitive value into an observable value if it isn't one yet.
  • observable.ref: Disables automatic observable conversion, just creates an observable reference instead.
  • observable.shallow: Can only used in combination with collections. Turns any assigned collection into an collection, which is shallowly observable (instead of deep)
  • computed: Creates a derived property, see computed
  • action: Creates an action, see action

Deep observability

When MobX creates an observable object, (using observable, observable.object, or extendObservable), it introduces observable properties which by default use the deep modifier. The deep modifier basically recursively calls observable(newValue) for any newly assigned value. Which in turns uses the deep modifier... you get the idea.

This is a very convenient default. Without any additional effort all values assigned to an observable will themselves be made observable too (unless they already are), so no additional effort is required to make objects deep observable.

Reference observability

In some cases however, objects don't need to be converted into observables. Typical cases are immutable objects, or objects that are not managed by you but by an external library. Examples are JSX elements, DOM elements, native objects like History, window or etc. To those kind of objects, you just want to store a reference without turning them into an observable.

For these situations there is the ref modifier. It makes sure that an observable property is created, which only tracks the reference but doesn't try to convert its value. For example:

class Message {
    @observable message = "Hello world"

    // fictional example, if author is immutable, we just need to store a reference and shouldn't turn it into a mutable, observable object
    @observable.ref author = null

Or with just ES5 syntax:

function Message() {
        message: "Hello world",
        author: observable.ref(null)

Note that an observable, boxed reference can be created by using const box = observable.shallowBox(value)

Shallow observability

The observable.shallow modifier applies observability 'one-level-deep'. You need those if you want to create a collection of observable references. If a new collection is assigned to a property with this modifier, it will be made observable, but its values will be left as is, so unlike deep, it won't recurse. Example:

class AuthorStore {
    @observable.shallow authors = []

In the above example an assignment of a plain array with authors to the authors will update the authors with an observable array, containing the original, non-observable authors.

Note that the following methods can be used to create shallow collections manually: observable.shallowObject, observable.shallowArray, observable.shallowMap and extendShallowObservable.

Action & Computed

action, action.bound, computed and computed.struct can be used as modifiers as well. See computed respectively action.

const taskStore = observable({
    tasks: observable.shallow([]),
    taskCount: computed(function() {
        return this.tasks.length
    clearTasks: action.bound(function() {


MobX 2 had the asStructure modifier, which in practice was rarely used, or only used in cases where it is used reference / shallow is often a better fit (when using immutable data for example). Structural comparision for computed properties and reactions is still possible.

Effect of modifiers

class Store {
    @observable/*.deep*/ collection1 = []

    @observable.ref collection2 = []

    @observable.shallow collection3 = []

const todos = [{ test: "value" }]
const store = new Store()

store.collection1 = todos;
store.collection2 = todos;
store.collection3 = todos;

After these assignments:

  1. collection1 === todos is false; the contents of todos will be cloned into a new observable array
  2. collection1[0] === todos[0] is false; the first todo was a plain object and hence it was cloned into an observable object which is stored in the array
  3. collection2 === todos is true; the todos are kept as is, and are non-observable. Only the collection2 property itself is observable.
  4. collection2[0] === todos[0] is true; because of 3.
  5. collection3 === todos is false; collection 3 is a new observable array
  6. collection3[0] === todos[0] is true; the value of collection3 was only shallowly turned into an observable, but the contents of the array is left as is.