Practical Cats: Functor and Applicative

In this post, I ‘m going to introduce you some useful aspects of Cats library, mostly code snippets and I ‘m not going to delve into any theory or mathematics. Hopefully you will use them in your daily codes, resulting in much more simpler and readable code.

map using Functor

You are already familiar with the prominent map method in Scala. Informally, a functor is any context with a map method. And by context I mean any type that wraps other type, like List, Option, Future, etc. Here is a simple use of Functor, for mapping item’s of a list:

import cats.instances.list._
import cats.Functor

val l = List(1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
Functor[List].map(l)(_ * 2)
// res0: List[Int] = List(2, 4, 6, 8, 10)

Not a very useful than built-in list’s map. But what about mapping these list items using built-in map:

val l = List(Some(1), None, Some(2), Some(3)) * 2))
// res1: List[Int] = List(Some(2), None, Some(4), Some(6))

Not bad, but there is room for improvements using Functor. You can achieve more readable code by composing Functors:

import cats.instances.list._
import cats.instances.option._

Functor[List].compose[Option].map(l)(_ * 2)
// res2: List[Int] = List(Some(2), None, Some(4), Some(6))

Generic Programming

You know that many of the types in Scala have map method, so you decided to write a generic function, that accepts all types with map method, how do you write such function? The first attempt may be is using type constraint, but each type has its own definition of map. Here you can find the definition of map for List and Option:

// List's map
// At least until Scala version 2.12 :)
def map[B, That](f: A => B)(implicit bf: CanBuildFrom[List[A], B, That]): That
// Option's map
def map[B](f: A => B): Option[B]

Because method’s parameter and return value type differs in each type, you can’t use type constraints, but with the existence of Functor it is very easy:

def map[F[_],A,B](fa: F[A])(f: A => B)(implicit F: Functor[F]): F[B] = {

Then as long as there exist an implicit Functor for your type in scope, your method is working as expected:

map(Option(1))(_ * 2)
// res3: Option[Int] = Some(2)
map(List(1, 2, 3))(_ * 3)
// res4: List[Int] = List(3, 6, 9)
map(Future(4)(_ * 4)
// res5: Future[Int] = Future(16)

Lift a function using Functor

Let’s investigate totally different example which Functor might be useful. Imaging you have a simple function like:

def len(input: String): Int = input.length

and you have a value wrapped in an arbitrary context. Let’s say Option:

val a = Some("Scala")

The question is how do you call add method with such value? The very naive solution might be:

if (a.isDefined) {
    val result = len(a.get)

Or better using for comprehensions:

val result = for {
    str <- a
} yield len(str)

Using Functor’s lift method you can convert any A => B to F[A] => F[B]:

val newFunc = Functor[Option].lift(len)
// newFunc: Option[String] => Option[Int] = ...

now you can easily call your new function with your wrapped value:

// res3: Option[Int] = 5

But what about lifting a function that has more than one parameter? meet Applicative.


Applicative extends Functor with an ap and pure method. The above sample using Applicative looks like this:

def len(input: String): Int = input.length
val a = Some("Mostafa")
// res4: Option[Int] = Some(7)

For functions more than one parameter, you can use ap2, ap3, …:

val add: (Int,Int) => Int = _ + _
val a = Some(7)
val b = Some(9)
// res5: Option[Int] = Some(16)

Notice that you should wrap your function in an appropriate context like Some(add) or Some(len). Fortunately you can achieve the same goal without wrapping your function using equivalent methods map, map2, map3, …:

// res6: Option[Int] = Some(16)

Are you a lazy person? you don’t want to count parameters yourself? then use extension method mapN:

// res7: Option[Int] = Some(16)

Another reason that makes Applicative a real good candidate instead of using for-comprehensions is independent effects. Take a look at this code:

for {
  user <- getUserFuture()
  data <- getDataFuture()
} yield Result(user, data)

As you can see getDataFuture is not depend on getUserFuture. We are not care about sequencing data flow, but Monads is all about sequence flow. Why would we need monadic flow, which forces us to view this code as a sequence of steps? I think the better approach is using Applicative:


For deeper understanding please read Krzysztof Ciesielski‘s great article The underrated applicative functor.

Swapping context easily with traverse/sequence

Imagine you have list of futures (List[Future[Int]), with the power of Applicative you can easily change this structure to Future[List[Int]]. Just call Cat’s sequence extension method:

import cats.implicit._
List(Future(1), Future(2), Future(3)).sequence
// res6: Future[List[Int]] = ...
List(Option(1), Option(2)).sequence
// res7: Option[List[Int]] = Some(List(1,2))

If one of the items is None, the whole result is None also:

List(Option(1), None, Option(3)).sequence
// res8: Option[List[Int]] = None

traverse is very like Future.traverse with the difference that, not only works with Future, but can work with every types that have Applicative instance:

List(1,2,3).traverse(x => Option(x))
// res9: Option[List[Int]] = Some(List(1,2,3))

List(1,2,3).traverse(x => if (x == 2) None else Option(x))
// res10: Option[List[Int]] = None


Cats library is awesome, and in my opinion every Scala project can benefit from this library. There are a lot of buzz words in functional programming paradigm, but thanks to the Cats, there are not scary any more :).