Different Ways to Set Attributes in ActiveRecord (Rails 4)

Last revisited on , originally published on . Ruby On Rails

Rails 4 allows the developer to change ActiveRecord attributes in various ways. Each one does it slightly differently with sometimes unique side-effects. It’s important you understand which method to use, so here’s a cheat sheet with in-depth information below.

This article has been updated for Rails 4. Check out the old Rails 3 version if you’re using that version.

Cheat Sheet

Method Uses Default Accessor Saved to Database Validations Callbacks Touches updated_at Readonly check
attribute= Yes No n/a n/a n/a n/a
write_attribute No No n/a n/a n/a n/a
update_attribute Yes Yes No Yes Yes Yes
attributes= Yes No n/a n/a n/a n/a
update Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
update_column No Yes No No No Yes
update_columns No Yes No No No Yes
User::update Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
User::update_all No Yes No No No No

In Depth

For the following examples we’ll set the name attribute on the user object.

user.name = "Rob"

This regular assignment is the most common and easiest to use. It is the default write accessor generated by Rails. The name attribute will be marked as dirty and the change will not be sent to the database yet.

You can undo the change by calling reload! or save the change to the database by calling save.

user.write_attribute(:name, "Rob")

This is the method that is called by the default accessor above. An alias for this method is user[:name] = "Rob". It also has a read_attribute counterpart.

Just like above, this method does not yet change the attribute in the database. Use this method anywhere you need to bypass the default write accessor above, for example when you want to write a custom attribute= writer:

def name=(new_name)
  write_attribute(:name, new_name.upcase)
  # This is equivalent:
  # self[:name] = new_name.upcase

user.update_attribute(:name, "Rob")

This method will change the attribute in the model and pass it straight to the database, without running any validations.

Two gotchas:

  • Any other changed attributes are also saved to the database.
  • Validations are skipped so you could end up with invalid data.

Because of that last quirk it’s a good practice to use update instead even though you might only want to update one attribute.

user.attributes = {name: "Rob"}

This method will set all the attributes you pass it. The changes are not saved to the database. Any attributes you don’t pass will be left unchanged. You can also use assign_attributes:

user.attributes = {name: "Rob", age: 12}
user.assign_attributes {name: "Rob", age: 12}

user.update(name: "Rob")

This method used to be called update_attributes in Rails 3. It changes the attributes of the model, checks the validations, and updates the record in the database if it validates.

Note that just like update_attribute this method also saves other changed attributes to the database.

user.update_columns(name: "Rob")

Much like User::update_all this executes a direct SQL UPDATE query and bypasses any validations or callbacks. It does check first if any of the columns are marked as readonly and if so, raises an exception.

user.update_column(:name, "Rob")

This is equivalent to calling user.update_columns(name: "Rob") described above.

User.update(1, name: "Rob")

Note: this is a class method

This method finds the object with the specified ID and updates it’s attributes with the passed in hash. It uses the User#update method to do so, so just like that one it validates and runs callbacks, as well as touch the updated_at attribute.

You can also pass in an array of ID’s and parameters:

    {name: "Rob"},
    {name: "David", age: 12},
    {age: 15, location: "London"},

User.update_all(name: "Rob")

Note: this is a class method

This method runs an SQL UPDATE query that updates the attributes of all objects without running any validations or callbacks. You can also call this method on a scoped relation:

User.where(name: "Robbie").update_all(name: "Rob")


If you want to understand more about these methods I suggest you check out their source code. Each time it’s only a couple of lines and it will really broaden your understanding of how Rails works!

David Verhasselt

Senior full-stack engineer with 5 years of experience building web applications for clients all over the world.

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