Performance of Python Types

Now that you have a general understanding of big O notation, we’re going to spend some time discussing the big O performance for the most commonly-used operations supported by Python lists and dictionaries. The efficiencies of these data types are important because we’ll be using them to implement other abstract data structures for the remainder of this book.

This section is intended to give you some intuitive understanding of why the performances are what they are, but you won’t fully appreciate these reasons until later, when we explore how lists and dictionaries can be implemented.

Keep in mind that there is a difference between the Python language and a Python implementation. Our discussion below assumes the use of the CPython implementation.

Lists

The designers of the Python list data type had many choices to make during implementation. Each choice affected how quickly the list could perform operations. One decision they made was to optimize the list implementation for common operations.

Indexing & Assigning

Two common operations are indexing and assigning to an index position. In Python lists, values are assigned to and retrieved from specific, known memory locations. No matter how large the list is, index lookup and assignment take a constant amount of time and are thus O(1)O(1).

Appending & Concatenating

Another common programming need is to grow a list. There are two ways to do this: you can use the append method or the concatenation operator (+).

The append method is “amortized” O(1)O(1). In most cases, the memory required to append a new value has already been allocated, which is strictly O(1)O(1). Once the C array underlying the list has been exhausted, it must be expanded in order to accomodate further appends. This periodic expansion process is linear relative to the size of the new array, which seems to contradict our claim that appending is O(1)O(1).

However, the expansion rate is cleverly chosen to be three times the previous size of the array; when we spread the expansion cost over each additional append afforded by this extra space, the cost per append is O(1)O(1) on an amortized basis.

On the other hand, concatenation is O(k)O(k), where kk is the size of the concatenated list, since kk sequential assignment operations must occur.

Popping, Shifting & Deleting

Popping from a Python list is typically performed from the end but, by passing an index, you can pop from a specific position. When pop is called from the end, the operation is O(1)O(1), while calling pop from anywhere else is O(n)O(n). Why the difference?

When an item is taken from the front of a Python list, all other elements in the list are shifted one position closer to the beginning. This is an unavoidable cost to allow O(1)O(1) index lookup, which is the more common operation.

For the same reasons, inserting at an index is O(n)O(n); every subsequent element must be shifted one position closer to the end to accomodate the new element. Unsurprisingly, deletion behaves the same way.

Iteration

Iteration is O(n)O(n) because iterating over nn elements requires nn steps. This also explains why the in operator in Python is O(n)O(n): to determine whether an element is in a list, we must iterate over every element.

Slicing

Slice operations require more thought. To access the slice [a:b] of a list, we must iterate over every element between indices a and b. So, slice access is O(k)O(k), where kk is the size of the slice. Deleting a slice is O(n)O(n) for the same reason that deleting a single element is O(n)O(n): nn subsequent elements must be shifted toward the list's beginning.

Multiplying

To understand list multiplication, remember that concatenation is O(k)O(k), where kk is the length of the concatenated list. It follows that multiplying a list is O(nk)O(nk), since multiplying a kk-sized list nn times will require k(n1)k(n - 1) appends.

Reversing

Reversing a list is O(n)O(n) since we must reposition each element.

Sorting

Finally (and least intuitively), sorting in Python is O(nlogn)O(nlog n) and beyond the scope of this book to demonstrate.

For reference, we’ve summarized the performance characteristics of Python's list operations in the table below:

Operation Big O Efficiency
index [] O(1)O(1)
index assignment O(1)O(1)
append O(1)O(1)
pop() O(1)O(1)
pop(i) O(n)O(n)
insert(i, item) O(n)O(n)
del operator O(n)O(n)
iteration O(n)O(n)
contains (in) O(n)O(n)
get slice [x:y] O(k)O(k)
del slice O(n)O(n)
reverse O(n)O(n)
concatenate O(k)O(k)
sort O(nlogn)O(n log n)
multiply O(nk)O(nk)

Dictionaries

The second major Python data type is the dictionary. As you might recall, a dictionary differs from a list in its ability to access items by key rather than position. For now, the most important characteristic to note is that “getting” and “setting” an item in a dictionary are both O(1)O(1) operations.

We won't try to provide an intuitive explanation for this now, but rest assured that we’ll discuss dictionary implementations later. For now, simply remember that dictionaries were created specifically to get and set values by key as fast as possible.

contains

Another important dictionary operation is checking whether a key is present in a dictionary. This “contains” operation is also O(1)O(1) because checking for a given key is implicit in getting an item from a dictionary, which is itself O(1)O(1).

Iterating & Copying

Iterating over a dictionary is O(n)O(n), as is copying the dictionary, since nn key/value pairs must be copied.

We’ve summarized the efficencies of all dictionary operations in the table below:

Operation Big O Efficiency
copy O(n)O(n)
get item O(1)O(1)
set item O(1)O(1)
delete item O(1)O(1)
contains (in) O(1)O(1)
iteration O(n)O(n)

The “Average Case”

The efficiences provided in the above tables are performances in the average case. In rare cases, “contains”, “get item” and “set item” can degenerate into O(n)O(n) performance but, again, we’ll discuss that when we talk about different ways of implementing a dictionary.


Python is still an evolving language, which means that the above tables could be subject to change. The latest information on the performance of Python data types can be found on the Python website. As of this writing, the Python wiki has a nice time complexity page that can be found at the Time Complexity Wiki.

Practical Algorithms and Data Structures

Introduction