The Science of Us: This question — whether or not listening to an audiobook is “cheating” — is one University of Virginia psychologist Daniel Willingham gets fairly often, especially ever since he published a book, in 2015, on the science of reading. (That one was about teaching children to read; he’s got another book out next spring about adults and reading.) He is very tired of this question, and so, recently, he wrote a blog post addressing it. (His opening line: “I’ve been asked this question a lot and I hate it.”) If, he argues, you take the question from the perspective of cognitive psychology — that is, the mental processes involved — there is no real difference between listening to a book and reading it. So, according to that understanding of the question: No, audiobooks are not cheating.
His reasoning reveals some fascinating insights about the way the brain makes sense of language, whether written or spoken. But first, consider what that assertion — that listening is cheating — is saying: It suggests that the listener got some reward without putting in the work. Because that does seem to be the typical argument, Willingham said. “It’s not that you’re missing out on something, or it’s not that this experience could be better for you,” he told Science of Us. “It’s that you’re cheating. And so they think you’re getting the rewarding part of it … and it’s the difficult part that you’ve somehow gotten out of.” So that implies, Willingham argues, that to your brain, listening is less “work” than reading. And that is true, sort of — but it stops being true somewhere around the fifth grade. (read the whole thing)