Electronic Discovery: Francis Bacon and Concept Searching

Human errors and the human state of mind have a big effect on the decision making process in electronic discovery, but what are these errors?

A few hundred years ago Francis Bacon stated: The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects; in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate

What Francis Bacon was saying, rather elegantly, is that people stick to their guns. What he believed to be true in the 17th Century, psychologist in the 20th and 21st century have now shown to be true.

Humans Examining Evidence

It has been demonstrated by psychologist that people often not only stick to their beliefs but they seek out evidence to re-enforce their own opinions and reject new evidence which is contrary to their belief. Test after test has shown this, and it can be seen in real life situations, from politicans to generals. In the run up Pearl Harbor there where there were numerous warnings that an attack was about to occur, including a Japanese submarine that was sunk just outside the harbor only 1 hour before the attack.  But the admiral in charge, Admiral Kimmel, had believed that Japan would not attack Perl Harbor, and so ignored the information and deliberately misinterpreted information, intelligence, and warnings – he stuck to his guns[1]. He did not even cancel weekend leave for his staff, or ask if the Army were manning the anti-aircraft guns (this would have only required a single phone call). This is not uncommon and people, of all levels, do this quite regularly. This state of mind effects scientist and politician alike.

Humans making decisions

Not only do humans often stick to incorrect decisions, but we are easily influenced. For example people will often follow something known as the “rule of primacy”. This says, in short, that the first thing people learn about a subject, they take to be true.

Example: If a person is told that Car A is fantastic by a friend of theirs, then they will tend to believe that, even if they are later told that Car A is less than good. In fact they will seek out evidence to support what they already believe.

Another well known cause of errors in humans is the availability error. This means that the stronger the memory, the more powerful the memory, than the more likely people are to make decisions based on that information. This has been shown in labs and the real world. For example, earthquake insurance in areas that have earthquakes increases immediately after a quake but decreases the longer it has been since an earthquake has occurred  – because the memory of the quake fades. However, the probability of quake increases the longer the time between quakes and safest after the quake. I.e. people are buying and not buying insurance at exactly the wrong time. Equally if people are asked to estimate which is the more common, words with beginning[2] with the letter “R” or having “r” as the third letter they will often say the former, as they can immediately think of words beginning with the R. Rain, rainbow, rivet, red, real, reality, etc, But, in fact there are more words with the third letters as “r”, street, care, caring, borrow, etc. However the people have the first letter “R” strongest in their mind, so that is what they believe.

Other well known causes of human errors include:

Peer pressure/conformity. People tend to follow the decisions of others, even when they are quite obviously wrong. There are well known examples tests of this, such as a person being put in a room with 5 or 10 other people and asked to complete simple tests such as say which is the shorter of three lines, or how many beats of a drum there was. The tests are simple; the beats would be easy to count or one of the lines would be obviously shorter, but the test subject would be in a room with 5 or 10 other people who were actors, paid to deliberately give the same wrong answer. If the answers of everybody were read out aloud the test subject would, more often than not, follow the incorrect answers.

Obedience/Management pressure: Following the opinion of their superior (depending on the culture), regardless of if it right is something that can often occur. This was most famously demonstrated in the Stanley Milgram tests where volunteers willingly applied enough voltage to kill other innocent people, simply because they were asked to.

There are many more examples proving these human conditions, and even more conditions that cause us to make errors on a day to day basis – it’s just the nature of the human brain. It is how we work (or don’t).

Electronic Discovery & Psychology

So what has all of this psychology and “soft science” got to do with electronic discovery?

Electronic discovery is historically driven by humans, from keyword selection to the relevance of a document.  It is the errors identified above, and more, that can come into play during a review.

Below are examples of how these well known errors can affect a review:

  • Once a person decides on a keyword search criteria, once they have put their flag in the ground, they are, statistically, unlikely to be willing to change their mind about the value of the search criteria. They may even ignore evidence or documents that could prove otherwise. In fact research has shown that once a person states publically, or commits a decision to writing, they are even more likely to stick to their guns than somebody who makes that decision privately.
  • If a person has to review another 500 page document, and it’s late and they want to go home, then may quickly start to believe that this document is not relevant.  They may start to scan  the document looking for information that demonstrates that the document is not relevant, rather than looking for evidence that shows it is relevant.
  • A second opinion on document’s relevance may be sought, from a senior manager or colleague, and that opinion will then be followed through the review, regardless of it was right or not. Even if the original reviewer believes the opinion to be wrong.
  • If a review platform does not record who made the decision of if a document is relevant or not, then the reviewer may be less inclined to be so diligent, as they are removed from their responsibility by anonymity. [Anonymity has also been shown to be an influencing factor in people’s behavior and choices].


There are methods to this try and reduce the amount of traps the human brain walks into. Simply being aware of the problems and making an effort to look avoid them is one solutions, e.g. consciously give as much weight to first piece of evidence seen as the last piece of evidence.

However, we are all fallible and in large scale reviews avoiding these errors is going to be very difficult to resolve, and possibly expensive in terms of time.

The most obvious solution is automation through concept searching. As previously discussed concept searching can be of great value during a large document review and, like all systems, it will have errors; but we know it’s not susceptible to the human failings discussed in this article.

It doesn’t matter what the system saw first, how strong or visual a document is, or what other reviewers think.  Concept searching will only apply, repeatable, known logic to a group of documents.

[1] As a result of this the Admiral Kimmel was later demoted

[2] This example is lifted directly from the book Irrationality, by Stuart Sutherland


One Response to “Electronic Discovery: Francis Bacon and Concept Searching”

  1. IQPC Brussels Focus: Recommind, search powered IRM software - The Posse List Says:

    […] of vendors each having its own name.  For some overviews on concept searching click here, here, here and […]

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