Brexit voters may have been driven by fear more than reason

Britain has voted to leave the European Union after a bitterly divisive referendum campaign, toppling the David Cameron government and sending global markets plunging. It's a choice that may have come from the gut rather than the head.

Despite warnings about exiting the European Union, Britain chose 'an act of deliberate self-mutilation'

The U.K.'s historic referendum outcome, supporting an exit from the European Union, is being described by some pundits as one in which people were largely driven by instinct rather than cold calculation. 

Leading German publication Der Spiegel argues the decision was based on quickly assessed feelings rather than reason, calling the result "a lashing-out against the powers that be" in both London and Brussels, where the EU has its headquarters. 

During the campaign, U.K. headlines often referred to Prime Minister David Cameron's "Project Fear" campaign, with the Telegraph and others accusing the Remain side of "scare-mongering."

Several outlets seemed to take emotion-based stances themselves. An editorial in the Telegraph appeared downright cheerful a day before the vote, with the headline "Forget Project Fear. Be Positive. Choose Dynamism. Choose Brexit."

'Surreal' that U.K. ignored expert advice 

Der Spiegel's U.K.-based journalist Christoph Scheuermann was incredulous at the outcome, calling the result "surreal" and writing that the negative ramifications were "predictable" and "widely discussed" prior to the vote. "But none of the warnings prevented the British from voting to leave. It is no less than an act of deliberate self-mutilation."

"Brexit was a decision based on gut instinct rather than reason," his opinion piece began. "The predominant sentiments in play were nostalgia, fear and a vague hatred of the establishment. On top of this comes a fear of foreigners that was deliberately stoked by Brexit strategists during the campaign."

Supporters of the 'Stronger In' campaign react after hearing results in the EU referendum at the Royal Festival Hall in London. (Bob Stohard/EPA)

The U.K.'s Independent newspaper, which supported the Remain side, published an analysis today titled "Project Fear Had Reason on its Side, But Anti-Experts Caught Public Mood," arguing that Cameron had the backing of "voices of authority from all over the world" and concluding that the vote "was certainly a victory for everyone who thinks the country can do without experts."

Cameron's family in 'faulty car' argument

Cameron, who called the referendum, spoke to the Sunday Times about this just a few days ago, telling them the Leave camp was trying to diminish the advice of experts in the debate and comparing it to ignoring a mechanic who tells you your car is defective.

"Would you take a risk with your family getting into a faulty car? No you wouldn't," he asked.

As many voters came to observe, the key issues raised in the campaign were immigration and sovereignty, and the impact leaving the bloc would have on the U.K. economy.

A commentary by Vox Media declared, "It's all about xenophobia," citing EU rules that restrict the ability of member states to bar migration from other EU member states.

Chasing the 'new and exciting' 

"There is inevitable difficulty in people explaining their own behaviour," Joe Twyman, political and social research head at the U.K. polling company YouGov, told CBC a day before the vote.

People react to a regional EU referendum result. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

He said there were several fluctuations in voting projections, before the race settled into a dead heat, just two days before the vote. But people didn't get really interested in the referendum until the final two weeks of the campaign, Twyman said, when they had to finally make up their minds.

"It's worth pointing out that when the campaign began, and even actually after it began, most people — the average person on the street and 50 per cent of people less engaged than the average person on the street — really [weren't] paying that much attention."

As voters' interest increased last week, Leave built up a seven-point lead — which narrowed considerably by the time the referendum took place.

Twyman said that spike was a reaction to the "new and exciting," as voters began paying more attention, before a "move back to the status quo," at which time Remain regained some ground.