Ryan, a loyal MR reader, asks for good reason:
Three days ago I rolled my car three times on a back country road at least 40 minutes away from the nearest ambulance. The car was crushed to a considerable degree except for the part I occupied, but I walked away without a scratch. My question is, what implications should this have for my life? People around me expect me to act differently, and I do feel more reflective. But aside from needing a new car, and knowing to drive more carefully on gravel roads in the future, nothing else has actually changed. Is it reasonable for me to begin introspection, or should I hold to my previous plans and priorities absent new information?
I have no real data and only a few intuitions. I say use the experience to rationalize a change you wanted to make anyway. Most people have less than perfect courage or willpower, but a near-death experience can provide a pro-change focal point in a multiple-selves game. Alternatively the trauma of the tragedy can disrupt the previous mindset and thus weaken the hold of status quo bias. Or the vividness of a shorter time horizon moves the multiple selves to a "trembling hand" solution concept, in which life pursuits are more robust to the probability of an early death.
This account, based on interviews with survivors, suggests that near-death experiences are "beautiful" and make people unafraid of death and more giving and more caring. Don’t forget the tunnel and the bright white light, etc.
In part these people are responding to social expectations; would hunter-gatherers offer the same reports? In part these people may have been fooled by the endorphins which accompany many near-death experiences.
I suspect a very small minority of people use near-death experiences to become more selfish, backed of course by self-deception. (Can we measure charitable contributions before and after?) In these cases the talk about the beautiful white light is in reality a claim that the victim is beautiful (by affiliation?) and thus deserves to be treated better. The reported change seems hard for others to criticize or deflect ("life is beautiful and hey, I almost DIED!"), but the actual demand is for more of the social surplus. The victim need only report that the new selfish changes are part of one large intertwined bundle of life reevaluation…
The bottom line?: In predictive terms, I would expect that near-death experiences make good people better and bad people worse.
Addendum: See Ryan’s remarks in the comments.