I believe the reason users click repeatedly is because they are accustomed to anticipating an update every time they perform an action and the clicking allows to find out if there is an expected behavior from the app or at least some reaction which informs them about what they could do.
Also this funny image might give an answer 🙂
With regards to the space bar key,I think it has to do with the large size of the key (Fitts Law) and the ability to easily click it again and again in the hopes of getting a reaction. With regards to the enter key, it is generally used as an affordance to move to the next step and users might hope that repeated presses of the enter key will help get past this troublesome stage and load the next stage which is hopefully working.
Finally the escape key is pressed as it has become the denotation to escape from what the user is doing on the a computer or the close something and hence an attempt to escape from this situation. To quote this article which talks about the psychology of the escape key
The button dates to 1960 and was created by I.B.M. programmer Bob
Bemer. It was intended to help programmers switch from one computer
language to another. Later, the key evolved and literally became an
escape tool: users now press it to stop what function they’re engaged
in, no matter what operating systems and brands they’re using. The
naming of the key was likely meant to suggest a sense of panic. I
personally think the language is effective: it’s powerful and to the
point, somewhat fanciful and a little dreamlike–and definitely not as
alarming as a button that would scream “help!”
Also to quote this NY times article about the ESC key design
Why “escape”? Bemer could have used another word — say, “interrupt” —
but he opted for “ESC,” a tiny monument to his own angst. Bemer was a
worrier. In the 1970s, he began warning about the Y2K bug, explaining
to Richard Nixon’s advisers the computer disaster that could occur in
the year 2000. Today, with our relatively stable computers, few of us
need the panic button. But Bob Frankston, a pioneering programmer,
says he still uses the ESC key. “There’s something nice about having a
Finally the control +alt+delete option might be used in an attempt to shut down the application and start afresh.
I believe the user’s mind flows in this pattern
let me check if there is a reaction (click stage) –> let me try to get past this stage (enter key) –> let me kill this application at the local level (ESCkey stage) –> let me shut this application at the root level or computer level (control-alt-delete stage)
People tend to think of their interface in physical terms. You think of a ‘window’ not a ‘rectangle of lights on a matrix’. And so, when an application hangs, people revert to interacting with it in the way they might do with a physical object when it stops working.
Shaking things seems to be the way that many people try to ‘fix’ a physical object that isn’t working, and the digital equivalent to this is to beat it with your clicking might.
Additionally in times gone by (thankfully), sometimes a click wouldn’t be picked up by the computer for whatever reason, and so clicking again when nothing appears to be happening often solved the problem, because the computer would then often pick up the click. So the clicking was a way of making sure that you had indeed clicked, and it had been picked up. The fact that this often worked re-enforced the behaviour and so people ‘learnt’ to do it to be sure that it wasn’t the click that was missed or at fault.
I recently read something about this called Extinction Burst from the book You Are Not So Smart. Here is the chapter that I’m talking about and this is an excerpt from Wikipedia:
Take, as an example, a pigeon that has been reinforced to peck an electronic button. During its training history, every time the pigeon pecked the button, it will have received a small amount of bird seed as a reinforcer. So, whenever the bird is hungry, it will peck the button to receive food. However, if the button were to be turned off, the hungry pigeon will first try pecking the button just as it has in the past. When no food is forthcoming, the bird will likely try again … and again, and again. After a period of frantic activity, in which their pecking behavior yields no result, the pigeon’s pecking will decrease in frequency.
Another excerpt explaining the potential benefits of such a behavior:
The evolutionary advantage of this extinction burst is clear. In a natural environment, an animal that persists in a learned behavior, despite not resulting in immediate reinforcement, might still have a chance of producing reinforcing consequences if the animal tries again. This animal would be at an advantage over another animal that gives up too easily.