This research investigated the motivational underpinnings of system justification tendencies. Drawing on social-cognitive approaches to motivation, four experiments tested whether information processing instigated by exposure to system criticism exhibits properties consistent with goal-directed mechanisms. Experiments 1a and 1b demonstrated heightened accessibility of legitimacy-related concepts following exposure to system criticism (vs. control conditions). Experiment 2 revealed that the heightened accessibility of legitimacy-related concepts persisted only insofar as the strength of system justification motivation was high; once system justification motivation was fulfilled through an act of system affirmation, the accessibility of legitimacy-related concepts decreased. In Experiment 3, symbols of the system's legitimacy were automatically evaluated more favorably following system criticism (vs. control). Taken together, these studies reveal that system justification operates as a goal-directed mechanism with effects on basic cognitive processes. Implications for how and when people will strive to support the societal status quo are discussed.