According to system justification theory, people are motivated to preserve the belief that existing social arrangements are fair, legitimate, justifiable, and necessary. The strongest form of this hypothesis, which draws on the logic of cognitive dissonance theory, holds that people who are most disadvantaged by the status quo would have the greatest psychological need to reduce ideological dissonance and would therefore be most likely to support, defend, and justify existing social systems, authorities, and outcomes. Variations on this hypothesis were tested in five US national survey studies. We found that (a) low-income respondents and African Americans were more likely than others to support limitations on the rights of citizens and media representatives to criticize the government; (b) low-income Latinos were more likely to trust in US government officials and to believe that ‘the government is run for the benefit of all’ than were high-income Latinos; (c) low-income respondents were more likely than high-income respondents to believe that large differences in pay are necessary to foster motivation and effort; (d) Southerners in the USA were more likely to endorse meritocratic belief systems than were Northerners and poor and Southern African Americans were more likely to subscribe to meritocratic ideologies than were African Americans who were more affluent and from the North; (e) low-income respondents and African Americans were more likely than others to believe that economic inequality is legitimate and necessary; and (f) stronger endorsement of meritocratic ideology was associated with greater satisfaction with one's own economic situation. Taken together, these findings are consistent with the dissonance-based argument that people who suffer the most from a given state of affairs are paradoxically the least likely to question, challenge, reject, or change it. Implications for theories of system justification, cognitive dissonance, and social change are also discussed. Copyright © 2002 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.