Abstract The potential of an ELISA based detection of affinity distributions within polyclonal populations of antigen-specific serum antibodies was assessed by analyzing defined probes composed of monoclonal antibodies (MAb). In a competitive binding ELISA in which the concentration of antigen in the liquid phase and the solid phase was varied, we analyzed mixtures containing defined percentage compositions of MAb exhibiting apparent affinity constants (a K) between 3 × 10 6 and 2 × 10 9 M −1 for Pseudomonas aeruginosa exotoxin A. Our results indicate that the detectability of antibody populations depends on the antigen concentrations in the solid phase and on the affinity distribution of the probe to be analyzed. In wells coated with high antigen concentrations, antibody titers reflected antibody concentrations, whereas at low antigen concentrations antibody titers primarily reflect antibody affinities. Independent of their affinities, subpopulations <10% could not be detected. Low affinity antibodies were preferentially underestimated. The degree of distortion depended on the composition of the probe to be analyzed. In general, the higher the absolute and the relative affinity of a population, the stronger was its capacity to interfere with the detection of other populations. As a consequence, the heterogeneity of affinity distributions in polyclonal samples may be substantially underestimated. The experiments reported provide guidelines for an optimal design and an adequate interpretation of ELISA based qualitative analyses of polyclonal antibody samples.