The selection of peptides for presentation at the surface of most nucleated cells by major histocompatibility complex class I molecules (MHC I) is crucial to the immune response in vertebrates. However, the mechanisms of the rapid selection of high affinity peptides by MHC I from amongst thousands of mostly low affinity peptides are not well understood. We developed computational systems models encoding distinct mechanistic hypotheses for two molecules, HLA-B44:02 (B4402) and HLA-B44:05 (B4405), which differ by a single residue yet lie at opposite ends of the spectrum in their intrinsic ability to select high affinity peptides. We used in vivo biochemical data to infer that a conformational intermediate of MHC I is significant for peptide selection. We used molecular dynamics simulations to show that peptide selector function correlates with protein plasticity, and confirmed this experimentally by altering the plasticity of MHC I with a single point mutation, which altered in vivo selector function in a predictable way. Finally, we investigated the mechanisms by which the co-factor tapasin influences MHC I plasticity. We propose that tapasin modulates MHC I plasticity by dynamically coupling the peptide binding region and α3 domain of MHC I allosterically, resulting in enhanced peptide selector function.