Modern portfolio theory holds that investors are rational, risk-averse folk. If we're presented with two investments that offer the same rate of return, we'll opt for the one less likely to lose money.

Yet recent market activity indicates that many investors are willing to chase returns without regard to risk. This strategy -- let's call it the "more risk, more reward" school -- can lead to crippling losses.

Putting theory in practice
For example, look at the lists of the most heavily traded stocks on any given morning. The Nasdaq 100 exchange-traded fund almost always leads the way. Since it's a volatile and liquid issue, it's ripe for rapid trading, and many investors attempt to take advantage. There's simply no other reason why an index that tracks Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO), Celgene (Nasdaq: CELG), EchoStar Communications (Nasdaq: DISH), and 97 other giants should change hands so many times each day.

But as studies from Malkiel, Siegel, and many others have shown, the market is unpredictable over short periods of time. Investors who attempt to predict minute-by-minute changes in the market are taking an enormous risk with their capital -- and they're not being adequately compensated for it.

But more risk, more reward, right?

Little upside, tremendous downside
Go a little further down the most-actives list today, and you'll see Illumina (Nasdaq: ILMN), UAL (Nasdaq: UAUA), and Tellabs (Nasdaq: TLAB).  

Illumina just announced it had reached a settlement in the suit brought against it by Affymetrix (Nasdaq: AFFX), UAL is benefiting from an analyst upgrade and merger speculation, and Tellabs, well, who knows? There's no news.

The thing is: None of these companies bears any resemblance to the 10 best stocks of the past 10 years.

But more risk, more reward, right?

More signs of the risk apocalypse
Then there was this ominous headline in The Wall Street Journal recently: "'Blank Check' Firms Gain Favor." A blank check firm, also called a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC), is a business-less entity that "promises to buy a business" with the proceeds of its IPO.

In other words, SPAC investors have no idea what they're buying into.

But this minor detail hasn't stopped SPACs from becoming extremely popular. According to the Journal, a record 17 SPACs went public in the first quarter of 2007, and the 20 that IPO'd through April raised more than $2 billion. That's $2 billion invested in nothing more than a glitzy presentation.

But more risk, more reward, right?

Here comes the punch line
The truth, however, is that investors don't need to be taking these risks in order to make serious money in stocks. Indeed, as Mohnish Pabrai wrote in his book The Dhandho Investor, the investors who succeed for decades are those who consistently buy into situations where the range of outcomes is confined to "Heads, I win; tails, I don't lose too much."

The Foolish bottom line
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This article was first published on April 24, 2007. It has been updated.

Tim Hanson does not own shares of any company mentioned. Yahoo! is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Affymetrix is a Rule Breakers recommendation. The Fool's disclosure policy boggles the mind.