MPT makes the assumption that investors are risk-averse, meaning they prefer a less risky portfolio to a riskier one for a given level of return. This implies than an investor will take on more risk only if he or she is expecting more reward.
The expected return of the portfolio is calculated as a weighted sum of the individual assets' returns. If a portfolio contained four equally-weighted assets with expected returns of 4, 6, 10 and 14%, the portfolio's expected return would be:
(4% x 25%) + (6% x 25%) + (10% x 25%) + (14% x 25%) = 8.5%
The portfolio's risk is a complicated function of the variances of each asset and the correlations of each pair of assets. To calculate the risk of a four-asset portfolio, an investor needs each of the four assets' variances and six correlation values, since there are six possible two-asset combinations with four assets. Because of the asset correlations, the total portfolio risk, or standard deviation, is lower than what would be calculated by a weighted sum.