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Members of animal groups face a trade-off between the benefits of remaining with a familiar group and the potential benefits of dispersing into a new group. Here, we examined the group membership decisions of Neolamprologus pulcher, a group-living cichlid. We found that subordinate helpers showed a preference for joining familiar groups, but when choosing between two unfamiliar groups, helpers did not preferentially join groups that maximized their social rank. Rather, helpers preferred groups containing larger, more dominant individuals, despite receiving significantly more aggression within these groups, possibly owing to increased protection from predation in such groups. These results suggest a complex decision process in N. pulcher when choosing among groups, dependent not only on familiarity but also on the social and life-history consequences of joining new groups.