The selective forces that drive the evolution of cooperation have been intensely debated. Evolutionary transitions to cooperative breeding, a complex form of cooperation, have been hypothesized to be linked to low degrees of promiscuity, which increases intragroup relatedness and the indirect (that is, kin selected) benefits of helping. However, ecological factors also promote cooperative breeding, and may be more important than relatedness in some contexts. Identifying the key evolutionary drivers of cooperative breeding therefore requires an integrated assessment of these hypotheses. Here we show, using a phylogenetic framework that explicitly evaluates mating behaviours and ecological factors, that evolutionary transitions to cooperative breeding in cichlid fishes were not associated with social monogamy. Instead, group living, biparental care and diet type directly favoured the evolution of cooperative breeding. Our results suggest that cichlid fishes exhibit an alternative path to the evolution of complex societies compared to other previously studied vertebrates, and these transitions are driven primarily by direct fitness benefits.