HOW ONE attacks an ice cream cone may well reflect how one attacks life itself. Just sit in your favorite ice cream parlor one of these steamy nights, peer surreptiously over your sticky, chewy chocolate and ponder the revelatory possibilities of the ice cream cone.

Is she a licker or a biter?Is he a nibbler or a chomper? Should one trust a person who circles a cone warily from the side, rather than plunging in, pell mell, from the top?

Glory be to the human potential of the ice cream cone: the edible ink blot.

Ever wonder why you never see a politician's tongue working over a cone in public?

New comes a guy who claims he can tell if folks are lying by looking for any tell-tale facial ticks and twitches. Why not use the ice cream cone instead?

At this very moment, the CIA could be using the ice cream cone as a melting Rorschach, and Baskin-Robbins as a hush-hush recruiting depot. What kind of lick makes a secret agent?

Little do everyday ice cream lovers know that, to the trained observer, one lick tells all. Move over astrologers, palmists, tarot dealers, tea leaf readers, psychics and body linguists. Here comes the Ice Cream Conist.

The fledgling Ice Cream Cone Behaviour Movement (ICCBM), and its certified conists are barely in their infancy. Yet their work is believed to portend such enormous benefits for science and society that the Washington Post's Weekend ice cream editors felt such areas warranted further exploration.

Dr. Bertram Brown, distinguished ice cream junkie who was once the government's top shrink as director of the National Institute of Mental Health, was asked to head up an evening's field research. Call it, "A Study of the Esthetics and Psycho/Socio/Sexual Implications of Tactile Approaches to Exothermic Conical Surfaces. The Post would pay for the cones.

"Why not," he said, the only condition being that he could bring along two daughters Laurie, 22, and Wendy, 17, as researchers. "The family that licks together, sticks together." We met at Cabin John's B and R, shook hands, ordered cones and hunkered down to test the hypothesis: you can tell a lot about people by the way they eat ice cream cones.

"Hep ya?" asked the super scooper behind the counter. A girl in jeans ordered Goody-Goody Gumdrop.

"Those who try exotic flavors are probably quite adventurous," whispered Laurie, nibbling at a scoop of Rocky Road. "Someone who sticks to the same flavor every time likely doesn't take too many chances in life."

"Meat-And-Potatoes People," I sniffed. "Food cowards."

Women were tending toward licking, men to biting. Dr. Brown was a biter, his daughters, lickers.

"Women probably lick cones as they drip because they're much more conscious of appearances than men," remarked Laurie, soon to be a first-year medical student. "It's holding up across sex and racial lines. So far, the only 'Deep Throaters' are men."

But, we observed, small boys appeared to be lickers (just like Mommy) until puberty, when they switched from licking to biting (just like Daddy).

"As a senior clinician, this strikes me as paradoxical," asserted Dr. Brown, who added that, as a government shrink, he could never have funded such a courageous study without Sen. Proxmire jumping up and down to award him the Golden Fleece.

About the time we were wondering whether cone behaviour was learned or hereditary, along came Dr. Richard Cohen, a Silver Spring surgeon and a confessed "chocoholic." He proceeded to chomp into a cone of jamoca almond fudge, as did his wife, Eleanor. Adam Cohen, II, bit heartily into a cone of jungle banana. Could it be? A family of biters!

"Monkey see, monkey do," said Dr. Cohen.

"This is a real scoop," quipped Dr. Brown.

Never trust anyone who doesn't like ice cream cones, warned Laurie.

Certainly, America would be better off if more people ate ice cream cones with abandon, it was agreed.

"Imagine," I said, flushed with self-discovery, "the ice cream cone as gateway to the American psyche . . . a country of breast-fed babies, prematurely weaned to wander about in angst . . . only to find, at the end of the rainbow, a mass pacifier to suckle us from frustrastion. The ice cream cone!"

Could this be a newspaper story with a happy ending?

"Eating an ice cream cone is one of the few pleasures over which a person has total control," said Dr. Brown, rummaging into the cone's mass popularity. "You can make it last or speed it up. Control of gratification is completely in your hands."

Perhaps slow lickers were secure, stable folk, while chompers were trepidatious, afraid life's little pleasures might be snatched away at any moment . . .

Indeed. We were onto something.

Onward to Swenson's in Bethesda, where even grumps were smiling. And the marginally fat were eyeing beanstalk-thin waitresses, comforting themselves - "Look how skinny they are, and they must get to eat all the ice cream they want!" - sucking in paunches and ordering double banana splits.

Little did they know, giggled manager Neal Freed, 25, that Swenson's tries to hire only skinny waitresses who hate ice cream. "It's reassuring to see a skinny waitress in an ice cream parlor," he explained. "That way our customers can fool themselves into believing that ice cream doesn't make them fat."

Most people were turning cones toward the tongue, counter-clockwise, licking from lower left (southwest) to upper right (northeast). This was believed to be for leverage, though, rather than for Freud.

Fastidious cone-eaters were probably very anal, highly organized, obsessive-compulsive, it was suggested, and dribblers were likely to be sloths. Such was Laurie's neat cone-to-life style.

"I take great care to my cones," I volunteered, biting holes in the hypothesis, "but in real life, I am a slob."

An uncluttered cone does not always portend an uncluttered life.

What would Freud say about ice cream cones? Probably the same thing he said about cigars, said Dr. Brown.

One evening, after deep psychoanylitical bantering with colleagues, the granddaddy of Dr. Feelgoods fired up a fat stogie. Fellow Freudians were said to snicker with a mixture of horror and delight as their mentor puffed with abandon on his dark psycho-sexual secret.

"Gentlemen," said Dr. Freud, noting the discomfiture, "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."

Which leads one to wonder: when is cone just a good lick?

"Sometimes," said Dr. Brown. "An ice cream cone is a pleasure that defies analysis."